At first glance, Locke seems like any one of the dozens of tiny towns nestled among the sloughs in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Just off of River Road, faded storefronts line Main Street. Cats wander down alleys and along the sidewalks, and birds swoop down to peck at the ground in the openings between buildings. Like many other places in the Delta, it’s not a ghost town, yet it’s far removed from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Locke is unique. Known as “America’s last rural Chinese town,” Locke is an historic landmark, little changed from the small town of Chinese immigrants that first sprung up around 1915.
In its heyday, Locke had a Chinese-language school, stores, restaurants, boarding houses, gambling halls, a theatre and more, and as many as 1,500 residents.
Today, Locke is a haven for quirky artists and history lovers. Though the town’s population has shrunk to 80, many of the original buildings still stand.
The Locke Boarding House was once home to agricultural workers. Now run by the Locke Foundation and California’s State Parks, photos and exhibits lining the walls showcase Locke’s past. The Boarding House Visitors Center is open to the public, free of charge, noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday and Friday, and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
If that isn’t enough to satisy your inner history buff, head over to the Chinese School, where Locke’s children studied the language until the 1980s; the Chinese Association Museum, once the town’s community center, where local residents and field workers would stop in for a game of dominoes and a cup of tea; or the Memorial Park and Monument, dedicated to the Chinese-American workers who helped build the railroad and agriculture in the region. And the history isn’t all innocent. The Dai Loy Museum is housed in an old gambling hall that was shut down by the state in the 1950s. “It’s almost like you’ve walked back in time,” said Clarence Chu, chairman of the Locke Foundation.
If you’re hungry after walking around the tiny town, head to one of Locke’s restaurants. Al’s Place is known for steak (served with peanut butter) and pasta. Locke Garden serves Cantonese-style Chinese food.