Moving

The Chinese language fishing village misplaced to time, simply north of San Francisco

When I heard that the waters of the bay could be camped 20 miles north of San Francisco on the site of a historic Chinese shrimp bay dating from the 1880s, I didn’t expect the original village to still be standing.

But there it sits somehow, on a hidden beach under the low Marin hills, little sun-bleached huts on the sand and a rickety pier that stretches across the brackish water, almost ghostly through the fog, as if time has been lost.

I arrived at China Camp State Park with my family late on a Friday afternoon to explore the fabled fishing village, so we postponed this adventure until the morning. Instead, we took a short family-friendly twilight hike around a curious cliff called Turtle Back Hill. (The entire state park has more than 15 trails of varying degrees of difficulty.)

Turtle Back Hill is an ecologically unique peninsula – it is almost an island, apart from a dune island that borders Marin. It rises from the reed swamp like, well, a turtle shell. The easy three-quarters of a mile heart-shaped trail winds through open grasslands and a shady oak forest.

The farthest point of the trail overlooks Jakes Island, about 60 meters offshore, over a muddy plain. This little island is inaccessible to hikers, but not deer, and we were lucky enough to see three peek out from the oak trees, jump over the reeds, and make their journey through the swamp.

China Camp State Park campsite.

Andrew Chamings / SFGATE

After watching the deer, we headed back to the campsite, pitched our tent, made a fire, charred marshmallows, and stared at the sky. Despite being only half a mile from San Rafael, the place feels wonderfully solitary thanks to the hills and canyons that separate it from the rest of Marin County.

It was a beautifully peaceful California night and we slept well (I didn’t tell my daughters about the gruesome barbecue murders that happened in this exact place 46 years ago).

In the morning we excitedly made our way one kilometer around the coast to the historic fishing village without really knowing what to expect.

The old settlement is both desolate and magical and at first glance looks like a ghost town that has remained on the sandy beach of San Pablo Bay for a century and a half. An old, battered log cabin with faded signs for Tacoma beer and fresh crabs looks out over the narrow pier. But we were surprised that it was still doing business, and even though crabs were no longer on sale, we bought some sodas from a kind man named Ernie Stanton, and I gave my kids a few dollars to put in the Friends donation jar of China Camp to throw.

China Camp Village, Marin, California.

China Camp Village, Marin, California.

Andrew Chamings / SFGATE

Stanton’s story intersects with a man who formed the final link in part of Bay Area history, Frank Quan.

“I grew up in San Francisco and was a beachgoer here, but I would help Frank with the store,” Stanton tells me, and he’s been running the cabin with friends since Quan died in 2016.

Frank Quan spent his last years in the hut right on the beach and was the last Sino-American shrimp fisherman to practice his craft at China Camp, where he went to the pier to his fishing boat almost every day for over 80 years.

China Camp State Park.

China Camp State Park.

Andrew Chamings / SFGATE

Frank’s parents met in the camp, he was born there, and his grandfather was one of the first Chinese immigrants to haul in shrimp nets from this very spot in the 1880s.

The bay was once the ancestral home of the indigenous coastal Miwok. The Miwoks took only what they needed from land and sea, hunted deer and rabbits in the hills, fished in the bay and harvested acorns from the surrounding oak groves.

As with so many indigenous settlements, the population was almost wiped out by the arrival of the Spaniards in the late 18th century.

China Camp Village, Marin, California.

China Camp Village, Marin, California.

Andrew Chamings / SFGATE

After the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s, Chinese workers, many of whom had immigrated from the maritime province of Kwangtung or what is now Guangdong, found themselves looking for work. The fertile Wadden Sea on the coast of Marin Bay was perfect for grass shrimp and after leasing the bay, 500 fishermen settled there to catch shrimp from the rich Wadden Sea. In its prime, the small village had 28 buildings, including three general stores, a fishing tackle, boat rentals, and a barber shop.

The villagers sailed from the pier in junks (long wooden boats) and fetched the shrimp in hand-sewn nets. The bamboo buckets of crustaceans were boiled and then dried in the California sun on a nearby hill before being sent across the ocean to market. In the early 1880s, nearly 3 million pounds of shrimp were caught at China Camp and exported to Hawaii and China each year.

Archive photo of villager processing shrimp for shipment to China Camp Village, date unknown.

Archive photo of villager processing shrimp for shipment to China Camp Village, date unknown.

Archive / Unknown

At the time, there were around 30 similar Chinese shrimp villages around the bay, from Hunters Point to the Sacramento River Delta.

As vicious anti-Chinese resentment grew in San Francisco, the villages became isolated, maintaining their culture, language and traditions, although villagers used the in winter when the shrimp were bad and the fog was too dense to dry their shells Take a boat there Visit San Francisco’s growing Chinatown.

China Camp Village, Marin, California.

China Camp Village, Marin, California.

Andrew Chamings / SFGATE

The booming success of the fishing company was short-lived, however, as anti-Chinese violence and racism spread, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prevented new Chinese workers from migrating to the U.S. The wide nets of the community in the China Camp were even banned . Nevertheless, the remaining families continued to fish into the early 20th century. One of these first fishermen, Quan Hock Quock, Frank Quan’s grandfather, moved from San Francisco to the bay to run the oceanfront store that still exists today.

The bay’s largest population came unexpectedly in 1906 when the village sheltered about 10,000 Chinese Americans who were evicted from San Francisco after being devastated by earthquakes and fires.

However, by World War II, industry had dwindled, and all 30 Chinese fishing villages in the Bay Area had disappeared, except for this small bay outside of San Rafael. The Quans were the only family that still pulled shrimp from the swamp.

China Camp Village, Marin, California.

China Camp Village, Marin, California.

Andrew Chamings / SFGATE

Thanks to the fact that the area was granted state park status in the 1970s, the town remained as it is, and Quan was allowed to live in the small hut by the water until his later life, where he continued to fish and the Shrimp sold as bait. The site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Fewer locations in California can demonstrate the value of historical protection afforded.

Quan never married, and his centuries-old ancestry at China Camp attracted like empty nets at low tide.

When asked in 2014 if he was sad that after his death there will be no more Chinese fishermen to continue the legacy, Quan smiled. “No, I don’t think about it,” he said. “None of us are immortal.”

It’s hard to believe that this little piece of well-preserved history is so close and yet so hidden from San Francisco. China Camp, often shrouded in mist rolling down from the low hills, can feel lonely, a corner of the bay that stands on the water almost exactly as it was 140 years ago.

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