Dai Loy Museum

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The Delta town of Locke, the only town in the United States exclusively built by Chinese-Americans for Chinese-Americans, feels like a place lost in time – as if the clocks all stopped a few years before World War II. Nowhere is this feeling more pervasive than at the magnificently preserved Dai Loy Museum.

The Dai Loy was built in 1916 as a gambling house – which, in China, is a perfectly acceptable part of community life and a central fixture of any self-respecting Chinese town. The name Dai Loy means “Big Welcome”, and it is certain that recent immigrants must have felt right at home when they discovered the social gatherings and games of chance that could be enjoyed within. Although gambling at the Dai Loy ceased in 1951 when Sacramento County law enforcement raided the property, the Sacramento River Delta Historical Society has re-created the interior of the Dai Loy with stunning attention to detail, and reopened the building as a museum in 1977. All it needs are people dressed in midcentury clothes, some cigarette smoke, and the sawdust on the floor.

The main gambling room has high ceilings and hanging lamps centered over tables set up for various games of chance. Games included Fan-Tan and Pai gow as well as blackjack and craps. A side room contains a wire cage and small balls used for several Chinese lottery games.

As was the case with gambling houses in China, the Dai Loy served as a bona fide community center and its profits funded many civic projects, including a new building for the Baptist church and the drilling of a new town well. Male townsfolk and farm workers (no women were allowed) went to the Dai Loy to relax, gamble, meet with friends and network for jobs. Although the house’s core customer base was Chinese, other local immigrants with Japanese, Filipino, and Anglo heritage were welcome.

The Dai Loy’s security system against both police raids and theft was low-tech but clever. A lookout, who sat on a bench in front of the house with a view of the two entrances to Main Street, could push a button that set off an alarm above the blackjack table. The Dai Loy was always open, but the house boasted thick doors with bars and multiple locks, and shuttered and barred windows. The light came in from skylights. Dealers lived in the back and upstairs to provide 24-hour protection. Iron knuckles and fabric-wrapped iron pipes served as simple but brutal deterrents for any who attempted to steal from the house.

Nevertheless, the Dai Loy was ready in case these measures were not enough. Dealers could quickly take money sacks from the tables to the money room in the back, where a thick safe kept the profits well protected. The games were played with markers and game pieces made from simple household items such as tea cups, pans, bowls, and buttons so that customers could not be accused of being in possession of gambling paraphernalia in the case of a raid.

The Sacramento River Delta Historical Society has preserved a number of small artifacts rich with evocative detail: cups for the complimentary tea, strips of sandpaper placed on the table legs and walls used for lighting matches, and the wand that lit the kerosene lanterns hanging from the ceiling high above reach. It is this feel for the everyday items of life in Locke that makes the Dai Loy special, and gives you the sense when you visit, that you truly now know “how it was.”

Open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday 12pm-4pm
13951 Main Street, Locke
Reservations: [email protected]

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