September 08, 2015

Sacramento Delta Trip Part III: Isleton, CA

Sign for historic Main Street in Isleton, CA

A few weeks back, we took a trip to the Sacramento River delta towns of Locke, Walnut Grove, and Isleton, CA.  This post documents our exploration of Isleton.  Like Walnut Grove, Isleton once had a substantially large Chinatown and Japantown.  Ethnically speaking, this town's claim to fame is the Bing Kong Tong building, a colorful structure that was featured on the PBS series, History Detectives.

Entering Isleton, you notice that you drive through the "good" side of town first.  Homes here have manicured lawns, well-tended front yard gardens, and the quintessential white picket fence.  Then, as you cruise down historic Main Street, the scenery progressively becomes "seedier" with more character and noticeable structural decay--this is where the town's businesses are located.  Isleton's Chinatown and Japantown are located at the end of Main Street, away from the white part of town.

 Entering Isleton: the "good" part of town 

Driving down old Main Street 

Driving down Main Street, old and dilapidated buildings catch one's eye--some with new businesses, others are remnants of buildings locked up and closed.  Many cars were parked in spaces, but few people were seen on the streets.  The feel of Isleton is that you are stepping back in time (minus the modern cars and businesses), but tourism is less prominent a feature here than in Locke and Walnut Grove.  We instead felt out of place as tourists.  An ominous feeling pervaded, like we were foreigners who were tolerated by the town's locals.  (FYI: my photos of the non-Chinatown area were taken while driving.)

The "seedier" part of Isleton
Lots of rustic character = neat photos

When we arrived in the Chinatown, we parked and stepped out.  For history lovers, the Bing Kong Tong (see below) may be the main attraction here on Isleton's Main Street.  Background: the Tong Wars were fought between rival tongs (aka Chinese gangs) in the pre-1920s era throughout the West Coast.  Interestingly, Tong buildings operated as community centers, but were basically a commercial front for gang activities.  This pre-1920s time period was like the Chinatown Wild West, since it was before families could establish in the US due to anti-Chinese laws (it was not until the early 1950s that this changed).  The fact the Isleton has a Tong building shows that the Chinese community here was once thriving.

featured on the PBS series, History Detectives

According to the signage next to the Bing Kong Tong, the historic renovation has largely been an ongoing process.  Peeking into one of the windows, one can see modern wooden support beams and insulation added to preserve the building's structure.  The signs below detail, in a scholarly way, both Chinese American and Japanese American history in Isleton and the surrounding area.  

Note the metal walls--
this choice in outer building material was because it is a fire deterrent

Isleton's Japantown and Chinatown history is stated in the informative panels above.  
If you are interested in reading the information here, I took a close-up shot of each panel. 

A colorful Chinatown building

Chinatown buildings; same colorful one as above
(photo taken from across the street)

Where are the Japantown photos?
We drove through Isleton to find its Japantown, but it appears that few buildings are now labeled as such--or at least to those who casually drive by.  Due to this, and the feeling of being a foreigner (with stares from locals), we did not pursue an exploration of the adjacent Japantown.  There was a temple, I believe, down a side street that we saw while cruising by.

 Sidewalk near the Chinatown and Japantown areas 

The lighting was harsh in mid-day and the weather hot, but the photos here captured the desolation and solitary small-town feel that we experienced in Isleton.  

Looking back, my favorite photos from this Sacramento River delta-towns trip were from Isleton--although we did not exactly feel welcome there as tourists.  The run-down buildings, abiding stillness, and various states of decay left an imprint on me, a belated gift from this tiny rural town.

Locke and Walnut Grove were more exciting and fun to explore on foot, and were undoubtedly more tourist friendly.  It is not a surprise that I enjoyed the visit to each town for different reasons: Locke for its rich ethnic history and decaying, funky feel; and Walnut Grove for its quaintness and warmth, plus its history.

For history buffs, each town--Walnut Grove, Locke, and Isleton--offers something slightly different and unique to the visitor, although the drive is all but 10 miles apart.  A trip to all three towns can be completed in a few hours, and is worth the drive.  Highly recommended if you love rural life, historic sites, and wandering around semi-deserted towns.

- History of the Tong Wars:
- Isleton Chamber of Commerce:
- Historic Chinatown and Japantown in Isleton:
- California's old Japantowns:
- A cool Flickr feed of Sacramento delta towns:

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Part 1 of this Sacramento delta trip to Walnut Grove can be read here.
See Part 2, our trip to Locke, here.

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