Road trip to Locke: Uncovering Chinese American history in Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

LOCKE, Calif. (KGO) -- This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, ABC7 is celebrating the legacy of Chinese Americans in California. You know they built the railroads and vibrant Chinatowns but their labor also transformed the state into an agricultural powerhouse.

Within a short drive from the Bay Area is a National Historic Landmark, a living town, that pays tribute to that history. In the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta sits a tiny town on the bank of the river, Locke. It's not so much a Chinatown as it is a Chinese town, one built by Chinese immigrants for themselves during a time of discrimination and exclusion.

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In the 1860s, to transform swampland into farmland and to protect a growing population, the federal government enabled the construction of levees in the always flooded region.

Thousands of Chinese laborers, who had recently finished building the Transcontinental Railroad, were hired. Earning less than a dollar a day, using hand shovels and wheelbarrows, Chinese workers built more than a thousand miles of levees.

When they were done, many stayed in the Delta to work on farms that they made possible, growing pears and asparagus.

87-year-old Harry Sen lives in Sacramento now but grew up in Locke, following his father from farm to farm.

"We built the levees so the farmers could have land, but we couldn't own land," said Sen.

The California Alien Land Law of 1913 ensured that Asian immigrants could not own land here, the latest in a series of anti-Asian laws that began in the late 1800s.

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In 1915, after the fire destroyed the Chinese section of neighboring Walnut Grove, a group of Chinese merchants dreamed of their own town.

An immigrant named Lee Bing convinced a white pioneer named George Locke to lease 10 acres of land to the Chinese. That settlement would become Lockeport, and later just Locke.

Despite the ramshackle buildings never meant to be permanent, the town thrived. It grew to 600 residents, with hundreds more coming in on weekends to frequent the restaurants, saloons, stores and markets.

69-year-old Corliss Lee lives in Sacramento but grew up in Locke, where her mother owned several stores. Lee says like other pioneer women, her mother worked hard.

"I think she taught me how to be strong, to stand up for myself, and not be afraid of new beginnings," said Lee.

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Lee and Sen both recall encountering very little racism in the town that was insulated and all Chinese. They played, they worked and they went to Chinese school after regular school daily. Sen says the reason all the Chinatowns had Chinese schools was because of the strong anti-Asian sentiments.

"You know, they're going to send us back to China someday. You better learn Chinese. That's how it originated," said Sen.

The school house remains today and is open to visitors, along with the Locke boarding house where many of the single male laborers rented rooms.

The Page Act of 1875 banned Chinese women from immigrating here, to discourage the Chinese men who came to work from establishing families and staying here.

Despite rampant discrimination, Locke actually became a bit of a melting pot during the Prohibition. Dubbed by newspapers as the "Monte Carlo of California," brothels and casinos thrived and attracted men of all classes and races.

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James Motlow moved to Locke in the 1970s and lives there now. He co-authored "Bitter Melon," a book documenting the town's history through photos and memoirs. He met ABC7 at the Dai Loy Museum, which was once the main casino in town. He says on weekend evenings, the building would have been packed full of people.

"You would hear the clunking of things, you'd hear people screaming I lost, or you'd hear I won. You'd hear the gambling, the lotteries going on," said Motlow.

Locke's Chinese population declined after World War 2 after discriminatory laws were lifted and the children who grew up here left for better opportunities. In the late 1970s, Locke's descendants sold the town to a Hong Kong developer, who sold it in 2002 to Sacramento County.

Today, the town has about 100 permanent residents, a mix of retirees, artists, and young families that work in farming. While its population is no longer predominantly Asian, its significance remains, as the last remaining rural Chinese town in America. It's a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. And after more than a year of closure due to the pandemic, Locke is now open.

Where Sen's family sold fresh tofu, there is now a sofa fountain and bed and breakfast. Visitors will also find working artists, gift shops, restaurants, and a small memorial park that honors the immigrants who helped build California. The state park system and the Locke Foundation co-operate the Locke Boarding House as a museum. You can see artifacts, and the rooms that housed the laborers, and their dreams. Without them, Motlow says California would not have become the economic powerhouse that it is today.

"So California has this huge debt, to pay that to the Chinese for their efforts," said Motlow.

Lee hopes that Locke remains a living testament to those efforts.

"Like how we built the levees here, how we farmed the farmlands, how we made it one of the most prolific agricultural lands in the nation, if not the world. And in that sense, I think that people will have more respect for what the Chinese or Asians have done here in America," said Lee.

Locke is open to visitors, with most museums, stores, and restaurants operating on weekends. To learn more and see special events, visit the Locke Foundation website.
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