The Chinese came to the area for levee construction. But by the time Locke was established, the work was mostly in farm labor. But Locke had many businesses that catered to the Chinese workers and other residents of the region. In the 1940s, Locke had bakeries, restaurants, herb shops, fish markets, gambling halls, boarding houses, brothels, schools, grocery, clothing stores, and the famous Star theater. The peak was 600 residents, with as many as 1500 occupants in the town.
On October 2, 1970, Locke was added to the registry of national historic places. It is the only town in the United States built by the Chinese for the Chinese. But now, Locke is neither a tourist trap nor a ghost town. But it does have an out of the way charm. But the Chinese population is down to about ten, and the total population is between 70 and 80 people. I actually know a man who was born and raised in Locke. His name is William K. Tom, who became a pharmacist, with whom I worked in the 70s. He was quite proud of the fact that he and his family survived the Great Depression on rice and home grown vegetables.
My Grandfather often enjoyed fishing on the Delta when I was a kid. My uncles complained that he often wanted to stay in the old boarding houses along the Sacramento River when they towed the boat up to the Delta from the San Joaquin Valley. the stories they told were hilarious, often centering around having to share a room with Grandpa and his loud snoring. But they always seemed to come home with some really nice Striped Bass. I went a few times when I was in junior high, but never stayed overnight. I guess they figured these semi flop houses were not appropriate for children!
The asparagus boom was in full bloom in the 1920s. Perhaps my grandfather had come to this region to pick asparagus. Perhaps this is where is passion for fishing arose. Later in the 20s, gambling speakeasies, opium dens and prostitution flourished. The Chinese owned Star theater showed black and white silent films. A Chinese herbalist dispensed medicine and medical advice. There were six restaurants and nine grocery stores. It was shortly after World War 2 that the Chinese population began to erode.
Perhaps one of the most famous places in town was “Al, the Wops”, constructed in 1915 by Lee Bing and three partners. In 1934, Al Adami and his associate came over from nearby Ryde to establish the only Chinese business in town. Al started the tradition of cutting off neckties of his patrons since he considered them too formal. Better yet, he stirred the ladies’ drinks with is fingers! Al’s is famous for steak and pasta, and is still open 7 days a week.
A Hong Kong-based developer purchased the town in 1977 from the Locke Heirs and sold it in 2002 to the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency. In 2004, the agency finally allowed the sale of land to those who had been living on it for many years. There were plans to convert Locke into a housing development and tourist attraction. Plans are under way to use state and federal grant money to convert the boarding house (now owned by the California Department of State Parks) into a museum.
So, next time you decide to take a drive over toward the Delta, or have a steak at the famous Foster’s Bighorn in Rio Vista, give Locke a chance. And remember, my old Pal Bill Tom once roamed the streets there as a kid, before moving on to the University of California.