This 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.
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.
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.