Water Ghosts and a Roadtrip to the Last Rural Chinatown

Locke Chinatown

A few years ago, our family attended a wedding on the Sacramento River Delta. While looking up information for the area, I found out that very close to where we were staying was the the last remaining rural Chinatown. Nestled again the levee of the Sacramento River is the tiny town of Locke, California.

The whole Delta area is like a trip back in time — or to the Mississippi River– with it’s wide open farmland, one-stoplight towns, and system of drawbridges. Turning down the one street that makes up the old business district of Locke is like a trip-within-a-trip (take that, Hunter S. Thompson!) Leaning wooden buildings, many with second story porches, give you a feeling for what it must have been like back in the early 1900s.

Locke Chinese school
Locke Chinese School

There is an old Chinese school, where the American flag hangs next to the Taiwanese flag. Wait? There were no immigrants from Taiwan back in the day. Then, it occurs to me. Cantonese immigrants came to California well before the Communist Revolution, back when it was still the Republic of China.

There is a tiny gift shop, the Dai Loy gambling house (which has now been turned into a museum), and a Chinese restaurant.

motorcycles in Locke Chinatown

Bikers are the main visitors in Locke Chinatown

A visitor’s center run by the California State Parks system sits at one end of town, but it was not open during our first visit or our return a year later. Less than 80 people currently live in the old homes just off of Main Street.

The town of Locke captured my eye and my imagination. I wondered what it was like back in the day, before the buildings were creaking and leaning — or were they always that way? My mind raced with a thousand starting points for fictional stories.

Soon after our trip, I heard about Shawna Yang Ryan’s novel Water Ghosts. Ryan is a Hapa Taiwanese-American , and this fantasy features– yes, ghosts–and a main character who is half-Chinese. For a full review, read Terry Hong’s review of Water Ghosts on Smithsonian BookDragon.

Also, if you’re interested in non-fiction and beautiful photography, check out Bitter Melon: Inside California’s Last Rural Chinese Town by Jeff Gillenkirk and James Motlow.


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A version of this piece also appears on Open Salon.