About Locke 1928

Husband and wife reunited after ten years; young prostitute in love with the preacher's daughter; psychic madam who watches it all; shocking discovery that destroys a town. Set in a Sacramento Delta Chinese farming community, Locke 1928 chronicles the effect on its citizens of separation and betrayal, laws and immigration, and what happens when a Chinese ghost myth becomes real. Sophisticated reading of human passion, imagined history, recuperation of unacknowledged American lives, and deep meditation on the meeting of east and west, Shawna Yang Ryan's first novel is a true tour de force.


Child of parents who met during the Vietnam War when her father was stationed in Taiwan, Shawna Yang Ryan received a M.A. from the University of California, Davis, and teaches at City College of San Francisco. In 2002, she was a Fulbright Scholar in Taiwan, and in 2006 received the Maurice Prize for Fiction. Locke 1928 is her first book.

Critical Praise

Shawna Yang Ryan writes with even frightening intimacy about: preachers, bootleggers, prostitutes, ghosts, and an utterly convincing soothsaying madame. Every word she writes about their storied, haunted, tule-fogbanked Sacramento River town rings absolutely true. Savor Locke 1928, this brilliant incarnation of the California novel, and you'll be amply, richly rewarded. Just to read it will ruin you for Steinbeck.

—John Beckman, author of The Winter Zoo

[Locke 1928] is beautifully written, dreamy and evocative. The book imagines a town in which life is haunted by desire and pain; where premonitions of future despair are tenuously kept at bay by gin, sex, and occasionally a tenderness that looks something like love. I don't know whether the novel is true to what life was like in Locke, but it draws very effectively on historical Chinese beliefs about the power and dangers of sexual attraction.

—Beverly Bossler, author of Powerful Relations: Kinship, Status, and the State in Sung China (960-1279)

Shawna Yang Ryan's novel casts the heyday of a misty American river town, once full of Chinese bachelors, in a feminine light. Hers is a sensuous and sinewy swirl of men missing women, and women embracing men. She unwinds tales of shame and longing among the dollar-a-day men from China— the pear pickers and asparagus pullers with "aching wrists" and "crooked fingers." All the while, their consorts race between loving and loathing, heat and regret, myth and destiny, abandonment and sadness, in a quest to search out meaning 'on the other side of the fog.' Her lyrical prose meanders lightly in an appealing weave of the gossipy and the ghostly. Ryan's vivid imaginings offer a moving and memorable complement to the lives of the young men who came from China nearly a century ago with their transpacific dreams. After decades of toil in the Sacramento delta, many of them found separation, yellowed walls and then death, alone.

—Todd Carrell, Writer/Producer of "American Chinatown"

In Shawna Yang Ryan's finely written first novel, interior and exterior voices conflict, merge, and diverge again, creating a pattern of flight and contact that mirror the strange socialtity that is Locke in 1928, a community of immigrants and exiles. We are given not only history but also history's imprint on private psyches. The conflation between private and public memory, the paradoxes of desire, and the uneven dynamics of power at the intersection of racial and sexual difference all contribute to make the characters of Locke 1928 at once haunting and seductive.

—Anne Anlin Cheng, author of The Melancholy of Race

Ryan writes with the spare and disciplined prose of the committed artist, at once conjuring and compressing, urging us to feel what she feels and yet trusting us get there as quickly. Locke 1928 is a terrific and promising performance.

—Daniel Duane, author of Caught Inside, A Surfer's Year on the California

Locke 1928 cloaks the muscular brutality of the treatment of early Asians in America in a style reminiscent of classic Chinese brush painting. Passion between a preacher's daughter and a prostitute, the reconciliation of a husband and wife apart ten years, a violent chain of separations and reunions, and a final scene that engraves lost Chinese wife Ming Wai's "triumph"—this is the stuff born of an exotic Sacramento Delta locale that is still of a distant past.

This is a very impressive debut, and Shawna Yang Ryan has bright future written all over her. Remember her name—you'll be seeing it often over the next few decades.

—Jack Hicks, co-editor of The Literature of California

Artfully woven, exquisitely modulated, walking a master's line between ancient Chinese myth and the grit of immigrant life in the Sacramento Delta, Locke 1928 tells the unforgettable story of a town brought to its knees by loneliness and longing. Complicated, compassionate, haunting, Shawna Ryan's novel feels more like tapestry than words on paper, her prose less like sentences, and more like song.

—Pam Houston, author of Cowboys Are My Weakness

Shawna Ryan's Locke 1928 is a multi-layered marvel of a book. The prose is a delight, the characters fascinating, the story richly imagined and heart-rending. This first novel of grace and substance presages a notable literary career for Shawna Ryan.

—John Lescroart, author of The Hunt Club

A beautiful debut, Locke 1928 opens up a page in history that sometimes is forgotten by both cultures that once coexisted in Locke, a Sacramento Chinese farming town. By mapping out the familiar and the strange territories of human passion and retelling the old myths, Shawna Yang Ryan tells a story that, in the end, is about how America was truly made.

—Yiyun Li, author of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

Rich in sensuous detail, and rich also in interwoven imagery of fire and water, of destruction and creation, Shawna Yang Ryan's impressive debut novel Locke 1928, gives voice both to the community and to the individuals who make up the Locke of her title, a small Sacramento River delta town where Chinese immigrants, Chinese-Americans and white Americans intermingled and sometimes intermarried. The novel seems modest in its geographical scope and in its cast of characters, but it's actually quite audacious in the way it experiments with its genres—simultaneously a history, an historical fiction, a realistic portrayal, an example of magical realism, and a ghost story. It also happens to be a flat-out fine read!

—Ron Loewinsohn, author of Magnetic Fields

Shawna Ryan is a gifted writer who has a great feeling for the language and its natural lyrical possibilities. She is a writer who deserves to be taken seriously.

—Clarence Major

Memory, mystery and myth fuse in this well-spun tale of real life in an Old Chinese town on the Sacramento River Delta. If you've never seen Locke, you'll want to visit once you've read Shawna Yang Ryan's sumptuous first novel. Locke 1928 mingles concrete descriptions of the everyday with highly charged eroticism and mysterious yet plausible renderings of the interior lives of displaced sojourners in faraway Gold Mountain. This is a real trip: an imagining in fiction of an historical experience recoverable perhaps in no other way.

—Forrest G. Robinson, author of The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain

Many stories remain to be told. The delta part of the California-Asian world still sits there, and Shawna Ryan went into it, even lived it for a while. Her writing is crafty, sinuous, and strong with evocative color and smell--she's good on odors-- and on physical details, both heavy and light. (There is much adult physicality—heavy drinking, puking—the story goes way into a juicy territory that it is not so sexual as it is bodily inside and out). Shawna is precise on society and history and persons. I have a deep respect for this work, and no doubt as to her powerful future potential.

—Gary Snyder

Like the murky waters of the surrounding Delta, a hunger for life surges and recedes across Locke: labyrinth and gated memory palace of dream and desire at the epicenter of the Chinese-American experience.

—Kevin Starr, Professor of History, University of Southern California

Locke 1928 is an auspicious debut that not only entertains, but opens our eyes to a rich, poignant piece of Chinese-American history.

—Gail Tsukiyama, author of Dreaming Water

In this lyrical debut novel, Shawna Yang Ryan evokes the hard labor, deep losses, and loving redemptions of Chinese immigrants, those who loved them, and California itself. A startling, rich, and remarkable work that echoes long after the book is closed.

—Louis S. Warren, author of Buffalo Bill's America: William Cody and the Wild West Show

This book captures a unique moment in California history, when boats, 'each represent[ing] a Delta produce,' go out on the Sacramento River to reenact an ancient Chinese myth. But it's much more than a historical chronicle; it's a beautifully written first novel, of haunting relationships and haunted inner lives.

—Alan Williamson, author of Almost a Girl: Male Writers and Female Identification

Those looking to find in Shawna Yang Ryan's first novel, "Locke 1928," a clear, straightforward history of the Chinese immigrant experience in the early 20th century may be disappointed on that point, but quite possibly mesmerized... Though Ryan weaves in actual history, fact and fiction become increasingly blurred as the novel progresses, leaving the reader with something more like a ghost story than historical fiction... the very absurdity or unusualness of [her] story --the characters, setting, structure and even the metaphors -- become part of its appeal. After a while, the one-foot-in-regular-narrative, one-foot-in-spectral-myth feeling becomes intriguing. At times imperfect and imbalanced, these same characteristics also help to make "Locke 1928" a curiously distinctive read.

—San Francisco Chronicle

Although the tale at first appears to be a realistic portrait of immigration, the tables are soon turned on the reader as myth and superstition take human form. Also particularly touching is the relationship between Chloe and Sofia. Ryan's prose is delectable, each sentence carefully crafted, so that the novel reads like a prose-poem.

—Michelle Lin, New York Brain Terrain

"...Even with her hands over her ears, Popy hears voices. Through her twenties, the other abilities had intensified: now she can hear the people crying out from their graves or back from the future, and can sniff out a person's secrets."

Welcome to the wistful, image-ridden, seductive, inspiring, and destructive world of Chinese immigrants living in a small California town in the early 1900s. Meet characters who dare to dream big and find pleasure only in ephemeral moments, such as sexual connections or the drama following the arrival of two strange Chinese women. Each character's story weaves between past and present, such as Richard Fong's vision of starting his own gambling business. How surprised he will be by the arrival of his wife, Ming Wai, whom he has not seen in many, many years? Chloe, a teenage white prostitute, describes the horrific outcome of a New York visit and the acceptance she found here. Or perhaps one might be intrigued by the preacher and his wife who shelter the Chinese newcomers and hear their 'stories,' knowing well that who they are in this town is all that really matters for the well-bring of all. And what does a terrible disaster mean for those who died and those who survive?

The stories in Locke 1928 are uniquely portrayed by this very talented writer. Vivid and surreal imagery of water, fire and air parallels the changing world of Chinese immigrants trying to forge a new world that entices and frightens them by turn. Ryan's evocative descriptions are poetic, elucidating how these proud, strong men and women see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and dream America. A beautiful first novel.

—Viviane Crystal, The Historical Novels Review, May, 2007

LOCKE-This really is a "ghost town." One of the elders has seen a filmy Chinese man sitting on a bench along Main Street and an apparition who draws in the dirt on moonlight summer nights.

So it was perfect that Shawna Yang Ryan, then 23, came here to work on her first novel, a ghost story.

She took an apartment above Main Street for a month in the late summer of 2000. She never saw spirits but heard inexplicable footsteps in a vacant space downstairs that was, long ago, a gambling den.

Seven years later, Ryan returns for the day a published author. Her debut novel, "Locke 1928" (El León Literary Arts, $15, 234 pages), was fleshed out in America's last authentic rural Chinese town, which sits in the heart of the Sacramento River Delta about 30 miles south of Sacramento. She fashioned characters she imagined living and working in the tumble-down clapboard buildings that surrounded her.

This is how she describes in "Locke 1928" the morning of the community's much- anticipated Dragon Boat Festival:

The children will collect at the southern end of Main Street, near the slough and railroad tracks. The domestic quiet of Second Street slinks into the chaos of Main. Under the sycamores and willows, cars line the one-lane road. The stores have lifted their blinds and opened their doors to the raised wooden sidewalks that fall in and out of light beneath the balconies.

It is nine and the fog is gone.

It was curiosity about her own heritage that brought Ryan here in the first place.

"I wanted to write a story about Chinese women that took place in the past, because a lot of books I was reading had Chinese women characters but took place in the present day. And I said, where is the Chinese American woman in history? That's when I discovered the immigration laws -- the exclusion acts -- and understood why there were so few stories about Chinese women in America in the late 1800s, early 1900s. The laws kept them from being here.

"But I was determined to have Chinese women in my story and decided that a nice metaphor for that would be ghosts," Ryan says over Chinese food in the town's oldest building.

There is no simple way to describe the plot of "Locke 1928." It is, in part, the ephemeral story of three bedraggled Chinese women who suddenly appear on the Sacramento River. There, too, are the married couple reunited after many years and a prostitute whose heart is torn between the handsome manager of a local gaming establishment and the preacher's daughter and then there is the madam, who is psychic.

Ryan blends fictional characters with real people from Locke's past.

"She can imagine herself in many, many, many different lives, and she's not afraid to take big stylistic risks," says Pam Houston, author of "Cowboys Are My Weakness" and director of creative writing at the University of California, Davis, where Ryan was one of her graduate students. "A lot of writers get there eventually, but to have it in your first book is unusual.

"I love how brave she was with the form -- the multiple narrators and such vastly different narrators," Houston says. "Anybody who can write a book like that at 23, the sky's the limit. I think she can win a Nobel Prize, quite honestly."

Ryan, who was born in Sacramento and grew up in Fair Oaks, presented an early draft of "Locke 1928" as her master's thesis. She was midway through the graduate program when she took the apartment in Locke.

"I turn the adage 'write what you know' into 'you better know what you write,' so I wanted to make sure that if I don't write from my own experience, I want to experience what I write.

"I learned so many things. It was definitely a new experience for me, growing up in the suburbs where there's a stereotype that you don't ever get to know your neighbors. But the day my dad dropped me off here, we went to Al's (Place) to get a drink before he left, and someone said, 'Oh, you're the girl who's going to write the book.' "

Ryan, a lithe brunette with a dusting of freckles, knew in elementary school that she would be a writer. She graduated from Mira Loma High School and its demanding International Baccalaureate program in 1994, and earned an English degree from the University of California, Berkeley.

During college, she says, she became more aware of her mixed heritage. Her Chinese mother, Ellen, and American-born father, Mike (of German and Irish ancestry), met when he was stationed on Taiwan during the Vietnam War.

"I started thinking about those types of stories, and I thought I would do something local, being from Sacramento, but I didn't know much about the history of the Chinese in Sacramento. I remembered coming to Locke as a kid, and suddenly there was a 'click.' I had thought of it as this place where we went on weekends and my parents would buy me a little toy. Suddenly, there was a connection, that this whole area, the Delta, has a really rich Chinese history."

She packed her laptop computer, cooking utensils, a sleep pad and books, paid the $300 rent and moved in.

Locke now has 80 residents. Only a dozen are of Chinese ancestry, in a town built by and for the Chinese.

Its history dates to 1915, when fire destroyed the Chinatown district in nearby Walnut Grove. Some residents decided to move upriver onto land leased from farmer George Locke. They named their new town Lockeport, later shortening it to Locke.

The 1913 California Alien Land Act prohibited them from owning land. The restriction continued even after the act was declared unconstitutional in 1952, and well into modern times, because the town was never subdivided. It wasn't until 2004, after intervention by the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, that residents finally were free to buy the land beneath the homes and businesses they owned.

One of the town's founding businessmen, Bing Lee (who appears as a character in "Locke 1928"), joined with other local merchants to build the community's first houses. He also opened a general store.

During the 1920s, the era of Ryan's book, Locke was a booming burg of illicit activity. Whites owned and staffed the brothels (respectable residents, such as the town's religious leader, would not have approved of Chinese prostitutes), and Chinese ran the gaming halls, speakeasies and opium dens. That was the night life. By day, the mostly male residents worked in nearby farm fields and built the river levees.

"It's remarkable that she brings those aspects, both the profane and the secular, whores and ministers, to life in this book," says Jack Hicks, lead editor of the anthology "Literature of California" and a UC Davis English professor. "I think Shawna is a real talent and an interesting young writer. 'Locke 1928,' once you get into it, is a really fascinating novel about a well-hidden dimension of California and Central Valley life."

Today, Locke is a National Historic Landmark, and efforts are under way to shore up and protect the buckling, sagging original buildings that give the place its character. The town has a new sewer system, and sprinkler systems snake in and around the historic clapboard structures.

Dogs wander freely among the tourists who duck into side alleys to explore the little town. On weekends, bikers from all over meet at Al's, the legendary cafe known for its steaks, peanut butter and dollar bills on the barroom ceiling. New art galleries are planned for Main Street, and a one-time boarding house on the north end of town will someday be a museum.

During the month she lived here, Ryan spent mornings writing in her apartment and the afternoons sitting outside the grocery store, listening to the locals come and go.

She sometimes was a little more adventurous.

"I'm the kind of person who likes to follow rules," she says, "but I'm going to be a writer, so I need to channel a brave spirit. I gave myself permission to do things I wouldn't normally do. I have to admit, there was a 'no trespassing' sign on the orchard over there, and I trespassed.

"I tried to explore as much as I could, peeking into windows of old buildings, not anyone's house, and walking behind the town, the gardens, the slough. I also tried to swim in the river to see what that was like. It was very murky. I couldn't see anything. I jumped in, and right out."

Ryan, who in 2002 went to Taiwan as a Fulbright scholar, lives in Berkeley and teaches writing and composition at City College of San Francisco. She's writing her second novel, which is set against a real-life uprising in 1947 Taiwan. She intends to work on it this summer in Vietnam.

"I want to be somewhere I don't know anybody," she says.

Read the entire article at: http://www.sacbee.com/107/story/166746.html

—Sacramento Bee

Locke is a real place on the Sacramento River, founded in 1915 after a fire broke out in the Chinese section of nearby Walnut Grove--the Chinese left and brokered a deal to build a town in the delta and work in the pear orchards and asparagus fields. From this piece of almost-forgotten history, Shawna Yang Ryan has written a mystical, lyrical, gritty novel that is absolutely mesmerizing. In 1928, Richard Fong is a gambling house manager, who had left his wife Ming Wei 10 years earlier to seek his fortune in America. His lover, Chloe, is a "whitegirl" prostitute in Poppy See's brothel. Sofia, daughter of a Chinese minister and a whitewoman, is in love with Chloe, as much as a young teenager can be. One day, during a river festival, in the middle of unusual weather, three women appear on a boat out of a bank of fog and dark skies, three women who soon upset the town. One of them is Richard's wife, Ming Wei; the other two quickly become the object of overwhelming and sadly comical male attentions. While this may sound like a soap opera, it is anything but; instead, it's a story of longing and deprivation, of water ghosts and lonely men, of marriage promises and dashed dreams.

The novel moves from America to China and back, between 1928 and 1865, entwining memory, myth and reality. Ryan is adept with details that define character--Richard keeps his hair longer than fashion because it shows the luxury to wash and brush it. Sofia and Chloe, when they cross paths during the day, perform a delicate dance of brushed sleeves and public indifference. Poppy not only sees the future but discovers she can smell the dead stealing life from the living. When Corlissa, the preacher's wife, teaches the two new women penmanship, "[her] alphabet is nearly all lines and angles, while they manage to soften the letters, make them glide like arched bird bodies." The reality of a Chinese immigrant's life is summed up in Uncle Happy: "He has been thinking of opium, the occasional ball of it pressed into the bowl of his pipe. The intense desire followed by guilt and an impassioned letter home, yet another for his wife [he has] not seen since 1866."

Locke 1928 is, simply, exquisite writing--"the startled egrets stretch their wings and lift up like incandescent sheets being shaken to dry"--ethereal and rough, mysterious and earthy. This is a book to seek out and to treasure.

—Marilyn Dahl, Shelf-Awareness

Past runs through present in 'Water Ghosts'

By Robert Braile, Globe Correspondent | May 13, 2009

On a languid June morning in 1928, the mouth of the Sacramento River shrouded in mist, three desolate Chinese women suddenly appear on a small boat off the shore of Locke, Calif., a farming village.

Their mysterious arrival sends a shudder through the community, a remote place of sin and sanctity hard on the delta, where Chinese immigrants are forging new lives in a new land. But they remain steeped in the mythologies of their native country, which pull them relentlessly into their pasts. To these immigrants, the women are ominous.

In her notably assured debut, "Water Ghosts," Shawna Yang Ryan explores the uneasy confluence of assimilation and ancestry in the lives of these immigrants. Their pasts ultimately prevail, returning like ghosts and circulating like water, shaping their lives in ways good and bad but always fated. These are foretold lives, predestined to be what they have been.

They are also interwoven lives. One woman, Ming Wai, is the wife of gambling hall manager Richard Fong. He left her behind in China 10 years ago, rapt with stories of America and seeking to "remake himself all the way to the core" rather than take over his father's shoe sole business. He has since had an affair with brothel owner Poppy See and is now seeing one of her prostitutes, Chloe Howell, a white teenager.

The triangulation of Richard's relationships is further complicated when Chloe and another teenager, Sofia Lee, fall in love. Sofia is the rebellious daughter of Chinese preacher Howar Lee and his white wife, Corlissa, a troubled couple who take in the other boat women, Sai Fung and So Wai. So Wai is also searching for her husband.

Ryan is artful in examining matters of race, class, gender, sexual preference, and culture, resisting the doctrinaire and prescriptive in her writing, and avoiding any politicization of the issues. Her prose undulates gracefully, exuding an impressionistic, almost hallucinogenic mood, as if the story is taking place in a dream.

"But you didn't have these words - only a faint sense of the image and the feeling that arose. You couldn't even really think about your pulse, as you felt it in your chest and neck and wrist and thighs, or what your skin-flush in the spring morning sun meant, because this you had never even conceived of: that a girl could love a girl," the narrator says, describing in a provocative shift to the second-person point of view Sofia's feelings upon first seeing Chloe. The novel is otherwise told in third-person vignettes.

As elegant are the ways in which the past reclaims the present. Ryan's subtle use of water and ghosts as intertwined motifs of the ancestral is drawn from Chinese myths and deftly crafted, while her vignettes from prior years are seamlessly placed.

The novel pulses, with the past continually surging against the present until the present yields. In "Water Ghosts," Ryan has distinguished herself as a writer to watch.

Robert Braile reviews regularly for the Globe.

Locke 1928
By Shawna Yang Ryan

In March of 2008 the El León edition was sold out and went out of print.

Locke 1928 was reprinted by Penguin Books in 2009, and retitled as Water Ghosts.


El León;
1st ed.; (May 1, 2007)
Fiction/Novel/Historical novel

Related Link: http://www.shawnayangryan.com

Shawna Yang Ryan