A conversation with Bitter Melon photographer James Motlow

Bitter MelonIn 1971, photographer James Motlow moved on a whim to the small town of Locke in the Sacramento Delta. It didn’t take long for him to notice that he was one of just a few town residents who was not Chinese. He learned that Locke was established as a place where Chinese and Chinese Americans could live and work without harassment during an era of intense prejudice. It took some time for James to be accepted by his neighbors, but after months of living in close proximity, eating meals together, and repairing his elderly neighbors’ houses, the community let him in; and many residents even allowed him to take their portraits.

In 1987, James and writer Jeff Gillenkirk put together a book, Bitter Melon: Inside America’s Last Rural Chinese Towna collection of oral histories and portraits from Locke. I recently spoke with James about his favorite portraits in Bitter Melon, the town’s upcoming centennial, and his move back to Locke after living in San Francisco for over thirty years.

For those who aren’t familiar with the history of the town of Locke, what makes Locke so special? When we say it’s America’s last rural Chinese community, what does that mean?

The fascination with Locke is justified for very good reason. It’s the only Chinese town built with Chinese money for the Chinese who were excluded from owning land in California as well as the rest of the nation. Locke was started in 1915 when the fire happened in the Chinese section of the adjacent town of Walnut Grove. A group of businessmen who couldn’t afford to rebuild in Walnut Grove had a verbal agreement with George Locke, whose father had purchased 490 acres of land as an investment. George Locke, Sr. was a rug merchant in Sacramento. His sons farmed the land in the Delta. They agreed to take out just about an acre of land initially to build the main street. Between 1915 and 1916 they built a series of twelve buildings.

Unfortunately, most of the Chinese communities up and down the river as well as in many communities in existing towns, such as San Francisco’s Chinatown, had all suffered. Like in San Francisco and Walnut Grove, most of the Chinese communities were built adjacent to or actually in the middle of an existing community. The unsafety of a Chinese person leaving Chinatown to go to North Beach where he could be beaten up and killed… So that’s one of the things that makes Locke unique of all the towns up and down the river. Locke was the only town that was built as a freestanding, complete, functioning town, meaning that you had grocery stores, you had restaurants, you had gas stations—well, the gas pumps were outside the grocery store. All the other communities had burned down or gone through some sort of decay. Like many Western towns, they were built not for permanence. Locke was really in a sense not built for permanence. It just continued on. That’s part of what makes Locke unique: its foundation and its continuation through the modern era. It’s still standing. You can go see it. You can get a sense of it. The best thing to do for anybody before coming to the town is of course reading about Locke, and Bitter Melon tells the story of Locke in the voices of the people. You really get a sense of what these people experienced, the challenges that they faced.

bm3The thing I tell people about is: imagine this town in the 1920s during Prohibition when the town was really at its most dramatic height. Riverboats would come up and down the Sacramento River, bringing people from San Francisco, Stockton, Sacramento. And the local farmworkers and business owners would drive along the rickety old roads of the the levees into Locke. And so on a hot summer night, you’d have over 2,000 people in town. Every building would be lit up; everything was just alive with action. It was kind of a great combination of Chicago during Prohibition, and Las Vegas as well as Macau for the intensity of gambling that went on. It was essentially a completely wide open town with all sorts of vices, everything from prostitution to illegal liquor, opium dens, you had the gambling houses. Gambling was a major portion of the town at that point. Again, because this is not adjacent to a non-Chinese population, Locke didn’t have to adjust itself to make amends to a non-Chinese population that butted up to it, like San Francisco Chinatown. But it also as it grew into the thirties, many families came and the other buildings were built. So by the thirties had become a truly vibrant community unto itself.

Something that Bitter Melon illuminates for me is that it’s a history of creating this town as a haven, not only for physical safety but also values and perspectives that differ from the Anglo-American dominant culture. For example, in the preface to the book you mention that gambling was recreational, and not seen as a moral failing. 

You know, just like anybody who comes to somewhere new, you make the best of your situation. And the Chinese in Locke showed amazing adaptability and resourcefulness and cleverness in order to figure out how to navigate this very treacherous place that had been presented to them. They had to collect themselves for general protection, which they did, and they figured ways to amazingly thrive. Locke, for me, is one of the best examples of this because they figured out how to deal with all—you know, people love to gamble, sure. Let’s make a profit from people who love gambling. Prostitution, sure, you know? We’re going to have to figure out a way in order to have these brothels here in a way that can benefit—and they did benefit—the people, as well as opium dens, which was, you know, there’s a tolerance and then there is a way of exploiting that tolerance so it can actually help the community. And so Locke had very much the Wild West feel of a town, you had warring tongs, but it was also a thriving community because it was isolated, because it was all Chinese, things could happen that couldn’t happen literally anywhere else. You say, “Oh, we can’t have that here.” Well, you can have it in our neighborhood, and we’ll make a profit. It was practical, and why not? If you’re faced with everything they were faced with, you figure out ways in order to grow and enrich and stabilize your families. So that’s what we tell in Bitter Melon.

You left Locke for San Francisco in 1979, but moved back in 2010. What made you want to return? 

What made me move back was actually my experience throughout the seventies. And even though I moved down to the Bay Area in 1979, I was always coming back to Locke just to reconnect with the Delta, which was always my special place. Locke was when I could sit out behind my house that I had in the seventies and I became good friends with all my neighbors. All of them were in their sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, so everybody was essentially retired. It was the perfect place. You look at these people and they seem to have an idyllic life in so many ways. Yes, they had worked very hard and the houses were quite cold in the winter and such; but during most of the year, everybody just seemed to have a delightful time. They had their rhythms, going out to the garden, they’d go fishing, they would sit on the porch and chat with one another. There was no crime whatsoever. There was a harmony to the town, even though there were factions in the town. Some old guys wouldn’t talk to some other guys because they were part of the wrong tong and they didn’t like them. But, for the most part, it was an idyllic place to be. So when I retired from my job, the Delta was the place to go back to. I’m so lucky to find a place to move back into Locke. To me, it doesn’t get any better than being there.

In Bitter Melon, you describe the town as “so small, so poor, yet so orderly beneath a collapsing façade.” How does the Locke of the 1970s or the eighties, when you were taking these oral histories and portraits, differ compared to the Locke of today?

The Locke of today is no longer a Chinese community. It’s a town of various ethnic groups from Filipino to Hispanic, Anglo grouping of different ages and such. There are a few, five people who are descended from the families who originally lived in Locke. So it’s changed in that way dramatically.

In a sense, it’s not that much different from when I lived there in the seventies. The buildings are still slowly decaying. There still is a vibrant community of people like myself who live in Locke and care greatly about the town, and are making strides through the Locke Foundation to do what we can to stabilize the deterioration of the town. It’s an ongoing struggle. We’re trying to work with owners to rebuild them, but it costs a lot. So there’s a variety of ideas out there which we hope to accomplish, like purchasing buildings like the Star Theatre, which we want to make into a restoration project for the history of Locke.

The crucial thing that was happening back in the seventies that was frightening was that the sewer system has been replaced and upgraded and is no longer a threat to the demise of the community. The best part is that it’s been stabilized, and hopefully with increased public awareness and involvement, we can keep it going forward for the next hundred years. And that’s one of the things that we’re hoping to do with the hundredth anniversary: that we can start to incorporate more public awareness and public involvement to use Locke as a platform in order to expand upon this rich history of the Chinese involvement in California and America.

From our previous correspondence it sounds like you’re still taking oral histories and photographs of people in Locke. Is that true?

Some. I’ve been taking a number of pictures of my new neighbors. And I’ve been working on a building documentation, which I completed for the Locke Foundation, documenting every single building from as many angles that we can, so we now have a visual record of what the physical structures actually are. And, yes, Jeff and I are still researching and finding out more and more unique stories about the town, you know, the real backstories about the town.

It seems that—this is not verified, this is speculation on my part—but it seems like the earthquake and fire in San Francisco disrupted many of what we would call the criminal elements, the tong elements that were very involved with everything from the prostitution to opium. And those various tongs then essentially moved their operations up into the Sacramento Delta around Stockton and Sacramento. In Sylvia Sun Minnick’s book about the Chinese community in Stockton, there’s a number of stories from the Stockton records right around the early teens of these tong wars that were happening there. And I think those tongs played a part—this is again my speculation, we’re still trying to research all this—in the fire that happened in Walnut Grove and the movement up into Locke.

The problem that Jeff and I have always had is that we don’t read Chinese, we don’t speak Chinese. So a lot of these documents we’re trying to uncover, we can’t read! But we do have people that are helping, so we’re moving forward. As like any project, the more that you peel back, the more that comes up, and there are very interesting stories out there.

In Bitter Melon, do you have a favorite story behind a portrait that you took?

bm2Well, you know, I was very close to everyone there, so it’s hard to say that one was more than the other. But the person who really was like my third grandmother was Jone Ho Leong, who lived across Key Street from me, which was like thirty feet or so. She would simply walk into my house all the time, bringing me stuff. It was just how it was. She posted all of four feet high, robust little tank of a woman who was such a dynamo, she was just so charming. All the photographs from when she would invite me in and cook for me, those photos that I have of her in her house and her sitting with her kids’ portraits up on the walls, just that wonderful face of hers where she’s just looking at you. I think of her story, and she was just so wonderful, great to see it all in her face, her eyes, her forehead, her hair. She had a really amazing story coming from China, and the strength of that woman—that, and the cover image of Bing Fai Chow on the porch overlooking Main Street. He was a very dear person to me, too.

Any last words?

Come and wander around, take a look. Carry the book about and you’ll see what’s changed and what hasn’t.