Grace Hwang Lynch

Little Bit of This, Little Bit of That

Grace Hwang Lynch

Grace Hwang Lynch
Silicon Valley, California,
December 31
I'm a former television news reporter. Currently a communications consultant, freelance writer, and mother of two. I write about raising a multicultural family at HapaMama, and I'm also the News & Politics Editor at BlogHer. My work has been published in several magazines and newspapers, as well as in the anthologies "Lavaderia: A Mixed Load of Women, Wash and Word" and "Mamas and Papas:On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting" by City Works Press. Follow me on Twitter: @HapaMamaGrace


Editor’s Pick
JULY 31, 2011 12:42AM

California's Last Rural Chinatown

Rate: 17 Flag

Locke Chinatown

Locke, California 

A few years ago, our family attended a wedding on the Sacramento River Delta. Although it's less than an hour away from California's state capitol, the whole Delta area is like a trip back in time — or to the Mississippi River– with its wide open farmland, one-stoplight towns, and system of levees and drawbridges.

 While looking up information for our trip, I found out that very close to where we were staying was the the last remaining rural Chinatown. Nestled again the dirt levee of the Sacramento River is the tiny town of Locke, California.

Turning down the main 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 schoolLocke Chinese School

There is an old Chinese school, where the American flag hangs next to the flag of the Republic of China. This is the current flag of Taiwan. You see, Locke was settled during by immigrants from the Canton province of mainland China, between after the last emperor and before the Communist Revolution.

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 ChinatownBikers 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.

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.

A version of this piece was originally published as part of the Summer Reading Series on If you like this post, also visit HapaMama to check out my suggestions for Asian American landmarks to visit.

All images and text (c) 2011 Grace Hwang Lynch

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Very intriguing. And thanks for that link to Bitter Melon, that looks very interesting. It's amazing the suffering that these often most patriotic immigrants had to endure, the immigration issues seem not to change all that much, just different demographics.

I imagine all sorts of stories, fiction, historical fiction, non fiction can be generated from learning about this place. Locke is very intriguing indeed. Thanks Grace for sharing this. I hope you sent this to your local media outlets for publication.
Welcome back. We've missed your travels and fine cooking.
Wonderful post, Grace. ~r
This is fascinating. I have to confess, I didn't know about rural Chinatowns. I thought the Chinese population integrated into cities and communities, and created districts where Chinese businesses, restaurants, and other shops were located - the "Chinatowns" of metropoli like San Francisco and New York. I have learned something tonight - and would love to visit Locke and learn more. I'm going to check out the book links you listed, as well.
Great post. Having never been to California, your description and photos have captured my imagination as well. Now I'm wondering why kinds of foods they prepared, so far away from home and faced with unfamiliar ingredients!
I'm so glad you posted this--I've wondered for a long time what became of Locke. I visited it many years ago, when I was still in college--back then, there were still a lot of older Chinese living there, people who had been there all their lives. I recall that Bitter Melon said they were from the Pearl River Delta, the same region of Canton that my paternal grandparents are from. Their children and grandchildren, though, had all moved on to other places, so I don't imagine there being too many Chinese still living there now. Terrific story!
I've been through the Delta but never to Locke. The Delta is a fascinating place, and now you've made it even more so with your essay. Locke, here I come. One of these days. Thanks
Thank you all for reading and commenting! And thank you for the EP.

Part of me didn't want to share these pictures and stories because I love how Locke is secluded and empty. But I'm afraid this gem will not survive without more awareness and outside help. I vaguely knew that there were rural Chinatowns, like China Camp and other Sierra villages which have long disappeared. Locke is newer than those Gold Rush towns, and the only place I've ever seen buildings still intact.
What a great little find!
Congratulations on the EP and cover Grace, richly deserved.
Great piece, grace. I've been in CA for 50+ hrs and have been all over but haven't ever heard of Locke. This is a fascinating story.
I've been to Locke (I live in Sacrament0). It's worth visiting if you are in the area. It is not, in my opinion, worth driving hours and hours for. Despite nice photos of it, Locke is, essentially, just one street... (Still, it's important for its history, no doubt.)
Thanks Grace! very cool.
In my last sememster of college I needed a few elective units to graduate. CSU, Stanislaus offered self-guided tours of upper and lower gold rush areas in California that came with recorded cassette tapes that I listened to as I drove, a book to read, and then I went it to take tests on the areas. Locke was one of the areas I visited during the tour. I really enjoyed this post which took me back to that tour so many years ago.
When I was younger, every now and then, there would be a feature on Locke in the Chronicle or some TV news program feature. I've been there several times. The whole area is a throwback in time, indeed.

Yes, it's a fascinating place. In fact, the gold country is full of interesting remnants of Chinese people who helped to shape the state. As an example Angels Camp (of Mark Twain fame) had a Chinatown. (See:
as did many of the camps in the diggin's.
There is nowhere like Locke. At my last visit the museum had a historical presentation (Photos and text) made by a middle school student (probably about 13 yrs old). It was very good. I bet you would enjoy that.

I always found it odd that the Al's Place ended up there.
Went by there a number of years ago, it's a fascinating place. I went to high school several hundred miles from there in Humboldt County, CA, and the Chinese story there was more tragic - at one point the white settlers rounded up the Chinese workers and threw them on a rickety boat, telling them all they had to go back to China. Fortunately they ended up somewhere in the Bay Area. The journalist Bret Harte famously protested this at the time before being run out of town himself. The history of Chinese Americans in the American West is littered with examples like this - whole areas of the country where Chinese people were run out of town, when previously they had been a substantial percentage of the population in many rural areas.
Thanks for reading and leaving your comments.

Yes, Locke is both painful and fascinating. Like Felicia said about all the older Chinese residents passing on and young people moving away, I do think it's important to remember this part of our country's history. I haven't been to Angel's Camp, but was recently at Bodie, a ghost town in the Eastern Sierras, where there was also a sizeable Chinatown. It was burned to the ground, just a field now.

Steve- one of these days, I hope to find that museum open!

Lschmoopie- the tapes sound great, too.

cruzy- I hadn't heard that story about Humboldt before, but I can imagine...
I believe most of the immigrants who came early spoke Cantonese? Great photos!
I am sure this is very interesting reading and viewing. China towns are so North American at this point. It seems if you had a china town in your city your city was a success.