Sunday, October 4, 2009

In search of the Bok Bok Man

(NOTE: I happen to speak a little Chinese and happen to know that "Bok" means "white" in Chinese, like "bok choy" means "white vegetable." I just thought you might like to know.)

LOCKE, Calif. – The towns and old plantations of the Sacramento River delta still display the stark contrast between the haves and have-nots of more than a century ago. If we’re paying attention, they also serve to remind us that little has changed.

Nearly forgotten, the old Asian communities of Locke, Isleton and Walnut Grove, among others, remain precariously protected by a series of privately owned levees. A hundred years ago these town were segregated not only between the whites and Asians, but the Asians segregated themselves further – Chinese here, Japanese down the street.

Isleton and Locke remain in various states of disrepair, while Walnut Grove is mostly inhabited and refurbished.

Elsewhere on the delta, we visit the Grand Island Mansion, once the largest private residence in northern California at 24,000 square feet and now a reception and events center. Up the road is the classic art deco Ryde Hotel, where the movie stars once stayed. These, quite obviously, represent the “haves.”

There’s a boat race on the Sacramento River at Isleton the day of our visit, and this has attracted a thousand or so bikers who hang out near the Rio Vista Hotel and the Master Baiter convenience store and bait shop. We head down the road and around the corner maybe a half-mile to the old Chinatown.

Right off the bat, a local man named Ray Valine pedals up on his bike and launches into a brief history of the town, then veers into the day he appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on May 12, 1976. His claim to fame was that he’d shaved his head and rented it out for advertising. He tells us that he made $1,500 on the advertising he sold for that appearance. He shared the night with James Coburn.


Valine tells us he’s an Isleton native but spent years wandering the planet before returning to the delta. It should be noted that his formerly bald head sports a ponytail these days. (He was featured in “The Weekly World” as recently as five years ago.)

The owner of a bed and breakfast inn invites us in to take pictures from his second-story balcony and offers to show us one of the rooms – the room is rented but currently unoccupied. It’s got models of ducks on the ceiling.

About every fourth storefront is occupied, the remainder either for sale, in various states of disrepair, or in the process of being refurbished. Corrugated metal and plywood were the obvious building materials of the day.

We move on to Locke, which is a smaller, grimier version of Isleton. There have been attempts to preserve some of the history and there are some open businesses (including “Al the Wops” bar). Some of the ramshackle homes are occupied, but this is not suburbia (only the attached photos do the place justice).

We also briefly visit Walnut Grove before stopping in at the Ryde Hotel, a pink-stucco art deco structure immediately reminiscent of the 30s and 40s. Conveniently, there’s a 60-year-old restored convertible sports car sitting out front.

The Ryde was built in 1927 in the middle of prohibition and, of course, is rumored to have once been a bordello. This must be in the guidebook for marketing old hotels – “Be sure to claim that the hotel was once used a bordello.” What we are appalled by now somehow becomes quaint if it happened 75 years ago.
The hotel’s marketing people can say it better than I:
“It was an opulent establishment, complete with beauty salon and barbershop … it was also rumored to be a bordello. There was even a trap door in the floor that allegedly opened to reveal a tunnel running under the road to a hidden doorway at the river’s edge. It’s not difficult to imagine the type of nocturnal activities that secret passageway has seen!”
The only things missing are the ghost stories. Oh, wait: There’s a whole book about the Ryde Hotel and ghosts: “Ryde Hotel and the Ghost of Bok Bok Man.” Of course.

Our last stop takes us all the way to the “other side” of the tracks, the Grand Island Mansion. Built in 1917 by orchidist Louis Meyers, it’s now used for weddings and other high-end events. It’s not clear how much use the one-lane bowling alley in the basement gets. You may create your own stories of illicit dalliances, drinking in the speakeasy, gambling in the basements and ghosts in the attic.

Note: Special thanks to Darla and Steve for carting us around.

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