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Locke's Historic Past, Colorful Present


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You could drive past the town of Locke and not even know it if you miss the turn off route 160. The main drag is a short city block of rundown wooden buildings that lean into each other. They’ve been here for about 100 years.

Sixty-two year old Dustin Marr is a lifelong resident of Locke.

"They built the town on a handshake from George Locke, and said 'ok, we'll work for you.'"

He’s talking about the Chinese. Locke is the only town still standing in the United States that was built exclusively by Chinese people.

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"The Chinese were here in the 1860s basically putting a perimeter of levees around these islands. In this area we’re surrounded by ten islands…so, basically, drained the swamp, leveled the land, and planted a lot of pear trees," says Marr.

The early Chinese settled in Locke despite laws prohibiting them from owning land, and barring newcomers from China. Marr says, for decades, they worked in the fields and packed produce.

"Actually, you know, what they did here was just amazing," says Marr.


On a tour through Locke’s main strip, Marr points out the main buildings of what used to be a thriving rural Chinatown.

"Movie theatre, gambling house, then later on prostitution," says Marr, with a laugh.

But the Chinese population here began to dwindle by the 1960s, when the younger generations sought opportunities elsewhere. Now areas of the main strip have been reinvented with new faces and personalities.  

Lisa Kirk has owned a shop called Strange Cargo for 10 years. Here you can buy a vintage dress or a book about California history.

"You have all kinds of people who come through Locke, that’s what I enjoy about being here," says Kirk.

Kirk’s shop doubles as a center for tourist information and cat adoption. She says the Delta’s like the wild-wild west and there’s something that draws people into the town of Locke.

"You don’t find a place that looks like this, that still functions as a community. We’ve got two restaurants, you know, about four shops, four museums, and so I will notice people will come in here, and I’ll look out and four hours later they’re still here," says Kirk.

Richard Howe says he’s been coming to Locke for years.  

"There’s so much depth here. There’s story beyond story beyond story here," says Howe.

A lot of these stories are told inside Locke’s most raucous establishment. ‘Al the Wops’ bar and restaurant has a décor as curious as its name.

Lorenzo Giannetti used to own the place. He describes the ambience while having a drink at the bar.

"[There's] money on the ceiling, some animal heads, I think there’s a emu or ostrich over there," says Giannetti.

He says he doesn’t take offense to the ethnic slur against Italians in the name.

"It’s on the sign out there and it’s always been there… the building was built around 1912 I think. It was a Chinese restaurant at first, it’s just a local hang out. And the food’s pretty fattening," says Giannetti.  


Just behind Locke’s main tourist attractions, is the quiet community residents know. About 70 people live here … only a small number of them are Chinese American. The town is just as settled by artists now, and Deborah Mendel is one of them. 

When Mendel isn’t weaving, or helping run an art gallery in town, she’s in a shared garden space owned by the people of Locke.  Mendel says Locke’s immigrant roots will always be what defines the town.

"The Chinese always gardened here, and they grew their food. It’s a tradition that we still carry on."

You’ll find Locke’s eclectic shops, greasy food, it’s artists and it’s Chinese history just 30 minutes south of Sacramento.




Pauline Bartolone


Pauline Bartolone has been a journalist for more than 15 years, during which she was Capital Public Radio’s healthcare reporter from 2011-2015. Her work has aired frequently on National Public Radio.  Read Full Bio 

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