As a town, Locke is tiny, but as a monument to the achievements of California’s Chinese pioneers, it is huge.
Locke, the only rural Chinese town in America, sits on the banks of the Sacramento River, 60 miles east of San Francisco.
There are 51 wooden buildings in the 10-acre ramshackle town with homes, a main street with sagging balconies, a general store, two restaurants and dogs sleeping on musty wood sidewalks.
Now zoom upward high into the crisp blue sky and linger where the clouds are.
Look down with me on the sprawling Sacramento and San Joaquin River delta.
See the more than 1,000 miles of levees and waterways and the 738,000 acres of rich farmland planted in pears, almonds, asparagus and alfalfa, to name a few of the crops?
The Chinese built what you see.
They got it started.
They reclaimed the land that was once all meandering rivers and marsh. Then they planted the crops and, for years, made up the bulk of the farming and harvest crews.
They are among the founders of California’s agricultural industry, the most prosperous in America.
For two decades toward the end of the 19th century, 3,000 to 4,000 Chinese workers, laboring in conditions that no one else would, sometimes waist-deep in mud, set the foundations for reclaiming the delta marshes.
They cut tule peat into the building blocks and hauled them on their backs up the growing levees, fighting mosquitoes and malaria all the while.
Between 1860 and 1880, they reclaimed 88,000 acres before machines took over to finish the job.
“The work they did is still there,” said Darwin Kan, 51, grandson of Lee Bing, the “godfather” of Locke and one of its founders. “All they have done is built it larger, but the base, built by the Chinese, is still holding up.”
In her PBS documentary on the Chinese pioneers of the 19th century, Berkeley filmmaker Loni Ding said that between 1860 and 1890, Chinese workers were primarily responsible for the development of California’s agriculture.
In 1870, she said, three-fourths of California’s agricultural workers were Chinese.
Despite all their hard work, the Chinese were not allowed to own land. That law was on the books until the middle of the 20th century.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chinatowns grew all over Northern California.
Locke was born when the Chinese part of nearby Walnut Grove burned down in 1915.
Walnut Grove’s Chinatown was an uneasy grouping of two peoples — those from Sze Yap in China and those from nearby Zhongshan, not far from Macao.
People from different villages and different provinces back home in China usually were more competitors than friends.
Since relations were not good between the two groups, the folks from Zhongshan decided to establish their own town just up the road on the property of the George Locke family.
By 1920, Locke, originally named Lockeport, was what you see today, except that it was brand new and bright and shiny.
About 350 people lived there.
Today the population is about 85, mostly non-Chinese.
Locke became a full-service town with homes and businesses including restaurants, bakeries, herb shops, markets, shoe shop, candy store, clothing store, theater, gambling houses and brothels. There was even a Chinese school.
Locke was an island of Chinese culture where the folks from Zhongshan could live the way they wanted.
Bing Fai Chow gives this perspective in the book “Bitter Melon: Inside America’s Last Rural Chinese Town”: “In the past, the whites would attack you with stones when you walked through some of the towns. We never dared to walk on the street alone then — except in Locke. This was our place.”
Historian Sucheng Chan, in “Bitter Melon,” wrote, “Locke is the most visible monument to the extraordinary efforts made by the Chinese to develop agriculture in California.”
Over the years, Locke’s children grew up and moved away. Only a handful of Chinese remain today.
In 1970 Locke was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
There have been unsuccessful attempts to make Locke a state park or develop it as a Chinese theme park and marina.
Ping Kan Lee, 83, a 1941 graduate of the University of California-Berkeley in economics, the unofficial mayor of Locke and son of founder Lee Bing, said he would like the town saved for future generations as a living museum.
“It should be a memorial to what the Chinese did for this area,” he said.
Visitors still flock to Locke, especially on weekends, Lee said. It even has its own Web site, http://www.locketown.com.
Many visitors come away with the same question, he said.
“What the heck is a town like this doing here?”