Tag Archives: Chinese American History

Parade / Bomb Day Honor Chinese

BokKai_3The town of Marysville, CA, north of Sacramento, hosts a parade each year honoring the Bok Kai Temple and the Chinese-American descendants of people who came to the town in the 1880s. Seminar-goers from the Temples and Museums Conference got to watch the parade down the main street, a spectacle that included their beloved and extremely long Chinese dragon (I counted at least 35 pairs of legs propping him up), martial arts clubs, high school bands, the de rigueur politicians in vintage cars, lads popping fire crackers along the street, and fire trucks old and new.

The day after the town celebrated “Bomb Day.” The event begins with a procession through town. Participants carry plaques with the names of various Buddhist deities. Thousands of firecrackers explode, turning the street a bright pink with their detritus. Eighteen handmade bombs stuffed with gunpowder are set off near the temple. A ring atop each cylinder bomb blasts into the air while young men below scurry to catch it and learn the lucky number it bears.

This was the 136th year of the Bok Kai Festival. Bok Kai is a protective god. The temple bears his name and is one of oldest Taoist temples in the country. The celebration happens in the second month of each Chinese New Year.


Northern California Rich in Chinese Temples


Friends of Marysville (California) Bok Kai Temple spearheaded a “Temples and Museums: Managing and Interpreting Historic Cultural Assets,” conference March 12 and 13. The Chinese American Museum of Chicago put on the event. I attended as a member of the Brannan Island-Isleton Historical Society board and learned that we in Isleton are lucky to have a tong building (Chinese gathering place and temple) that is under restoration. The Bing Kong Tong will have its many artifacts replaced and be ready for public viewing by about April of 2017.

But I learned that many towns’ and cities’ Chinese temples have gone under the wrecking ball, usually to make way for freeways and other roads. Their artifacts have been carried off as well.

Presenters shared their difficulties in preserving Chinese temples and their original contents. They were from Singapore, Victoria, Idaho, New Hampshire, Oregon, and other parts of the United States, along with a number of places in California.

Marysville organizers said their town has a long history of Chinese integration into the community and that they have been valued community members. Chinese descendants and non-Chinese members of town attested to that and urged participants to see the Bok Kai Temple in town. The temple was built in 1865, destroyed by fire the next year and rebuilt. Renovated in 1880, the temple saw 1,500 Chinese and other citizens at its grand opening. It is the oldest continually operating temple in Northern California.

Bok Kai was known as Ruler of the North. He vanquished the Demon King and is known for his ability to bring order out of chaos. He also is considered a water god, providing protection from both flood and drought.

We then adjourned to the Chinese temple in the town of Oroville where the restorer’s daughter gave us a tour of their extensive museum and still-active temple. The temple was built in 1863 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Conference organizers said that they want to keep the momentum of preservation going and will pass the baton to San Jose and Isleton to host the next two seminars.

Historic Town Wins Lawsuit; Preservation Now May Continue in Chinese Delta Town

–For Immediate Release—

Locke, CA — The management association responsible for the maintenance and historical preservation of the Delta town of Locke, California, has won a nearly five- year lawsuit over resident Martha Esch and co-defendant Dona LeBlanc, and will be able to reclaim a historic building in the town for preservation purposes. The Lock Historic District, where the property at issue stands, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990.

On February 19, 2016, the Locke Management Association (LMA) prevailed on summary judgment after being forced to sue and endure five years of litigation to protect its right of first refusal. The suit resulted when Esch bought the historical building at issue from LeBlanc without giving the LMA first right of refusal as required in their bylaws and covenants, conditions, and restrictions.

Chinese workers who were responsible for developing the farmland founded Locke in 1915. The town they established is the only standing rural Chinese town in the United States built exclusively by Chinese people for themselves at the time established. Thousands of visitors come annually to step back in time and walk through a town that looks much like it did 100 years ago.

The judge’s ruling frees the townspeople to continue preserving Locke as an important historic landmark and enables the LMA to buy back the building, which in the peak of Locke’s heyday, was a gambling hall. The years of lawsuits and counter lawsuits have drained the LMA’s pockets and energy. Meanwhile Esch has occupied the building and operated an art gallery on the premises.

“After five years, it’s nice to exhale and get back to the work we’ve been waiting to do all this time,” said Russell Ooms, president of the LMA. “The suits cost the town $100,000 — money that could have been spent on upkeep and preservation.” Members of the LMA board, a governmental body set up by the County of Sacramento in 2003, receive no compensation for their long hours of work.

The court ruling states that, without the LMA’s knowledge, the defendants began negotiations for the building around mid-January of 2011, with LeBlanc as the prospective seller of the property. Shortly thereafter Esch signed a formal offer to purchase it. The agreement contained an all cash offer for $21,000, the price Esch paid LeBlanc. But “the contract contained no contingency for the LMA to consider its right of first refusal,” the court ruling said. Defendant Esch was aware of the LMA

right of first refusal “for some time” prior to closing escrow, and admitted to actually reading them prior to closing escrow.

In February of 2011, counsel for LeBlanc notified the LMA too late in the process of the sale. The LMA did vote to exercise its right of first refusal and notified interested parties who had a right to purchase the property, as required in its bylaws and the Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions. The lists for notification include former Chinese residents, their descendants and ascendants as well as other interested parties added to the list. The court document shows that Esch, in attendance at that meeting, closed on the sale two weeks later, “with personal knowledge of the LMA’s rights of first refusal….” The judge found that Esch had exercised “willful disregard.”

In public and in the press, Esch has questioned the authenticity of Locke as a Chinese-founded town and belittled the importance of much beloved Chinese elder Connie King, one of the last longtime inhabitants. “Connie King, would be thrilled that Ms. Esch has been put into her rightful place with Sacramento Superior Court Judge David I. Brown’s words,” said resident James Motlow. Motlow spent years recording the last Chinese residents on camera. “The judge said, (The evidence) ‘is insufficient to establish that Esch acted legally or ethically.’ The Locke Management Association has acted legally and ethically and is working everyday to preserve everything that Connie King fought for,” Motlow said.

The ruling said Esch must now let the LMA have the building on the same terms as her initial real estate purchase of $21,000.

Note to Editors: We are happy to provide more information on this lawsuit — elaborate on what impact the Locke Management Association’s success has on the town of Locke and its people, or answer any other questions. Please contact: Gregory P. Wayland, Esq.



The Locke Management Association is a California non-profit mutual benefit corporation. Its purpose as stated in its bylaws is to improve the well-being of Locke, preserve the town’s cultural and historical integrity, and manage the town. Its board members include representatives from government and other agencies and groups, and town building owners, both Chinese and non-Chinese. No board members are compensated.

Shanghai, a Colorless Entry to China

My view from the Majestic Hotel, Shanghai
My view from the Majestic Hotel, Shanghai

My last day in China, the guide who came to take me to the airport was not the same person who had seen me off to Mongolia 10 days before.  Mr. Wong was again my driver, a friendly non-English speaker who had the smug air of a Chinese gangster one might see in a movie and who gave other drivers hell in Beijing traffic.

This Chinese woman, who mysteriously called herself Cathy, asked if she might sit in back of the van with me instead of up front with Mr. Wong. She talked more intimately about her life than any person I had met in China. She had been a guide for 20 years. She was not married and didn’t particularly want to be. She got to travel within China a lot. She hoped to travel outside China as well. And, she came from a “small village” in the Western part of China near the Russian border.

This last piece of information arose after I told her I live in a small town in California. I asked how many people were in her village and she said, “Only two million.” We laughed when I told her Isleton only claims 847 people. “You mean 847,000,” she asked? No, subtract those zeros. She was shocked.

But her disclosure pretty much sums up my new understanding of China. There are people wherever you travel there. I marveled at how well they seemed to be putting up with one another, although there is plenty of honking in traffic.

Looking down Shanghai from the scary walk-on windows.
Looking down Shanghai from the scary walk-on windows.

When I had arrived in Shanghai two weeks before, I was dumbfounded by the extremely gray trip from the airport to our hotel. (I was with a friend for almost all the trip.) Miles and miles and kilometers of gray and brown high-rise apartment buildings going up—or finished and vacant—“for all the people who are moving to the cities,” our guide explained. People buy their apartments, like condos, but unlike in the U.S., the units are just empty shells. It is up to the new owner of each space to put in the toilet and other bathroom fixtures, cabinetry, etc. All expensive propositions.

The construction had a sameness to it and it reminded me of the grim tenement buildings I had seen in Chicago as a child, although these were not run down. Perhaps because they were so new, there was a lack of landscaping. No green of nature alleviated the neutral tone. The whole look was exacerbated by the visible air, a slightly lighter gray draped among the construction zone buildings like shrouds.

Living wall, Shanghai
Living wall, Shanghai

Once in Shanghai, the Huangpu River and the view of the downtown from the Bund revived my spirits. I think I am a victim of having read too many novels dwelling on the romantic vision of the French, English and American Concessions in bygone days. The Concessions are shrinking into token areas for visitors as building after building meets the wrecking ball.

But, let’s face it: Why would Chinese communists want to celebrate the days of foreign occupation and memorialize that time with preservation? For the descendants of former occupiers to come and relive what China wants to forget?

At the temple Yu Garden, Shanghai. Young people in China love t-shirts with messages in English.
At the temple Yu Garden, Shanghai. Young people in China love t-shirts with messages in English.

No, I understand why these once grand sections of the city are going away. It leaves Shanghai in somewhat of an identity crisis, however. Even the good-spin guide admitted that the food of Shanghai lacks definition. It has not decided what its specialty food is “yet,” he said.

The most enjoyable day in Shanghai, for my companion and me was when we visited the Shanghai Museum where the ancient definitely is treasured. Amazing displays from China’s long history —many civilizations and dynasties—include more than 120,00 pieces of ceramics, bronze, calligraphy, furniture, jade, coins, paintings and sculpture.

Thank you China for preserving these beauties of your past.

Next: Favorite places in China: Guilin and Yangshuo.

And: strange foods sampled and not sampled in China and Mongolia.

Bay Area Artist: Ning Hao

Below is an article I wrote that will be included in an upcoming book called Remembering Locke 1915-2015.

Locke, California, artist Ning Hao was born and raised in Shanghai, the son of two Chinese doctors practicing Western-style medicine. Ning says that until 1949, his family owned and lived in a huge house—taking up a whole block—but then “we were liberated by the Communist Chinese Party” and favor went to those who had supported that party.

Even though his father donated their house and hospital to the government, his parents were discriminated against because they formerly had owned their own practices and had been in “business.” They were assigned to work in various sections of the city that the government determined: his mother in what had been the French District during Japanese occupation, his father the Chinese section.

Ning, born in 1957, remembers doing a lot of drawing from the time he was six. He has found inspiration for his art in various places. First were the pets he dearly loved. Unfortunately, he arrived home one evening from school during Spring Festival and all his pets were gone. He found out later that they had “gone” to dinner plates for the festival. “In China at that time you were not allowed to love anything that closely. It was traumatic for me. But compassion for animals—the word pet ceased to exist—was considered too remote. Animals became just food. You were supposed to love humans like that: your mother, father, sisters and brothers.

Ning’s brother, five years older, went to best local government school. Only one child per family was allowed that privilege so Ning was sent to a private school. Private schools had the opposite connotation from American ones. “It was not high quality. Sometimes we didn’t have enough pencils or paper.”

Here is a photo of Ning Hao with the paintings in his shop behind him. Main Street, Locke, CA. Taken by James Motlow, co-author of the book Bitter Melon about the Chinese in Locke.
Here is a photo of Ning Hao with the paintings in his shop behind him. Main Street, Locke, CA.
Taken by James Motlow, co-author of the book Bitter Melon about the Chinese in Locke.

He describes the web of political parties and classes that existed in his formative years. His father was a leader in the Democratic Party, but Ning says the meetings were already fixed by the government before they occurred. “Even though there were nine political parties, Mao made sure that none of them was against him. It was a system designed to protect his power and save face internationally,” Ning says.

He also grew up in a time of austerity for women. “I never saw an earring, necklace, lipstick, false eyelash. Chinese women were only supposed to love red, the color of the Chinese revolution, never pink. All these (accouterments) were considered a sexual disease.

“If you had pimples on your face as a young person, it means you were mentally poisoned. You were to stay home and self-criticize. The community did not want to see you. Like if you were gay, you couldn’t survive.

“Two thousands years ago, they had already dismissed homosexuality,” Ning says. “So our race was seen as ‘healthy.’ It is really about old minds, even worse than Communist thinking, showing it had been a prejudiced society all along.”

Ning says that as a young person attracted to art, he was looking for a way to survive. “Because of my background of educated people with money, I was already seen as the rotten part of society. Neighbors did not trust us.”

His father was considered to be in the intelligentsia class, “like teachers or anyone with a brain to use for his own way to think. We couldn’t escape. For me it was a prison. My family was continually investigated. They broke into our house and sealed off antiques, the piano, gold, money into one room. “

Ning recalls the day that President Nixon visited his school. Curtains were drawn on all the school windows so that the important visitor would not see anyone peeking at him, and he would think all was being run properly. “As a young person of 16 or 17, I was very confused. The U.S. was called a dismissive name, the Paper Tiger, but when Mao was so polite to Nixon and we couldn’t even look at him, I thought he must be a god from the West coming to us. I couldn’t say this out loud, of course.”

Ning saw examples of what he didn’t want to have happen to him. His friend’s father who had been a scholar was forced to become a carpenter. “He used to be high ranking in geometry. Suddenly he could only use his knowledge to make furniture,” Ning says. “My friend was one year older and always doing paintings. I tried copies of the things—Communist Party designs—but he always said I was doing it wrong. He is the one who taught me color, how to mix it right.”

When Ning came to the U.S., he lost track of his friend. Later he heard that he stopped painting. He had been studying art, but there was no future in it. “He was locked outside society. He couldn’t marry. I could never find him. I lost my best friend.”

Getting to United States was no simple matter. There were lots of hurdles, major ones within his own family. It was partly because Ning had a “famous fight” as a freshman in high school with an adult over the issue of knowledge and whom it benefited. Ning pointed out that the riches stayed with the government. His father told him not to speak out any more because he was always politically incorrect. “They can put us all in jail and I could be executed,” his father told him.

Since they lived in a tiny house now and Ning was the youngest of four, he slept in the same room with his parents. Many times at night he heard their arguments over his fate. His father took the position that this son would not fit into Chinese society. His mother may have agreed but was reluctant to have her youngest removed from her.

Ning met a “blond haired, blue eyed, skinny, American-looking” neighbor who had documents allowing him to leave China. He was just divorced, had no kids and said he was going to the U.S. to look for his own race and wife.” Ning’s father said, “Don’t talk to him. He doesn’t like China.” Ning said, “I don’t either.”

There was one more “secret midnight conversation” about Little Bear (Ning’s nickname). His mother relented and a student nurse his father had employed in the 1950s became Ning’s sponsor.

He had an aunt who worked in San Francisco. He was allowed to bring a mere $37.50 with him from China so he was dependent upon his relatives. His aunt and uncle sent him to another uncle’s house in Philadelphia. He was a painter, supposedly a well-known artist from China, but he was upset with Ning. “You use too much paint,” he told Ning. “Put it on too thick. You’re an idiot artist like Van Gogh.”

He told Ning, “Go outside and make money.” Ning did hit the streets and painted people’s images for money. One day he made $100 and was proud. His Philadelphia uncle was mad at him, though. He said he forgot to turn the gas off and he ate all the food in the fridge. He never could please his uncle, it seems. He came back to San Francisco.

There he stayed at a hotel on Broadway, the Big Al. “My room was above a porno shop. It was the only place I could find for $150 a month. Eight by six with one sink. No mirror. A bed. I had one suitcase. That is how I started my independent life.”

In China he had been studying at a Shanghai artists’ school in graphic design but had not completed a major. He went to the San Francisco Academy of Art and took all manner of art classes for his liberal arts degree. Meanwhile, he charged $2 per drawing at the wharf, doing likenesses of the tourists. Because he had no license and was getting more popular than many of the regulars who did portraits, someone called the police on him. He was very nervous because this would be a major infraction in China, cheating the government, but the San Francisco police told him to go home and not come back. “But there I had already earned $400.”

After his graduation, he applied to the Academy to be a teaching assistant and work toward his master of fine arts. He received a scholarship for eight semesters and taught with Thomas Mache, the director of the sculpture department.

He finished his MFA in two years but only had a work permit for one year. He wondered how he would get a green card. His advisor introduced him to City College of San Francisco where he took his portfolio, the same one he later carried to New York City. There he met future wife. I took her to Chinatown, which she loved, particularly when it closed down at night. You could hear the Chinese voices and violins. We had a very nice dinner.”

When his future wife found that he lived in a dumpy place, she said she would help him move. He moved to Chinatown, a fourth floor place on Clay and Stockton. “But I spoke Mandarin. They spoke Cantonese. I had moved to another foreign land,” he laughs. He soon married and moved to his wife’s apartment.

Ning got a traffic ticket and had to go to driving school. As luck would have it, the first night he met a woman who was a French teacher in San Mateo and had lived in Paris for two years. She made connections for him so he could take his portfolio to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Because he had copied the masters so well, the museum thought he had stolen Cezannes and Matisses from them.

When he said they were his, they told him he was a very good copier, in that case. No galleries in New York wanted to work with even very good copies of masters, Ning relates. One said, very simply, “Where is the you?”

At the Gallerie Rienzo, they asked what painting Ning had done in this country. He showed them a few pictures he had of Golden Gate Park “and they said ‘sold!’ That is how I got my first paintings in a gallery in New York. But I thought I had better find a local gallery in San Francisco.” He was able to sell three watercolors to the Maxwell Galleries, each for $1,500. “I was moving up in price,” he says, “even though the paintings didn’t even have frames on them.” He also retouched some paintings he had done on Broadway and sold them for $3,000 and $5,000. He has much gratitude toward Maxwell Galleries who jumpstarted his formal painting career.

Ning joined competitions and won best of show at the Santa Rosa show. He was invited to have a show at the Concord Community Center with two other Chinese painters. He also showed at Fairfield and Walnut Creek. It was in Walnut Creek that he was told there was a place called Locke in the Delta. “When I came to Locke, I came to the River Road Gallery and saw Connie King (the woman who helped preserve Locke after many other Chinese died.) I asked her if she sold any other than Locke artists. She told me, ‘This is a membership. You also have to sit here.’

“When I told her I was from the Bay Area, she said there was a house for sale here. My wife had always wanted a house. We bought one that Ping Lee (the unofficial mayor of Locke) had owned. My wife loved Ping Lee’s garden. We asked him if he would please take a loan. We had no history of owning a house, only of renting. Our housecleaning money would never buy a house.”

Ning has fond memories of Ping who let them pay him for nine years. “He was a very kind and honest businessman,” he says. “Later Connie introduced me to this studio.” He looks around at the Locke Main Street gallery he has created in the old Happy Café and dance hall. It is chock a block full of his strong, colorful and skillful paintings of the Delta and California scenes, the animals he so admires—both wild and tame—and a variety of other themes.

He says most of his clients are from San Francisco, New York and Europe, people who are familiar with him since his Maxwell Galleries days. He sells more locally as well, in Walnut Grove, Santa Rosa, Sacramento, Fairfield and Concord. He has paintings in a gallery in Tiburon.

He knows Danny Glover, who has visited him in Locke. Ning was once part of a gallery that Glover owned in San Francisco. Eddie Murphy came to use Ning’s Locke building in a movie and Ning earned $700 a day just for the setting.

The artist works on his “sculpture paintings” avidly every day. “I call them that because they have a high posture, lots of paint, lots of mixing which I combine in every stroke. Every stroke is like a carving. Some I do smooth like the Renaissance painters but I fully understand the difference between the two- and three-dimensional.”

Ning, who has taught art history for a number of years, has ambitions to rewrite an artist catalogue. He sees this as a way to dissolve the problems of prejudice and racism he thinks has affected the world’s art. “We all live under the same blue sky. We need to stop all this nonsense of denying different people and their environments. We are brainwashed in our backgrounds to judge others. My solution is to respect the others: the people who we are not familiar with.

“Locke is a good place for a painter,” he says, “even if you don’t receive a big value selling your paintings like you do in the city. It’s a good place to live, where the Chinese transition has been to a beautiful land. California has beautiful light. A symphony of color. The bottom line is how we see color.”




Re-visiting History: Locke, CA

A teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area recently told her students about the town of Locke. Kids told their mothers and four Moms decided they wanted to visit Locke with their offspring. They received a pre-arranged tour of Locke that included viewing the old Chinese garden area and museums displays of where and how Chinese workers lived in the early 1900s. The group of four mothers, four youngsters and one teen also visited a local wood shop, owned and operated by Russell Ooms and Deborah Mendel. They saw the process involved in making cutting boards and were allowed to contribute to their construction.

I’m inspired to write my next book about Locke and it’s rich history so we will see what happens with that.  Below are some photos from the family’s visit to historical Locke,Ca.

The Story of Locke, CA

Homeward_May_June2014This article on the history and impact of the Chinese immigrants on the Sacramento River Delta community of Locke,CA was originally published in the May/June edition of the Homeward Street Journal,  a voice for the Sacramento Homeless Community since 1997.  Download the full edition of Homeward here:  Homeward_May-June_2014

While Chinese Exploitation Appalling, Locke’s Immigrants Fared Better

The list of immigrant groups who have been discriminated against in the U.S. is long, and the conditions people from other countries have endured have been dismal. The Chinese who came to the United States in the late 1900s and early 20th Century endured their own series of setbacks and injustices. The story of the Sacramento River Delta town of Locke is a brighter spot in the Chinese immigrant story, although many of these workers suffered the effects of the same racial biases and ill treatment as their countrymen. Generally speaking, the town which these Chinese founded themselves against overwhelming odds, and which they came to pronounce Lock-ee (“happy living” in their dialect) is a more upbeat tale. In the mid-1800s, Chinese men came to the “Gold Mountain,” as they called America, during the California Gold Rush. At first they were accepted because they proved to be diligent workers and made themselves useful in every type of labor, from mining to farm work. The Transcontinental Railroad linking East with West would never have been accomplished in a timely fashion had it not been for Chinese men’s dogged work in constructing the railway. They toiled for low wages and experienced terrible working conditions. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 preventing any more Chinese from immigrating to America. It was the first time the United States had pinpointed a specific group of people to deny immigration.

Wong Lee with winter melons from his garden in the back of Locke, CA, in the Sacramento River Delta. Wong was a long-time orchard worker and handyman for the Leary Ranch outside Walnut Grove, CA, in the Delta. He was born in China in 1900 and emigrated to America when he was 21 under his workman father’s sponsorship. He lived in labor camps. He saved enough money to go back to China in 1935 and marry and again in 1947 to purchase land. He lost those investments in the Chinese revolution in 1949. It was not until 1968 that he was able to send for his wife and two children, after 33 years of marriage. Photo courtesy James Motlow from the book Bitter Melon: Inside America’s Last Rural Chinese Town.
Wong Lee with winter melons from his garden in the back of Locke, CA, in the Sacramento River Delta. Wong was a long-time orchard worker and handyman for the Leary Ranch outside Walnut Grove, CA, in the Delta. He was born in China in 1900 and emigrated to America when he was 21 under his workman father’s sponsorship. He lived in labor camps. He saved enough money to go back to China in 1935 and marry and again in 1947 to purchase land. He lost those investments in the Chinese revolution in 1949. It was not until 1968 that he was able to send for his wife and two children, after 33 years of marriage. Photo courtesy James Motlow from the book Bitter Melon: Inside America’s Last Rural Chinese Town.

But Chinese workers who came to the Delta were invaluable in reclaiming what was marsh and swamplands and in making it into the profitable farming area it is today. In the last part of the 19th Century, California was given free land from what is now Rio Vista in the south of the Delta to Freeport in the north. The state “sold” it to farmers for minimum down payments with the stipulation that if they reclaimed the land they would not need to repay the loans. Developed land, of course, meant greater tax revenues in the state coffers. The crop most prevalent in California at the time was grain. Farmers wanted to grow and make money from more lucrative fruit and vegetable crops like pears, tomatoes and asparagus. A fertile reclaimed delta area would be ideal. Developers had to build levees. For this they mostly hired Chinese workers who had, opportunely enough, come from the Pearl River Delta area in Guangdong Province where the land had the same features as the Sacramento Delta. These men had the skills to both the build levees and farm the reclaimed land. Due to widespread anti-Chinese laws, they were not able to earn more than about $1 a day. Although they were pushed to work for less, the Chinese seemed to have agreed upon $1 as their minimum. It was double or triple what they might have earned in China, but it was constant hard labor and a solitary life. The Chinese men sent most of their wages back to their families whom they didn’t even know if they would see again. The family structure in China was of great importance and separation from their wives, children and other relatives was a great cause for dismay. Foregoing family life made them feel even more alienated from their culture. In addition to contributing the sweat of their brows, the Chinese in the Delta invented what was called a tule shoe for the horses used in building the levees. This was an oversized horseshoe, not unlike a snowshoe for humans, which disperses the weight. They wired the tule shoes to the horses’ hooves for packing down and leveling the dirt. They employed this method in reclaiming 250,000 acres of land. The Chinese then stayed on as farm laborers or tenant farmers throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, toiling in the orchards, fields and packinghouses. Chinatowns cropped up in various Delta towns. The town of Locke stands out in that it was established by the Chinese themselves, the only Chinese immigrant-built town in the United States that still stands. Speculators and farmers bought the marshland for $1-4 an acre, reclaimed it for $6-12 an acre and resold it for $20-100 an acre. Or they rented it to Chinese farmers for $8 to $10 an acre. Under the California Alien Land Law of 1913, “aliens ineligible for citizenship” prohibited Asians (who could not become citizens) from purchasing land and made land leases of fewer than three years illegal. While this had the effect of driving most of the Chinese who had made up almost 90 percent of the agricultural workforce out of California’s rural areas, the Sacramento Delta Chinese and the founders of Locke were an exception. In 1912, Bing Lee had leased land from Delta farm owner George Locke and built seven buildings in his pear orchard north of the town of Walnut Grove. Two years before, the railroad had built a spur, which led to the pear packing shed. Lee built six stores and a gambling hall. The town on the Sacramento River, originally known as Lockeport, grew to include boarding houses for the workers, a church, church school, post office, theater, restaurant, saloons, grocery stores, hardware, herb store, fish market, dry goods store, dentist, cigar stand, shoe repair, pool room and bakery. By 1915, the town boasted about 400 year-round residents, which swelled to about 1,200 at harvest time. In his book One Day, One Dollar Peter C.Y. Leung explains that “Locke people were the last wave of immigrants from China to California during the period of Oriental restriction and exclusion.” Because they had become the vital backbone to the region’s economy, they skirted some of the discrimination other Chinese in America endured. But they had worked hard for that “privilege.” As Leung recounts, they had built the hundreds of miles of levees that now still hold back 1,500 miles of inland waterways. The reclamation had required working in waist-deep water at a time when malaria was still endemic, cutting drainage ditches and building floodgates and levees. These men laid the foundation for the present Delta agribusiness as well as seeing it through planting, maintenance, harvests and preservation of crops. Most Locke permanent residents worked in the orchards. Leong says that in the winter months they wove baskets for the harvest, repaired ladders, milked cows and performed general orchard maintenance, keeping them busy 11-12 hours a day. Leung quotes one man’s diary as recording 3,414 hours’ work in one year. During the season, bilingual Chinese foremen oversaw crews to prune and cut blight from the trees and pick weeks. Later they harvested the fruit and worked in the packing sheds. In addition, during irrigation periods, the men stayed from dawn to dusk watching over the water flow. In the ‘20s, the manual labor was done by field hands and hauling by horses. It wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s that trucks finally were used in the fields.

In his 70s in 1976, Bing Fei Chow sits in his boardinghouse room in Locke, CA, in the Sacramento River Delta. Chow joined his older brother and uncle in the Delta in 1921 and worked 50 years as a farm laborer. He was part of what was referred to as “the bachelor society,” one of the Chinese immigrants who never saved enough money to marry. He says in the book Bitter Melon: “I wouldn’t say I’ve been happy here, because I had to leave friends and family in China. But I wasn’t unhappy. I don’t regret it either.” Photo courtesy of James Motlow

Throughout the Delta’s history there have been other immigrants workers, principally Japanese, Filipino and Mexican. Chinese workers were at a height during the Depression. Wages rose to $1.50 a day after the Depression. Wages rose after the U.S. entered World War II but were still modest. Out of perhaps $3,000 a year, Chinese men had to pay for board, clothing, furniture, taxes and to send money back to their families in China. Sometimes money saved was used to return for a visit to China or a dowry and wedding. Some Chinese in the Delta invested in tenant farming partnerships with other Chinese. When China became an ally in World War II, the U.S. repealed the exclusion acts in the Magnuson Act of 1943. This seemed a mere gesture however, since it set up a quota of 105 immigrants from China a year. The Immigrant Act of 1965 finally made it possible for Chinese to immigrate to this country and reunite with their families. Today there is a handful of Chinese American families farming in the Sacramento Delta, none of them living in Locke. Some Chinese American farmers did prevail, like Lincoln Chan, a Delta farmer who became known as the “pear king of California,” and farmed thousands of acres of sugar beets, safflower, corn, wheat and tomatoes. The Chinese immigrants who eventually established families in the area encouraged their children to obtain an education and leave the Delta for more promising work and lives. By 1980, the Chinese population of Locke had dwindled to about 90 Chinese Americans. Locke residents now include a few descendants, none of them engaged in farming. However, reminders of the retired Chinese inhabitants of the 1960s-1990s remain in the form of gardens where they grew Chinese vegetables for their own use. Most of the original buildings in the two-block core of the town are standing. The Locke Foundation is preserving the history of these workers. Photos and information about them is available at the Locke Boarding House Museum, a California Department of Parks and Recreation property.

Photos from a Bay Area family’s visit to Locke can be found in this blog post. 

The following sources were used for this article: Lawrence Tom, Brian Tom and the Chinese American Museum of Northern California; One Day, One Dollar: The Chinese Experience in the Sacramento River Delta, California by Peter C.Y. Leung; The Chinese-American Experience: An Introduction  by William Wei; and Bitter Melon by Jeff Gillenkirk and James Motlow Sally Ooms is a journalist and the author of the book Finding Home: How Americans Prevail. She was a resident of Locke during the 1970s and did her undergraduate thesis on the town for the University of San Francisco.