Unlocking Locke’s Past

A tiny Delta town puts a Chinese spin on the notion of the Wild West.



Locke charms with funky architecture and hints of its earlier days as a thriving Chinese center.

Photo by Kristan Lawson

When you hear the words “pioneer” or “Wild West,” what springs to mind? Blonde prospectors? Hispanic ranchers? Probably not mah-jongg tiles or paper lanterns. Probably not asparagus-pickers named Wong—unless, of course, you’ve been to the tiny Delta town of Locke.

Named for local pear-grower G. W. Locke, this tree-lined time tunnel flanking the once-teeming Sacramento River was built in 1915 by and for Chinese immigrants. Ten years hence, Locke’s 600 permanent residents and 1,000-plus seasonal farm laborers enjoyed a cinema, tong hall, herb shops, bars, brothels, boardinghouses, grocery stores, restaurants, and more. Now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, it’s home to less than 80 residents, just a few of them Chinese.

A deep, dreamy, what-century-is-this serenity breathes hotly up and down a somewhat spectral Main Street whose low-slung clapboard enterprises bear slender wooden columns supporting rustic, balustraded upper floors.

Dive-bar Al the Wop’s—named for early Locke’s only non-Chinese entrepreneur—pairs steaks famously with peanut butter under a ceiling thick with tacked-on greenbacks. Housed in a 1912 ex-beer bar and serving succulent Cantonese dishes, Locke Garden is, perhaps surprisingly, the town’s sole Chinese restaurant. Lodged in an ex-gaming den, the Dai Loy (“Big Come-on-in”) Gambling Museum is furnished with vintage pai gow and poker paraphernalia. Many a wallet was emptied under its slow ceiling fan.

Antique angst hovers in the air there, as it does in the nearby Locke Boarding House Museum: From its wooden-framed windows, gaze over sun-baked rooftops while sensing the longing, loss, and hope of transplants for whom home was a fluid concept, at once right here in these tiny, tidy rooms and half a world away.

At the Locke Chinese School, rows of crew-cutted, ponytailed kids in framed class photos hung near inkwell-friendly antique desks and include not one non-Asian face.

In community gardens, rhapsodically rich soil sprouts showoffy seasonal produce. On residential streets, locals rock on porch swings amid that strange Delta silence, broken only by reed-rustling breezes, the soft plop of windfall fruit smacking golden-grassed ground, and a chorus of mostly feral cats.

Warning: You might feel unworthy walking here, knowing how bone-breakingly hard Locke’s founders worked: They earned the right to savor these candy-sweet pears, grapes, and tangerines while you, joy-riding daytripper from Starbucksland, have not. Yet a warm sense of welcome pervades Locke nonetheless. Its ghosts are friendly.

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