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A town fades away

The thick, damp air of the Sacramento River delta fits close to the skin on an empty winter morning. On Main Street, the weathered boardwalk by the ruins of the Star Theatre creaks with the weight of footsteps. A half-dozen cars line the unpaved, block-long street this morning. A customer is carrying a fishing pole into the Yuen Chong Grocery at the end of town, and the faint buzz of commerce can be heard out on the narrow state highway that runs along the levee.

These days, that's about it. There is not much doing here in town, just old memories and a gentle fade to black on the last rural Chinese village in the United States.

The clapboard two-story structures on Main Street, with their gabled archways and tin roofs, haven't changed much since they were built more than 60 years ago. They are mostly empty now, save for a handful of galleries and shops and the gambling hall museum. Most of the 80-odd residents aren't even Chinese.

The grocery still is run by a Chinese family but it's the last of the original Chinese businesses in town.

One big family

Walking along the hushed street, Connie King is one of the last Chinese residents in Locke. She recalls, "It was all Chinese in those days. Just one big family."

This was once a booming delta hamlet, built with Chinese money for Chinese residents _ thought to be the only such town in America. Locke was home to several hundred Chinese, most of them farm laborers, and it was a magnet for gamblers, drinkers and Chinese bachelors looking for the company of the sporting ladies available from Locke's five bordellos.

King and her now-ailing husband raised their children here, tending the flourishing vegetable gardens at the rear of the village and keeping the youngsters away from its vices. Those businesses kept the money flowing into Locke from its founding in 1915 until the state cracked down on wide-open gambling in the early 1950s. By that time, however, the Chinese community was changing, making its transition from an isolated, rural Asian society, kept in place by the strictures of racism, into greater integration and success.

The Kings and their neighbors scrimped and saved and sent their kids off to college. The younger generations didn't find much reason to live in a sleepy delta outpost so they moved on to San Francisco, 100 miles to the west, or Sacramento, just 36 miles north. A dozen years ago, there still were about 60 Chinese residents in Locke. At last count, there were only 19.

The question is what will happen to the memory of Locke once those 19 are gone. Locke is a registered Historic Landmark, but the state has dropped plans to protect it as a living historical museum. Further complicating matters is the fact that the whole place is now owned by a Hong Kong real estate developer who at one time wanted to turn this rural village into a Chinese theme park.

A haven

Back at the turn of the century and before, the Sacramento River delta was a haven for Chinese immigrants. As opportunities dried up in the railroads and gold mines _ which had first sought and later spurned Chinese workers _ thousands of laborers instead began sharecropping this rich land. The Chinese were welcomed by landowners who needed strong backs to plow fields for low wages.

It was a harsh and lonely existence, with immigrants often victimized by vigilante mobs and official racism. Separated by language and culture, the Chinese of those days _ almost all of them from Guangdong province _ were denied citizenship and the Alien Exclusion Act of 1882 halted most immigration for a generation, leaving tens of thousands of Chinese men cut off from the possibility of marriage.

"In the past the whites would attack you with stones when you walked through some of these towns," former Locke resident Bing Fai Chow is quoted in the book Bitter Melon, a history of Locke. "We never dared to walk on the streets alone then _ except in Locke. This was our place."

In 1915, the large Chinatown in nearby Walnut Grove burned to the ground and a handful of Chinese entrepreneurs took advantage of their ties to the family of George Locke to establish a town on 26 acres of leased land near the banks of the Sacramento. The decision to found the town was also fueled by internal rivalries.

Wide open

Ping Lee, 76, is the son of one of Locke's founding fathers and he remembers the town in simple terms. "It was all Chinese and that's all we thought about. There was no Caucasian around," he said in an interview at the Big Store, the market he owns in Walnut Grove.

It was wide open in the old days, recalls Lee, whose father, Charlie Bing Lee, founded the largest gambling hall in Locke. "The law then wasn't like it is today," said Lee, who left Locke just three years ago. "You could get away with most anything."

Order was maintained by the local benevolent association, or tong, the Jan Ying Association, which settled disputes and dispensed favors. The sheriffs were paid off, the gambling was kept indoors, and the landowners had a stake in keeping their labor force content by allowing a measure of vice to flourish.

While it's hard now to imagine sleepy Locke as a mecca for rowdy good times, Lee and others say that on a Saturday night in the old days, the gambling halls, speakeasies and whorehouses were jammed with as many as 2,000 visitors _ Chinese and Filipino farm-workers mixing with Caucasians from as far away as San Francisco drawn to the bars and bawdy houses.

The now-abandoned Star Theatre was filled to capacity on weekends for touring Chinese opera companies.

The town was such a center of Chinese-American commerce in the '30s that Gen. Tsai Ting-kai, the legendary commander of Chiang Kai-shek's 19th Route Army, visited Locke in 1934 during a worldwide fund-raising tour for the Kuo Ming Tang forces then fighting the Japanese.

The Chinese heritage can most easily be glimpsed, however, inside Ping Lee's one-time family business, the Dai Loy Gambling Hall Museum. The Dai Loy, "Big Welcome" in English, has been lovingly restored right down to the old newspapers in a corner and the Pai Gow markers on the tables.

"It is exactly the way it was," said Lee. In one corner sits a teapot and stools, as if waiting for a group of farm hands to gather around. The tables are neatly arranged for cards, a counter is waiting to dispense lottery tickets and upstairs, the security guards' cots are still in place in the cubicles with wire-mesh windows that served as lookout posts.

Hong Kong's role

In 1977, Hong Kong real estate developer Ng Tor-tai bought the town and the surrounding land from the Locke family. The original Chinese residents owned their buildings but were never able to purchase the land because of a 1913 law that prohibited Chinese from owning land in the United States.

Tor-tai's group, Asian City Development Inc., wanted to turn the area into a Chinese-flavored theme park, complete with waterfront condominiums, restaurants and rides. Appalled at the thought of disturbing not just Locke but the entire ambience of the quiet delta, Sacramento County officials rezoned Locke in 1979, preventing any changes from being made on the property.

Asian City Development maintains a quiet presence and still hopes to either sell the land or develop it in some fashion.

"I just take one day at a time," said Connie King. "They always talk about changing things," she said. 'But I'll be gone before they ever change anything."

A. Lin Neumann is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.