June 04, 2009

Frank Quan's China Camp

click photo for full-size image
photo by Donald Kinney

Frank Quan is the sole survivor of a Chinese shrimping community that a century ago numbered 500 along this single slender stretch of the Marin County shoreline -- before prejudiced politics drove it to extinction. Considered a nuisance by competing Greek and Italian fleets, the Chinese were driven out by a series of restrictive government regulations. But the Quan family stayed on. And like his father, Frank Quan inhabits a ramshackle beachside house on what is now state parkland, most days still trolling for his elusive grass shrimp.

In the 1860s, hundreds of Cantonese-speaking shrimpers spread out all along the 550-square-mile bay. By 1875, there were 30 such shrimping villages. One of the largest was at what is now China Camp State Park near San Rafael. With a population of 500, the camp, known as Wa Jen Ha Lio, or Chinese Fish Camp, was so large it had its own lawyer, teacher, temple and doctor.

For nearly half a century, the Chinese vessels, with their narrow hulls and single-batten lugsails, were a fixture in the shallow mudflats where the shrimp gathered to feed and spawn. Most years, the Chinese harvested 5 million to 8 million pounds of shrimp, most of which was dried and shipped to markets in Hawaii and Asia.

The federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 drastically reduced the number of women immigrating to the United States from China, changing the tenor of family life at the camps. By 1901, California had banned shrimping at the height of each season. Later, the state prohibited export of the shrimp outright, effectively driving the Chinese fishermen out of business.

After the fishing fleets were driven out, Quan's grandfather, Quan Ho Quock, hung on at China Camp by running a general store. Later, the family opened a restaurant and rented boats. Frank Quan's mother became a wise-cracking local character who smoked cigars and spoke perfect Cantonese, Quan's two brothers and sister left China Camp, but Quan -- after a stint in the Navy -- followed in his father's footsteps and eventually went back to shrimping, using new methods approved by the government.

For now, Quan can't say how many shrimping years he has left. Still, there's no talk of retirement. And China Camp remains the only home he's ever known. The place still possesses a sense of spirituality.

Source: John M. Glionna, The Los Angeles Times, Nov. 3, 2003

click photo for full-size image
photo by Donald Kinney

The day I was there, Monday, Frank was outside his shop welding something --   He looked busy -- I didn't want to interrupt him to ask what he was doing.

I still don't know him very well, but we are birds of a feather -- we are both bachelors...

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photo by Donald Kinney

This boat may be a bit beyond repair.   I looked around but I didn't find Gilligan...

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photo by Donald Kinney

That's the stack for the boiler used in processing and drying.   Production at China Camp now is a fraction of what it used to be.   The problem is that Sierra water is increasingly being diverted for agriculture, so less fresh water is being released into the Sacramento Delta which flows into San Francisco Bay.   The salinity of San Pablo Bay (the northern part of San Francisco Bay) has steadily increased over the years -- not good conditions for Bay Shrimp.

click photo for full-size image
photo by Donald Kinney

Something almost biblical about nets...   If my mother were still living I'm sure she would be happy to quote some scripture.

click photo for full-size image
photo by Donald Kinney

Hey, good luck with this place being open -- but on Monday it actually WAS open, although they hadn't bothered to turn the "closed" sign around...

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Anonymous said...

we used to go to china camp to shoot our .22. and ride dirt bikes. but that was 30 years ago.
my friend lived in santa venicia and i lived in san rafael. he used to drive the china camp road all the time. what is the name of that road? boy, i'm getting old. bonnye

Brad said...

Thanks for posting the story, Donald. That and your photos are great. I've been there a few times, but the last time was around 5-10 years ago. Time to go back and check it out...

AphotoAday said...

Yep, 30 years ago I was running around China Camp too...

I can remember when there were private homes out there -- the California Parks Department hadn't established such a large presence...

You may be too young to remember the "Marina Olive murders -- she had her boyfriend kill her parents and then they disposed of the bodies by burning them in a large barbeque pit out a Miwok Meadows...

Yeah, I'm sure you can snag some shots at China Camp -- rustic stuff well suited to your black and white style...

photowannabe said...

Great info. Don and i love all the shots but the first one just tugs at my heart.

Mindy | f-stopMarin said...

Thanks for all the info on China Camp. You must already know I visit often, love the place. That's Georgette sitting on the bench, talking to Frank. I've a few pix of her on f-stopMarin.

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