Largest Rural Chinatown in US
Locke is a unique farm community Chinatown, a tiny collection of streets along a bend in a delta river levee. When a fire in 1913 devastated the Chinese section of Walnut Grove, just to the south, a group of merchants decided it was time to create their own town. They built on the property of George Locke in 1915, during an era when Chinese couldn't legally own land in California. The town (originally named Lockeport) was completed around 1920.
One of its unique claims, recognized in the Registry of National Historical Places, is as the only town in the US constructed solely by the Chinese for the Chinese. Perversely, the town can be considered a success because their aren't many Chinese left today. The upwardly mobile community moved on and out, the Locke heirs selling it to a redevelopment agency. Now it's a predominately white community, with a funky arts element, but Locke seems committed to preserving its Asian charm.
The character is evident along its one-way Main Street, frozen in time circa 1920 -- though on a busy day the effect is marred by SUVs and cars parked along its length. Shops are housed in storefronts of weathered, crooked two-story wooden buildings. Tourists spend time shopping, snapping photos or checking out the small museums about life in Locke.
The Dai Loy Museum, which charges a modest admission, displays interesting artifacts from the building's use as a gambling den, shut down by the government in the 1950s. With raids always imminent, the Chinese gambling houses obscured their nature by using common household items for gambling paraphernalia: tea cups, bowls, and buttons as money proxies. They maintained the peace among clientele with iron knuckles and iron pipes wrapped in newspaper, all exhibited here.
Locke's one-room Chinese language school, established in 1926, is also open as a museum. At the entrance stand two large bronze busts on pedestals -- Confucius, and Dr. Sun Yat-sen. Several other buildings contain displays of early 20th century life in Locke.
A park in an empty lot features granite monuments "in memory of the industrious Chinese pioneers of California," who built railroads, levees, and worked its farms. These memorials are a more permanent counterpoint to the tourist photo op plywood cutout on Main Street: a cartoon scene of Locke, with a character in a conical hat riding a Chinese flying dragon.
Locke was originally on our list for an offbeat attraction: Connie's Toilet Garden. Connie passed away, and subsequent residents quietly retired the array of toilet planters that drew the curious back into the recesses of the town.
May 28, 2012 Update about the Toilet Garden via Deborah Mendel: "It has been moved across from her house to the entrance of our Chinese Vegetable Demonstration Garden. It has been re-assembled at the gate to this demonstation garden and is maintained by the Locke Foundation in honor of Connie."