Three years ago a story in the South China Morning Post began breezily: "A Hong Kong couple, Mr. Ng Tor-tai and his wife, Fancy, have bought a town in the United States."
The Hong Kong millionaire had purchased Locke, California -- the last rural Chinatown in America -- from the heirs of its namesake, George Locke. According to reports at the time, Mr. Ng's firm, Asian City Development Inc., had plans to remake this quiet hamlet, wedged between a pear orchard and the loamy banks of the Sacramento River, into a "Chinese Disneyland."
The grand redevelopment scheme came as a nasty jolt to Locke's remaining 50 elderly Chinese, who arrived here from southern China as field hands a half century ago, and who still raise bok choy in their backyards and speak only Cantonese. During the "asparagus boom" -- at the turn of the century the region produced 90 percent of the world's asparagus -- their relatives built the town for immigrating Chinese farm workers.
To this day, Locke retains its Wild West architecture: unpainted two-story buildings, wooden sidewalks, hitching posts, swaybacked porches. Main Street -- now on the National Register of Historic Places -- could pass for a movie set in any spaghetti western. Clint Eastwood would feel right at home; and these days the town's beleaguered residents would readily accept the services of a Clint Eastwood, Magnificent Seven, Seventh Cavalry or anyone, for that matter, who would ride to their rescue.
According to the South China Morning Post, Mr. Ng and Asian City had plans for 400 houses "of Chinese design" and "a Tin Hau Temple, a Big Buddha, and world fair-style pavilions representing Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Philippines, Hong Kong and Thailand. . . ." The "Asian City" was also to include a shopping center , a country club, golf course, swimming pool, artificial lake, a floating restaurant, and yacht facilities to accommodate dragon boat racing.
When news of Asian City's purchase of the Locke estate (the 14-acre town plus a 90-acre pear orchard) reached the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, they slapped a 12-month moratorium on any new construction in Locke. Clarence Chu, Fancy Ng's brother, who manages the family's new piece of real estate, denied the ambitious "preliminary plans" and claimed that Asian City would not emphasize tourism and would consider the best interests of the Chinese residents.
But the cows were out of the barn. It was too late to win the trust of the locals. The Hong Kong investor had ignited a controversy that drew in preservationists, the state parks and recreation department, the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, the governor's office, and California's Chinese community.
Three years later, the ruckus over saving America's last rural Chinatown continues. Locke's future is still up for grabs.
A century ago Chinese settlements like Locke were the rule, not the exception. In fact, it is still possible to read California's 19th-century history by tracing the development of migrant Chinese shanty towns.
The Chinese cooked in the gold mining camps in the Mother Lode, lived along the route of the transcontinental railroad where they laid track, provided "squat labor" in the fertile Central Valley.
They worked waist-deep in the Sacramento River with wheelbarrows and shovels to reclaim the "tule land," now clover-smothered groves of pear trees, their gnarled limbs exploding with delicate puffs of white blossoms. In the 1870s, a state surveyor estimated that the Chinese levee-building and railroad construction increased the value of California land by $287 million.
It was the "asparagus boom" that kept the rural Chinese going after these jobs trickled away and many immigrants headed for the city. Prior to 1915, Locke was no more than a boat landing, a few storage sheds and a saloon. In October of that year the Chinatown in neighboring Walnut Grove burned. It was rumored the town was torched by a disgruntled gambler who had lost several thousand dollars in one of the numerous gambling halls. Some stayed to rebuild Walnut Grove, but most of the Chinese moved a mile upriver to Locke. Five families built six two-story wooden buildings on land they rented on the corner of a pear tree ranch owned by George Locke. Under California law, Chinese were not permitted to own land.
As an unincorporated community, Locke had no police force. During Prohibition it was a "wide open town" and supported a small cottage industry of opium dens, brothels, and speak-easies run by whites. At its peak, Locke boasted a few hundred residents, nine grocery stores, six restaurants, a bakery, a barbershop, theater, hotel, school, church, and post office.
Locke's prosperity in the 1920s was short-lived. The Depression undercut the asparagus market, and the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 removed the attraction of the town's illegal liquor. The soil in the northern delta had been overworked, and now Locke's younger generation began heading for the city lights of San Francisco, Sacramento, and Stockton. The exodus continued through the 1970s.
When the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency took a head count in 1977, it found 63 people in Locke. Fifty-one were Chinese, and their median age was 65.
"We don't know if our children will come back," a wizened Chinese woman told me. Her husband was a labor boss in the orchards, and they now have three children in college. "There isn't anywhere to work around Locke. No economy. I'd like to see my children come back, but young people have to work. As for me , I have nowhere else to move to."
In the once-bustling commercial section of Locke, today only four stores are open year-round: the Yuen Chong market (the only remaining Chinese-owned buiness); the Tules, a pizza parlor; a gift shop; and a speak-easy left over from Prohibition called Al the Wop's.
Al's has become a Locke institution. Its dingy walls are papered with old bumper stickers. Over the years, hundreds of now-dusty dollar bills were thumbtacked to its 12-foot ceiling. A stuffed ostrich perches over the door to the ladies' room. The only thing on the menu is steak, and it comes with French bread, peanut butter, and jelly. Ranchers in pickup trucks and tourists in white Cadillacs and powder blue Mercedes flock here at lunchtime.
Wong Yow, like most of Locke's Chinese residents, lives in one of the houses behind Main Street. He has as little contact as possible with the noontime and Saturday night crowds that spill out of Al's. Wong Yow is 80 years old. At age 21 he left China, where he was employed as a carpenter's apprentice. Within three days of arriving at Angel Island (San Francisco's equivalent of Ellis Island), he was hired at $1 a day to pick pears in the Sacramento delta. Wong worked the orchards until he was 69, and has a reputation for being one of the best gardeners in Locke.
The day I spoke to Wong, a jovial, round-faced fellow, he was sitting at the kitchen table reading a newspaper written in Chinese and published in San Francisco. Nearby was an opened package of squash seeds. It was a warm day, but Wong wore a leather hat with earflaps, a long-sleeved blue shirt, and a brown short-sleeved sweater. Beneath these layers was a bright purple sweater he used as an undershirt.
What little English Wong speaks betrays his past. He sprinkles English words like "pruning," "irrigation," "hoeing," throughout his Cantonese dialect. As we speak, Todd Carrel, a Chinese-speaking film maker completing a documentary for television on Locke, translates.
"In the early days we worked six days a week, ten hours a day," recalls Wong. "I saved my money. Most everyone else lost theirs on prostitution and gambling."
He takes down from the shelf a pink cookie tin, wrapped with years-old Scotch tape turning brown on the edges. Inside are what look like ivory dominoes.
This is pai-gao," he explains, "the game everyone played on Sundays after working in the orchards all week. This set was given to me by a friend, but I have never used it," says Wong, although he later confesses with a smile, "Yes, I do know how to play."
I ask about the new red fire extinguisher by his back door. Wong says it was installed by the housing and redevelopment agency. The extinguishers and new smoke detectors have taken the place of Locke's night watchman (called the "Bok Bok man") who over the years prevented major fires in the tinder-dry town.
"We are the last Chinatown," says Wong. "Walnut Grove, Courtland, Isleton. They all burned down. We've had good luck in Locke. Of course, fire could sneak up on us."
Wong lives alone. He rises at 7:00 every morning and, if it isn't raining, he works in his garden. He is proud to tell me he cooks his own breakfast and has a three-day cycle of "a can of corn, noodles, and mush." I ask what kind of "mush." He takes from the cupboard a carton of Quick Quaker Oats.
In Wong's living room is a family portrait taken in 1935, the year he briefly returned to China. In the picture Wong wears a three-piece suit. His father, also in a three-piece suit, strikes a stern pose beside his second wife. On Wong's living room table is a Bible in Chinese, a "Promise Box" containing miniature flashcards of Bible references. Nearby is a color Sony television. He has two other televisions in the house.
"I watch so many hours of television I can't count them," grins Wong. "I don't understand what the people are saying, but I like the cartoons, the nature shows, and the war movies." He strikes the pose of a soldier firing a rifle.
I ask Wong what he thinks of the Hong Kong investor's plans for Locke.
"I have no opinion." The smile on his face goes sour.
Does he support the efforts of the state parks department and redevelopment agency to protect Locke?
"I have no opinion," says Wong, staring into space. This line of questioning is making him anxious. He says he must leave now to walk to Walnut Grove (about one mile away) for his daily senior citizen hot lunch.
Outside Wong's house, filmmaker Carrel, who has interviewed many of the town's Chinese over the last three years, recalls, "Chinese like Wong have never been consulted before about their futures and don't see why they should be consulted now. They have been exploited ever since they came to this country. They were hand laborers who couldn't speak English and were left out of mainstream America from the start. Now they are being left out a second time. Their future is being decided by a developer and schemes of bureaucrats and high-minded preservationists who are trying to save buildings but have forgotten the people who live in them."
At the moment, state and county officials have Locke in a holding pattern. Not long ago the county passed stiff zoning regulations and, through its control over building permits, has effectively stymied any grand plans of Asian City Development, Inc. The Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency has designated Locke a "redevelopment area" and has recently been "fireproofing" the town by replacing gas appliances with electric ones.
What Locke needs desperately is a new sewer system. The clay sewer pipes installed when the town was founded were designed to last 20 years. Now they are broken, leaking, and in violation of minimum health standards.
"The health inspectors are turning their backs on us," says one resident with a tone of mixed disdain and relief. "If word got out how bad our situation is, they could shut this town and make us leave."
Locke is trapped in a Catch-22 and unlikely to have its sewer replaced very soon. The frugal California state legislature is not about to finance the project, and federal money is not available because Locke is on private property , say residents. Asian City has no intention of shelling out $300,000 for a new sewer system to upgrade property the state has threatened to take back through its powers of condemnation.
Now before the California state legislature is an omnibus parks bill, which among other things authorizes about $1.2 million to buy Locke back from Mr. Ng, restore the buildings, and place it under the supervision of the state parks department.
Even if the bill is successful, it has a provision to "self-destruct" with the likely passage in June of Howard Jarvis's Proposition 9, which would halve income taxes statewide, and therefore drastically cut back all public services.
At the moment, Locke's future looks grim. But while most of the Chinese residents like Wong are keeping their distance from the controversy, the handful of whites in town is noticeably more vocal.
"Asian City wanted to put in 283 housing units and make Locke a bedroom community, but I moved here to get away from all that," says a woman who has lived in Locke for several years."They give lip service to preserving historical Locke and the Chinese that live here, but when you press Asian City they admit they're out to make a profit. Meanwhile, none of us can get homeowners' loans to make repairs because we can't own our land.
"And the government isn't much better," she continues. "They want to make us into an historic park but that would be as phony as Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. When the government starts putting public money into Locke, the bureaucrats think they have to give the public its money's worth. But if you attract tourists you need something to keep them amused. People come in here and ask: 'Is this all there is? What's there to do?' So they'll start putting up cute little souvenir and snack shops. Right now, we don't even have a public toilet in town.
"We need a sewer badly, but we won't accept commercialization as a tradeoff," she says. Every wrinkle in her forehead reads determination. "This town is fragile. The best thing would be to have everyone go away and leave us alone."
Russ Ooms, an Oregon cabinetmaker, moved to Locke in July 1974 -- three years before Asian City bought the town. "Locke was just a dying town full of old Chinese. I've made a habit of settling down in plaes where no one else wants to go," says Ooms, wrapped in his carpenter's apron and perched on the steps of a house he paid $50 for in 1975.
"When I moved in, the rents hadn't changed since 1915. It was $5 a month for a house and $15 for property on Main Street," he says. (Asian City is charging about double the rent the Chinese previously paid to the late George Locke, and at least a dozen of the town's elderly residents are now staging a rent strike to protest the increases.)
"By 1977, the Locke estate had been up for sale for eight years," says Ooms. "Just about the time the Hong Kong developer bought it, the housing and redevelopment agency -- which makes a business of rebuilding slums -- stepped in. The agency didn't want Locke to become a Disneyland. On the other hand, we don't want the agency to make this another Old Sacramento [a restored portion of the state capital] with plinky player pianos and bartenders in checked shirts with garters on their arms."
According to Ooms and other Locke residents, the perils of tourism are second only to those of a major fire. "Tourists come here in bus loads on weekends," says Ooms. "They don't think anyone lives here. To them it's just a big stage set. At night they come out of Al's screaming and getting into fist fights and urinating on buildings. They walk into the old Chinese people's houses as if they were walking through a zoo. What kind of place do they think this is?"
Asian City is now petitioning the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors to rezone the Locke estate for construction of a subdivision of "about 200 single-family units," says the corporations' general manager Clarence Chu. The 70-acre "project area" does not include the town of Locke, which Asian City says it will readily sell to the state.
"We have no intention of stopping the state from buying the 14-acre town if we can agree on a price. A ballpark figure would be around $150,000," says Chu, whose firm, he says, paid $650,000 for the entire 500-acre estate in 1977.
"Even if the state doesn't buy Locke," he adds, "we don't plan to make major changes in the town itself. We're the landlord, and responsible for fixing things like the sewer, but the rent we get today barely covers the property taxes."
Chu dismisses the initial controversy over a "Chinese Disneyland" in Locke as an "exaggeration and misunderstanding" stirred up "by the historical societies and the government. Our company is a California-registered firm but all the stockholders are Chinese from Hong Kong and we've never been able to convince the Chinese in California that we are here to help."
Filmmaker Carrell is said to understand the plight of Locke's elderly Chinese as well as any non-Asian to have visited the town in the last several years. "Recognition has become their curse," he says. "No one will leave them alone any more. They have to deal with developers, planners, yes, even reporters. The question now becomes: Are we going to let Locke die a natural death? Outsiders say, 'No, it's too precious.' That's not the answer you would get from the Chinese. This town is very delicate. At this point the best thing anyone could do for Locke is nothing, just leave it alone."