After a two-year pause, lions will dance again in the Sacramento Delta this weekend.
The lion dance is a mainstay in Chinese New Year celebrations, including the one returning to historic Chinese town Locke on Saturday after skipping 2021 and 2022 due to the pandemic.
“The original concept is to have this cheerful celebration, which is [a] very traditional Chinese custom, to … impress the whole community and also the [businesses],” said Clarence Chu, who co-chairs the committee planning the New Year events. “So that we have a new year, [a] good start bringing prosperity, good health and all that. Good luck in everything, for everybody.”
Attendees at Locke's Chinese New Year celebration in Feb. 2020 watch the lion dance.Courtesy of Douglas Hsia
Chu, who also owns a cultural shop in Locke, first became involved in the community in the 1970s. He became part of a long line of Chinese immigrants who settled in the agricultural town after its founding by Chinese merchants and laborers in 1915.
While its residents are no longer majority Chinese, Locke was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 and became a National Historic Landmark in 1990. Then-U.S. Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan called the town “the largest and most intact surviving example of an historic rural Chinese-American community in the United States.”
The Locke Foundation, of which Chu is the vice chair, plans the Chinese New Year celebration. For him and others, it’s not just a way to welcome the year or bring more business into shops, but to provide people the opportunity to see Chinese American history for themselves.
A sign along main street in Locke, Calif. on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023.Janelle Salanga / CapRadio
“It’s like the time clock going back”
The weekend’s festivities will take place on Main Street, one of the two streets that makes up Locke proper. A one-way dirt road, it’s flanked by wooden buildings in a range of colors, guarded by columns, one of which asks drivers to “slow down,” in all-capital letters: “YOU’RE IN LOCKE.” Hand-painted signs and metal plaques introduce businesses and preserved sites like Moon Cafe, Ning Hou Fine Art Gallery, Dai Loy Gambling Hall.
“Whatever you do, don’t light up a match,” joked Sacramento chef David Soohoo, though it’s a serious ask: The wood buildings are a fixture of the time period they were erected, and many Chinese towns and communities have been destroyed by fire.
“It’s like the time clock going back,” he said of Locke, where he’s given cooking and food lectures during several past Chinese New Year celebrations. “The set-up is like a living museum.”
There are four museums in Locke, with one — the Locke Boardinghouse — a state park partially owned by the Locke Foundation.
“The other three are privately owned, but we all work together and are very much connected,” said Locke Foundation secretary Douglas Hsia.
The Locke Boardinghouse in Locke, Calif., seen on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023.Janelle Salanga / CapRadio
Ironically, fire made Locke’s establishment possible: The set of Chinese merchants and laborers who founded the town, then called Lockeport, did so after their community in nearby Walnut Grove burned in 1915. They secured a verbal agreement with Sacramento merchant George W. Locke to move into the settlement, opening distinctly Chinese businesses and services.
Chu, the business owner, is the vice chair of the Locke Foundation, which is behind much of the restoration and preservation efforts of the town. He said the original residents called it Lockee, a byproduct of pronouncing the town’s name in Cantonese.
“The meaning is very beautiful — it’s ‘peaceful living,’” Chu said. “Originally, [the initial residents] came in from Guangdong Province, Zhongshan area, right next to the Pearl River. So geographically, it’s very similar to where Locke is, right next to the Sacramento River.”
Like Locke, Sacramento is deeply intertwined with Chinese American history.
In his book Canton Footprints, historian Philip P. Choy said Sacramento, known as Ngee-fauh or Second City to many Chinese immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, was a main supply center and home base for Chinese miners, farmers in the Delta and workers on the Transcontinental Railroad.
Soohoo, like Choy, grew up in Sacramento; his father immigrated from Guangdong, where many of Locke’s initial residents were from. His father and uncle co-owned the original Tea Cup Cafe beginning in the 1950s. That vantage point allowed him to see the rise and fall of Sacramento’s Chinatown as Soohoo established himself in the area’s restaurant community. Among other roles, he assumed chef duties from his uncle at Ming Tree, worked at 4-star restaurant Chinois East-West and opened Bamboo in Midtown with his wife.
“If you want to understand Sacramento’s downtown, where we lost our Chinatown, then you have to go down there,” Soohoo said. “We need a cultural center that’s close, because there’s lots of history that’s lost [otherwise]... It's also proof that it existed. And so where else can you go where you actually see this? And you cannot deny that it exists. And that's very important.”
What to expect from Saturday’s celebration
Chinese New Year in Locke is still a relatively new phenomenon.
Despite the Sacramento Delta town’s past as a haven for Chinese workers and settlers, its residents didn’t initially celebrate Chinese New Year, Hsia, the Locke Foundation’s secretary, said.
“In those days, I think [there was] a lot of talking amongst the Asian countries there [in Asia], whether Asian culture should turn completely over western,” he said.
Because Locke’s founding father was a follower of then-Chinese president Sun Yat-Sen, a Christian, Hsia said he was influenced by the conversations about westernizing, meaning Locke’s leadership didn’t establish an official Chinese New Year celebration until later.
He said the event has been commemorated in “stretches of on and off.” The most recent stretch began seven years ago, in 2016.
“When I moved into Locke, in 2015, I had a little shop, and I constantly had customers coming into the shop … they all [showed] expectation that [what] want to see is [a] Chinese New Year celebration in Locke.”
And the next year, the tradition of a public event was re-established.
This year’s events line-up includes a lion dance and martial arts demonstration by Eastern Ways Martial Arts, a series of guest speakers, a flower arrangement presentation, a painting and calligraphy contest, a Chinese musical performance and a zodiac puppet show.
“Flower arrangement is very, very popular and important in celebrating Chinese New Year,” Chu said. “Because those flowers mean ‘Bring in good spirits, freshness and bring all the good luck and prosperity to the families.’”
Soohoo will also give a lecture about the history of unknown Chinese cooks in America.
When lecturing at Locke, he’ll often share a recipe for Lo Han Jai, also commonly called luo han zhai, lo hon jai and in Western cookbooks, variations of “Buddha’s Delight”.
“Locke is a place where I wish I can actually teach cooking — however, it requires gas or electric, open flames and these things [and] at this particular time, they're not set up,” he said. “You can actually see a kitchen at Locke, though. In the old days, it was made out of brick and [you can see how] these giant woks were fueled by wood.”
A kitchen in Locke.Courtesy David Soohoo
He says teaching about cultural cooking is both a way to connect with people and a means of respecting his gifts, the stories around him and the inheritance of his parents — passing methods, techniques and history to the next generation.
“Locke is simply a touchstone, and we need more touchstones.”
Locke’s Chinese New Year celebration is happening from noon to 4 p.m. on the town’s Main Street.
A vegetarian dish (Soohoo says Chinese Buddhists consider fish to be vegetarian), it was typically eaten on New Year’s Eve as part of a big family dinner.
“You’re supposed to be respectful, not kill — that’s New Year [tradition],” he said. “Once a year, we like to fast and eat non-meat, so these are customs that mean we’re thinking of our parents, and usually lo han jai also symbolizes long life, because the noodles are long.”
Yield: Approximately 3 quarts.
Keeps refrigerated up to a week. If unable to get all ingredients, use at least four apart from the seasonings.
1 lb. can bamboo shoots, cut into thin strips
6-8 dried oysters, cleaned and soaked overnight, liquid reserved
6-8 dried bean curd sheets, soaked 2 hours
24 dried lily buds, soaked 1 hour
½ c. dried cloud ear fungus, soaked ½ hour
6-8 dried black mushrooms, soaked 2 hours
4 oz. mung bean noodles (bean thread), soaked ½ hour until soft
12 pc. 1-inch firm bean cake cubes (tofu), fried
24 ginkgo nuts, shelled and soaked in boiling water for 5-10 minutes
5 c. chopped bok choy or Napa cabbage
1¾ c. chicken broth (or water)
3 c. water
4 tbsp. oyster sauce
3 tbsp. dark soy sauce
1-2 tsp. salt, to taste
½ tsp. white pepper
2 tsp. sugar
5 tbsp. oil, for cooking in wok
Clean, squeeze dry or drain all soaked ingredients.
Peel the red membrane from ginkgo nuts.
Nip off the tough end of the lily buds and tie a knot in the middle.
Cut bean curd sheets into 1/2-inch lengths.
Stem mushrooms and cut caps into thin strips.
Dice oysters and cut fried bean curds in half.
Heat wok. Add 1 tbsp. oil. Stir fry lily buds with cloud ear fungus for 1 minute. Set aside.
Add 2 tbsp. oil and stir fry Chinese cabbage for 2-3 minutes. Set aside.
Add 2 tbsp. oil and stir fry oysters, mushrooms, gingko nuts and bamboo shoots for 2 minutes.
Add chicken broth, water and liquid from soaked oysters. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes.
Add fried bean curd and cook for 10 minutes.
Add dried bean curd sheets, cloud ear fungus, lily buds and cook 10 more minutes. Add long rice and cabbage and cook 10 minutes. Add seasoning and mix well.
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