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Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California



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A History of Chinese Americans in California:

Locke, Sacramento County

This predominantly Chinese American community contains four blocks of one- and two-story frame commercial and residential structures. Many buildings are located along the levee of the Sacramento River, with second-floor porches and loading sheds along the top of the levee. In addition to the buildings, the communal vegetable garden is an integral part of the community.

The buildings date from three distinct periods. The earliest are those built in 1912: the Tules restaurant building, the building across from the Tules on Levee Street, and the building across from the Tules on Main Street.

The second group of buildings was constructed between 1915 and 1919: the Town Hall and six other buildings built by Bing Lee on Main Street — a restaurant, boarding house, two gambling houses, a dry goods store, and a hardware store.

The third group of buildings was built between 1920 and 1933: the Southern Pacific packing shed and dock, the Star Theater, the soda fountain and grocery store run by Robert Suen, the Locke Christian Center, the post office, single story residences on Key Street, Al Adam's restaurant, the gas station, and other buildings.

Locke is unique in that the town was built by Chinese Americans for Chinese Americans; its population is still largely Chinese American. Its isolation is the result of various alien land laws that prevented early Chinese immigrants and other aliens ineligible for citizenship from owning land in California, and discouraged them from trying to establish permanent communities. They were allowed to live where no one else wanted to be, and were required to move whenever the owner of the land wanted it for other purposes. Chinese Americans were permitted to establish communities in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta area because their labor and services were essential for draining swamps, building levees, and growing crops.

The predecessor of the town of Locke was a cluster of three buildings called Lockeport. They were located a mile north of Walnut Grove on the property of George Locke, a long-time Sacramento merchant who had owned farm land in the delta region since the 1880s. Lockeport was constructed by Tin Sin Chan and others from the Chung Shan district in Kwangtung province, China.

When a fire destroyed the Chinese American section of Walnut Grove in October 1915, a division arose in the community between people who had emigrated from the Chung Shan district and those from the Toi Shan and other districts in Sze Yup ("the four districts"). The people from Sze Yup (mostly from Toi Shan) decided to rebuild their community in Walnut Grove, but those from Chung Shan, speaking a different dialect of Cantonese and observing different customs, decided under the leadership of Bing Lee to relocate to Lockeport.

When the newcomers arrived in Lockeport, the only buildings were a saloon owned by Tin Sin Chan, a boarding house built by Wing Chong Owyang, and a gambling hall built by Yuen Lai Sing. Bing Lee financed construction of six buildings near the first three Chinese American buildings at a cost of $1,200 for each two-story structure. The buildings were erected against the land side of the levee, fronting a road on top of the levee and with a main street behind and below the levee. Between 1915 and 1920, residents of Lockeport shortened its name to Locke, and it gradually expanded from the original cluster of nine buildings.

Locke eventually had a permanent population of about 400, but at times seasonal crop workers increased this figure to more than a thousand. It had a church, a small Chinese school, a post office, a lodge, a theater, nine restaurants and boarding houses, five hotels and rooming houses, two saloons, four grocery stores, a hardware and herb store, a fishmarket, two dry goods stores, a dentist's office, two cigar stands, a shoe repair shop, a poolroom, and a bakery. Bordellos also abounded, along with gambling halls.

Although the population of the town of Locke has dropped today to fewer than 100, it still survives as a reminder of the significant contribution the Chinese American people have made to agricultural development and rural life in California, despite racism and discriminatory legislation.

Locke is a California State Historical Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Locke, Locke, Sacramento County

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