Delta Dreams 

America's first Chinese town comes alive in Shawna Yang Ryan's novel, Water Ghosts.

"Strange happenings ... can take place in a town built on tragedy," muses a character in Shawna Yang Ryan's debut novel, Water Ghosts. The town in question is Locke, and these days it's not quite a ghost town, but — with fewer than ninety residents and many unoccupied old structures — it feels like one. In 1928, when most of Ryan's novel takes place, Locke was a bustling rarity: not a Chinatown but a Chinese town, the only American town actually founded by Asians. UC Berkeley graduate Ryan, a former Fulbright Scholar who was born in nearby Sacramento and who will be at Mrs. Dalloway's (2904 College Ave., Berkeley) on April 24, found it an irresistible setting for her lyrical tale of race, sex, loss, and memory.

Inspired by the works of Maxine Hong Kingston, Ryan wanted to write fiction set in Northern California locales, as Kingston does. "I recalled a small, quirky town I had visited as a child — Locke — and when I began researching it, I discovered the history that had turned Locke into a bachelor community and created interesting gender and racial dynamics: Men outnumbered women twenty to one, and a majority of the women in town were white prostitutes. It seemed an important story to tell," said Ryan.

After a 1915 fire destroyed the Chinatown in Walnut Grove, one of the two warring factions from that Chinatown decided to found its own town a mile away. Locke is named after landowner George Locke, who leased the property to a Cantonese businessmen's association. Ryan set Water Ghosts in the wake of the US Immigration Act of 1924, "which essentially put a stop to immigration from Asia." According to this draconian legislation, Chinese men already in America could not be joined by their wives.

In the novel, Locke is a "two-road town" where "tule fog presses against the windows and obscures the faint dawn light." The puzzling arrival of three tattered-looking Chinese women in a small boat tips many townspeople's lives off their axes, especially after a gambling-hall owner recognizes one of the women as his wife, whom he had left ten years before in Guangdong: "She lives in China; this he is sure of, because he sends her money each month." Yet here she stands, with "skin the color of a fading bruise, blues pushing through yellow. ... Her small bound feet peek out from under the hem of her pants. ... Her hair falls from her shoulders in snags, knotted like lost nets at the bottom of the sea."

Writing about this couple, Ryan drew upon an old Cantonese folk rhyme that warns parents against marrying their daughters to "Gold Mountain men," aka men who traveled to America: "Out of ten years, he will not be in bed for one./The spider will spin webs on top of the bedposts." 7:30 p.m., free.


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