Visitors to Locke, the only remaining town in the U.S. built and originally inhabited almost exclusively by Chinese, can immerse themselves in Chinese culture. A stroll down the four streets takes you past century-old wooden buildings. Some have given way to the ravages of time, but many remain, a testament to this once-vibrant agricultural community, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990.
Lockeport, as it was originally called, originated following a fire in 1915 that destroyed the Chinatown section of nearby Walnut Grove. Although Chinese weren’t allowed to own land then, a group of Chinese businessmen approached the son of pear grower George Locke, who agreed to lease them nine acres of his late father’s land.
Because the Chinese weren’t owners of the ground, the forty-five buildings they constructed between 1915 and 1917 were not made of expensive, long-lasting materials. They have false fronts, but the sides were left unpainted.
After leaving River Road at the north end of town, you’ll pass the Locke Boarding House Museum on your left, which is a good place to start your exploration. A public parking lot is straight ahead, with restrooms located nearby.
Inside the museum, you’ll find artifacts and displays that commemorate the many Chinese contributions to California, from helping build the Transcontinental Railroad and area levees to working on farms and in packing houses. Upstairs you’ll find replicas of the rooms rented by Chinese agricultural workers during the town’s heyday.
While inside the Boarding House Museum, you can purchase a walking tour guide of the town for just $5. Many of the historic buildings line Main Street. The Locke Chinese School Museum at the northwest corner, where students learned Chinese in the afternoon following regular school, is open to the public. Admission to both the museum and school is free, with donations gladly accepted.At the opposite end of Main, you’ll see the Locke Grill and Fountain, where you can enjoy sandwiches and ice cream—and rent rooms at their newly opened B&B upstairs. The owner, Martha Esch, has compiled a history of the town, which she’s posted on the front of the building.
Locke is home to from 40-60 people today, only a small fraction of them of Chinese descent, but visitors are welcome to walk down the residential streets. As we soaked in the history, my husband and I enjoyed seeing several resident cats lounging on porches.
If you work up an appetite while touring this historic gem, I recommend a meal at the Locke Garden Chinese Restaurant. The building, originally home to the town’s first saloon and gambling hall, has a rustic charm. And the food? It’s delicious! Their lemon chicken was some of the best I’ve ever tasted.
For an even more exciting look at Locke, plan to visit on Saturday, February 16, 2019 from noon to 3 pm, when their Chinese New Year Celebration will take place—rain or shine. The event will include a lion dance, martial arts demonstration, tea ceremony and more.