A Chinese shrimp junk memorializes a community destroyed by a prejudiced government

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.

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. The finished junk will be displayed at the San Francisco Maritime Museum at Fisherman's Wharf and at China Camp.

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.

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

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