Carrie Ching/California WatchFrank Quan, 85, has lived nearly his entire life at China Camp State Park.
Frank Quan is 85 years old, and he has lived nearly his entire life in one place – a tiny wooden shack perched on the shore of San Pablo Bay.
But by next summer, Quan could be forced to move: His house is in a state park slated for closure.
In an unusual arrangement with the state, Quan is the sole resident of China Camp State Park, one of 70 parks the state plans to close amid a $22 million budget cut. He is the third generation in his family to live here, the last remaining relic of Chinese shrimp-fishing villages that once dotted California’s bay shores.
Unless state officials find a way to save it, China Camp could be gone, too.
“History is there on paper,” said Quan, who has heavy eyes, a shuffle in his walk and gravel in his voice. “But this is the last camp of 26 where there was enough left to save. If they close it down, it’d be destroyed.”
React & Act
Help us do more.
Quan and park supporters worry China Camp, if shuttered, would fall victim to vandalism, trespassing and other illegal activity. The village, much of which has been restored with state dollars, would collapse into disrepair unless preserved. The state estimates it will cost $150,000 annually to protect and preserve China Camp while closed.
Although little remains from China Camp’s heyday in the late 19th century, what’s left is largely unchanged: The handful of postage-stamp houses have been standing as long as Quan has, and the café, now serving tourists, looks just as it did when Quan’s mother and aunt ran it. A visitors center holds artifacts of an old trade, brought here more than 140 years ago by fishermen from China’s Pearl River Delta.
Nearly 500 people lived in China Camp in the 1880s. For a brief time, after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, its population swelled to as many as 10,000 as Chinatown residents fled north for refuge. But after a series of discriminatory and restrictive laws, China Camp, and the shrimp fisheries like it, emptied out. Quan’s family stayed.
Quan’s grandfather came to San Francisco from China’s Guangdong Province in the late 1880s. He ran a general store on Dupont Street, now Grant Avenue, before moving it to China Camp.
“They ran him out of town,” Quan said of his grandfather, Quan Hung Quock. Facing persecution in San Francisco, thousands of Chinese immigrants settled in Marin County.
In China Camp, men who had been fishermen in their homeland returned to their original trade.
They built the same sampans – long wooden fishing boats – and single-mast shrimp junks they sailed in China. They imported bag nets from the old country, as Quan still calls it. Each year, they caught 3 million pounds of shrimp, much of it spread wide over the camp’s hillsides and dried for export.
By the 1890s, Chinese fishing villages were booming, much to the chagrin of other ethnic fishermen. The state soon passed regulations to cripple their success – first by closing the height of the shrimping season, then by banning exports of dried shrimp.
The villages adapted as best they could, but a 1911 prohibition on bag nets proved crushing: With no other means to catch shrimp, the fishermen left, and the fisheries all but vanished.
Quan Brothers, named for Quan Hung Quock’s two sons, was the only Chinese shrimping outfit left in China Camp.
Shrimping ceased until 1914, when Frank Spenger, whose eponymous seafood restaurant remains a Bay Area fixture, designed a new net: the trawl. The cone-shaped net allowed Quan Brothers to breathe life back into the fishery.
The family processed 5,000 pounds of shrimp a day, cooking the crustaceans 500 pounds at a time. They sold fresh shrimp wholesale around town, with surplus sold for 10 cents a pound in San Francisco. They dried shrimp for customers in China and Hawaii.
“That was the best dried shrimp,” Frank Quan said. “This dried shrimp, there’s nothing like that on the market today. Not even close.”
China Camp became a popular destination for locals in the know.
“If you saw anybody on a Sunday, you were lucky,” said Eugene Bergstrom, who started coming to China Camp in 1949 with his wife, Marianne, to sunbathe on its pebbly beaches.
For the Quan family, it was all hands on deck. After school, Quan, his siblings and his cousins would man the 40 rental boats and work the café, where hot dogs sold for 15 cents and shrimp cocktails were fresh from the bay (they’re from Oregon now).
“Us girls did the cleaning, and the guys got the boat,” said Georgette Dahlka, Quan’s cousin, who now runs the café with him every weekend.
It was a busy place, said Quan, who left the village only briefly – to serve in the Navy for five years.
But after the 1960s, China Camp’s shallow waters went barren. Water diversion and pollution turned the bay brackish and inhospitable to shrimp.
“When we were kids, there was just so much fish out here,” Quan said. "Now it’s almost like a desert out there. … We just watched it slowly die in front of us.”
Every now and then, Quan still takes his boat out at high tide, hopeful that he’ll return with catch in his nets. On a recent outing in July, he dragged up 1.5 pounds of shrimp. A couple of weeks later, he came back empty.
Memorial to Chinese American history
Carrie Ching/California WatchFrank Quan is the third generation in his family to live in China Camp. His tiny wooden shack was originally his aunt's home.
By the time the shrimp had left San Pablo Bay, developers had acquired China Camp and the land surrounding it. Local residents campaigned to preserve this slice of wilderness, one of the least disturbed watersheds along the bay. Once the territory of Coast Miwok Indians, the area is ecologically rich with redwoods, an oak forest and salt marsh flats.
In 1977, the state bought 1,476 acres for $2.3 million. The 36 acres containing China Camp Village were donated by developer Chinn Ho to serve as a memorial of its Chinese American history.
When the state wrote the park’s general plan in 1979, it carved out a place for Quan. “Frank Quan will be permitted to continue his life-long tenancy in the area,” the plan said.
But closure puts the arrangement in limbo; park officials have yet to figure out what it means for Quan, whose house is state-owned.
Danita Rodriguez, Marin district superintendent for California State Parks, wants him to stay.
“It would be a benefit for us to have him there because he would be able to be some eyes and ears,” she said. Not to mention, she added, “he was born and raised there.”
Joanna Lin/California WatchThe beach at China Camp Village is popular with families.
In weighing which and how many parks to shutter, the parks department considered financial strength, ease of closure and visitation.
China Camp brought in $143,022 in revenue in fiscal year 2009-10. It cost the state an estimated $459,411 – mostly for two rangers in the field and two facilities management workers and not including district, sector or headquarter support costs, officials said.
The park recorded 95,654 visitors in the last fiscal year. But its true visitation figure, and therefore its would-be revenue, is surely much higher, Rodriguez said.
Parking is $5 a day in China Camp's five paid lots, but the county roads that snake through the park offer ample space free of charge. In the evenings and on weekends, the park is bustling with visitors, who come to bike, picnic, kayak, horseback ride, camp and hike. A stretch of beach in the village is popular with families looking for safe, kid-friendly waters.
“If all those people were paying their day’s fees, both the attendance and revenue would have looked a lot healthier in terms of the status of China Camp,” Rodriguez said. “And perhaps, and I don’t know, but perhaps, it would not be on the closure list.”
The state is looking for ways to keep the park open while retaining ownership. Absent any saviors, China Camp will be shut down in phases, beginning after Labor Day. It must be closed by July 2012.
After that, what will become of Quan and China Camp’s story is unknown.
China Camp represents an early part of the Bay Area’s fishing industry that’s almost forgotten, said John Muir, curator of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.
“It’s one thing to know the history; it’s another to be in it, in three dimension,” said Muir, who in 2003 built a replica of a Chinese shrimp junk – named the Grace Quan, after Quan’s mother – that still sails the bay every year.
The camp’s waters have been reduced from wealth to mud. The immigrants who made the village their home are gone. All that’s left is Quan – a living history of China Camp, a barometer of its changes.
California Lost is an occasional series examining challenges facing neglected communities around the state.