Sailing Back to a Troubled Past

Times Staff Writer

The old man never fishes out at sea. He has spent decades here in San Francisco Bay, gauging the ebb and flow of the tides, casting his weathered shrimp nets for the day's diminishing catch.

Well before dawn, Frank Quan launches his aging trawler from the rickety wooden pier in search of the local crustaceans that -- like the 78-year-old himself -- are all that remain of a once-abundant breed.

For both Quan and his prey, nature and politics have proved merciless foes. Much of the delta water that once fed the bay is now diverted to Southern California, Quan says, causing the salt level to rise, slowly killing the native fish and grass shrimp.

The fisherman is also the last of his stock: 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. Although his fishing days are numbered, the lifelong bachelor isn't bitter that the biased laws of a bygone era mean that no new generation of Chinese shrimpers will step up to take his place.

"It's passed, even though -- just like slavery -- it wasn't pretty," he said in a raspy voice. "You can't turn back the clock, even though a lot of people endured some incredible hardships they didn't deserve."

But in the last few months, Quan has labored on a project that may become his legacy.

State and national park officials have built a full-scale reproduction of a 1906 Chinese shrimp junk; the replica took its maiden voyage last month. Working from historic photos, oral histories and archeological research, a crew of mostly volunteers spent five months perfecting the 41-foot vessel with an elegant lugsail that a beaming Quan recently watched unfold before the wind like an ancient Chinese fan.

Each day, he visited the building site just steps from his home, caulking holes and tending a fire over which planks of redwood and Douglas fir were burned so they could be shaped and fitted -- following a Cantonese tradition perfected centuries ago in South China's Pearl River Delta.

The finished junk will be displayed at the San Francisco Maritime Museum at Fisherman's Wharf and at China Camp. Officials see the vessel as an educational tool and a reminder of a long-lost culture and once-thriving enterprise.

For state park Ranger Patrick Robards, the project is an attempt to recognize the hardships suffered by a generation of Chinese fisherman at the hands of the U.S. government. And although a reticent Quan chooses work over words, Robards knows his longtime friend views the boat as a way to help right a now-ancient wrong.

"We can't whitewash history," Robards said. "What happened to the Chinese shrimpers was purely prejudice and persecution. If you don't talk about it and recognize it, how can you stop it from happening again?"

Quan's family has long felt the sting of racism. Grace Parks, his white mother, was a turn-of-the-century orphan raised by a Chinese man, who had to seek legal remedies when welfare officials tried to remove her because they believed he should not raise a white girl.

Years later, she married a Chinese man; they wed in Nevada because California law precluded such mixed-race marriages.

Bay Area Chinese immigrants were used to that kind of treatment. After providing backbreaking labor in the High Sierra gold fields and helping to build the nation's first transcontinental railroad, many Chinese workers were shunned.

"They were kicked out and kicked around," said John Hart, author of "San Francisco Bay: Portrait of an Estuary," who says officials briefly planned after the 1906 earthquake to remove Chinese residents forcibly from San Francisco's Chinatown.

In the 1860s, hundreds of Cantonese-speaking shrimpers spread out all along the 550-square-mile bay. Using stationary nets, they caught shrimp swept in by the tide and then again filled their nets as schools of crustaceans were sucked out toward the open ocean in the ebb.

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 success evoked jealousy among other shrimpers, who claimed that the finely meshed triangular nets used by the Chinese clogged their right of way and killed off other species caught in their nets.

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.

"The government found a perfect way to attack the Chinese -- by economics," Robards said. "They effectively took away an industry with highly refined methods honed for 3,000 years. All because of prejudice."

The government sent officials from the former California Fish Commission to report on the Chinese shrimpers and created a fish patrol whose job, in part, was to keep an eye on the fleets. Author Jack London once worked on the patrol and fictionalized his adventures in a 1905 book called "Tales of the Fish Patrol." In the chapter "White and Yellow," London's writing reflects the prejudice of the day as he describes how the Chinese fishing junks were often too fast to be caught by government patrols. He refers to their "savage" crews, made up of "smart Mongols" and "dirty Chinamen."

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.

Although he knows that remnants of the old ill feeling remain onshore, Quan endures no such harsh feelings when he's alone on his beloved bay.

These days, he sells most of his catch for bait, often barely covering the fuel costs for his 28-foot boat, Grassy. Since China Camp became a state park 25 years ago, Quan has paid a small rent for the home and business he runs with a cousin.

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.

"I'm pretty much attached to this place," he said.

In an emotional ceremony in which Quan cut the rope that launched the junk into the frigid waters, park officials surprised the fisherman with news of the boat's name: the Grace Quan, after his mother.

Now the old man of the bay looks forward to seeing the shrimp junk regularly grace the waters off China Camp State Beach.

"Jack London often couldn't catch these old boats, no matter how hard he tried," he said with a hint of pride.

"I think this one's going to be just as special."

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