Immigration issues have been trumped by the nation’s current and alarming economic worries, but it’s obvious that immigration conflicts won’t just go away. So, it was good to be reminded recently what a vibrant role new people and their cultures have played here.
Locke, Calif., in the lush Sacramento River Delta, was celebrating its historical roots the day this fall when we dropped in to see the remnants of this quaint 1915 town. Today’s Locke is what’s left of a once thriving all-Chinese town that was an autonomous Chinese community of 600. This highly self-sufficient, early day town had everything – four restaurants, a half-dozen markets, dry goods stores, five brothels, a post office, two slaughter houses, a flour mill, shipping wharfs on the big Sacramento River, an opera, speakeasies during Prohibition, and five gambling houses.
Plenty of entertainment to accommodate some 1,000 Chinese farm workers who swelled the town during the summer growing season. Locke’s slim main street – still lined today with the worn, sometimes sagging wooden structures that made up its early day business district – was bustling with visitors that day, including Steve and me, along with my brother, Phil, who lives in Sac. A small, peppy band played jazz and pop tunes of the 1940s and 50s, alternating with a brilliantly clad young Wusua troup who vaulted onto the street to demonstrate their flashy martial arts skills. Here was the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon come to life before us as these young athletes leaped, lunged and rolled gracefully away from an imaginary assailant.
Locke’s historic shop buildings were suddenly alive with activity. Above, balconies or roofs extended over the ground floor sidewalks, creating a wonderful intimacy for this historic celebration. The purpose of the day was the official dedication of a fully refurbished boarding house that stood at the end of the narrow street. Volunteers with the Sacramento County California State Parks and Recreation organization skillfully guided visitors to a small back lot – already packed with parked vehicles by the time we arrived.
Happily, central California had offered up a gorgeous fall afternoon for the walking tour we were about to begin – clear blue skies, warm sun, with a pleasantly cool breeze. The boarding house itself is now historic Locke’s formal visitors’ center, under the direction of the Locke Foundation. Members of the regional Chinese-American community – some who grew up in Locke during its heyday – formed the foundation to preserve this unique historic town and “to educate the public about Locke’s history and legacy.”
Foundation members – a prosperous, stylishly suburban looking group – handed out information, answered queries and absolutely glowed with pride and a sense of community accomplishment. Locke, it was clear, held huge significance for this generation of Chinese, and its completely unique history as an all-Chinese community. In 1970, the Sacramento County Historical Society added Locke to the region’s registry of national historical places. The Sacramento River, still a thriving waterway, once served as a commercial thoroughfare for the Delta and its bountiful agricultural produce. Hence, the town of Locke, named for the earlier landowner, George Locke, was once known as Lockeport.
Foundation members that day were making certain visitors understood the deep, historic significance of the Chinese-American community in this part of central California. Authors, and their books, such as Bitter Melon and One Day, One Dollar, were on hand, along with a very polished middle-aged woman who welcomed us to the center. She was Eileen Leung, a leading member and past president of the Sacramento Chinese Culture Foundation. Her business card further explained that she was the foundation’s Educational Committee Chair as well as the group’s Newsletter Editor.
The book that soon caught my eye titled Canton Footprints, Sacramento’s Chinese Legacy,” was full of intriguing stories and photographs, starting with the Gold Rush era. Behind the display table sat a very dapper Asian gent – the author of Canton Footprints, Philip P. Choy. He’d grown up in San Francisco’s China town, and had gone on to become a renowned architect and historian and an activist in California’s Chinese community. The book had taken eight years to research and was endorsed by the Chinese American Council of Sacramento.
Choy, along with Locke Foundation members and other Chinese cultural activists, are an impressive group. Like other immigrant groups, the early Chinese were the victims of vicious discrimination. For Americans today who are struggling to find solutions to this nation’s current immigration problems, Locke, Calif.’s colorful and enthusiastic celebration that day was an important reminder of the contribution newcomers and their distinctive cultures have made to the vibrant multi-racial mix America now enjoys.