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This Historic California Town Is A Living Legacy To The Chinese Immigrant Experience

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

America's oldest and best-known Chinatown is in San Francisco, but just a couple hours away is something a little different - a freestanding, historic Chinese town in the heart of California. This summer, reporters with NPR's international desk have been taking us to destinations in the countries they cover for a travel series called Wish You Were Here. Today, John Ruwitch, who covers U.S.-China affairs, takes us to Locke, Calif., to learn about its place in the Chinese immigrant experience.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Locke's Main Street looks kind of like a rundown movie set for a Western. Clapboard buildings one and two stories high run the length of Main Street, some with balconies over the sidewalk. It's near a bend in the Sacramento River, and it was founded by Chinese immigrants 106 years ago, including Darwin Kan's grandfather.

DARWIN KAN: Grandpa wasn't the only one, but he was the most influential one.

RUWITCH: In 1915, Lee Bing lived in nearby Walnut Grove. When a fire gutted the Chinese part of town that fall, he and several others decided not to rebuild, but to start anew. They approached a man who owned land about a mile upriver named George Locke. But they had a problem.

KAN: Because of the 1882 Exclusion Act, the Chinese really had no rights.

RUWITCH: And in California, the law banned Asian immigrants from buying land despite all their contributions. By this time, Chinese workers had fueled the gold rush. They helped build the transcontinental railroad. And Chinese labor had transformed parts of this area of the state, known as the California Delta, from marshland into some of the world's most productive farmland. But they still faced heavy discrimination.

Since they couldn't purchase land, Lee Bing and his partners came up with a workaround. They leased a piece of turf from George Locke and built on it a town by Chinese people for Chinese people in the heart of California. They would own the buildings, but not the land.

JAMES MOTLOW: Listen in, you're going to learn something.

RUWITCH: James Motlow is a photographer and local history buff. He lives here. And on a recent Saturday, he gave visitors a tour.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Laughter).

MOTLOW: The next building here is the entire (ph) market.

RUWITCH: We head down Main Street. The buildings are all in varying degrees of disrepair, some with paint peeling, others sagging with angles that aren't quite right anymore. But Motlow says a century ago...

MOTLOW: You had brothels. You had gambling dens. You had opium parlors. It was like a combination between Macau, Chicago during prohibition and Las Vegas, of where whatever happens in Locke stays in Locke.

RUWITCH: The town may have been established and populated by ethnic Chinese, but their businesses catered to farmhands and visitors from afar who were looking for a good time.

MOTLOW: There was a 1919 reporter who came out from Sacramento and did an expose, and he said that Locke was the Monte Carlo of California.

RUWITCH: It was a thriving community, and it had fish markets, herb shops, slaughterhouses, several grocery stores, even a school where kids learned Cantonese.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RUWITCH: To be honest, it takes a vivid imagination to visualize all that today. Main Street runs about the length of a football field. Some of its historic buildings are museums now. One plays a loop of traditional Chinese music to try to evoke that bygone era. Many, though, are empty or shuttered. At one end of Main Street is the Chinese Cultural Shop, open on weekends and run by Clarence Chu.

CLARENCE CHU: My mission is to promote Chinese culture.

RUWITCH: The shop sells things like keychains, Buddha statues, dragon kites.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SQUEAKING)

CHU: It's a hot day, so that...

RUWITCH: Chu and his family once owned all of Locke. They bought it in the late 1970s.

CHU: Actually, my brother-in-law, my sister was interested in investing in real estate.

RUWITCH: But when their bid to develop property around the town failed, they partnered with the county and pivoted.

CHU: What we'd done at that point is to unify the building and land together, which is an important breakthrough. And also at that point, we told everybody about how we correct the historic mistake done to the Chinese immigrants in the early days.

RUWITCH: Almost 90 years after Locke was founded, the residents could finally own the land under their homes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE REVVING)

RUWITCH: Around lunchtime, the sound of motorcycles rumbles through Main Street.

I'm surprised. There's a lot of people coming and going.

CHU: Because we have a bar.

RUWITCH: He's talking about Al the Wop's. The name chosen by the Italian owner reclaims a slur for Italians and highlights the fact that it was historically the only non-Chinese business in town. And it's by far the most happening place here.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAR PATRONS CHATTERING, MUSIC)

RUWITCH: Al's got its start in the 1930s. Lee Bing is said to have sold the building to an Italian bootlegger whose father, decades earlier, had saved a bunch of Chinese passengers and crew from a shipwreck in the San Francisco Bay. It was a thank you gesture from one oppressed group to another, says James Motlow.

MOTLOW: This, to me, is that story of immigrants in America honoring each other, helping each other out. And that's the great - for me, the great fabric - that thread of fabrics that make the American experience so amazing.

And I know we're running out of time, so we...

RUWITCH: Locke is a designated historical landmark, and it's on the National Register of Historic Places, but that doesn't mean funds for refurbishment automatically flow in. It's up to individual landlords, and many haven't invested in their property in years. I stand with Darwin Kan, the grandson of one of the town's founders, outside the house where he lived until he was 40.

KAN: It looked like this, but it was a lot better shape.

RUWITCH: It's a green structure that resembles two bungalows joined at the hip. He doesn't know who lives here now. There's a wire fence around it that's partly overgrown with vegetation.

KAN: We didn't have this oak tree. This is a wild oak tree that just grew. You know, we had an apple tree there. I had a nice fence around here. No, I - yeah, I don't want to even look at it. It just hurts.

RUWITCH: The town has a population of about 70 now from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. That number is a fraction of what it once was. But for the Chinese who founded it, Locke served its purpose. When discriminatory laws were abolished after World War II and better opportunities became available, they moved on. Still, there's an ongoing effort to preserve this piece of Chinese American history. Stuart Walthall is chair of the board of directors of the Locke Foundation, a nonprofit leading those efforts.

STUART WALTHALL: Locke is a legacy to those people who endured the alienation and the poverty and the discrimination and went on to flourish, and we should celebrate it. When thinking of Locke, one doesn't need to be thinking of it as this sad story of a town falling down.

RUWITCH: If you visit Locke, you'll see a living legacy, an authentic one, to what Walthall calls a heroic story.

John Ruwitch, NPR News, Locke, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHROMATICS' "HANDS IN THE DARK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.