“Chinese Whispers” is a local research and storytelling project dedicated to recording the history of the Chinese in the Bay area. Currently they have teamed with the National Park Service to tell the story of the Chinese shrimp-fishing industry of the late 19-early 20th centuries. Saturday, I drove to Richmond for the kick-off event, a visit to the Grace Quan Chinese junk.
The Grace Quan is a replica Chinese junk, built in 2003 using traditional techniques and materials. Today it is part of the San Francisco National Maritime Museum collection, and is berthed at Hyde Street Pier and China Camp in Marin. China Camp (also called Point San Pedro) was once one of 26 shrimping villages around the Bay including Hunter’s Point, Rincon Point, Petaluma Flats, and Redwood City. Between 1870 and 1930 as many as 30 Chinese junks like the Grace Quan frequented the bay, and harvested shrimp using fine bag nets imported from China. The fishermen collected the shrimp, boiled the shrimp, dried the shrimp, crushed the shrimp, and winnowed the shrimp, exporting 90% of the product to China. One account estimates 1,000,000 pound of shrimp catch exported in 1888, to 3,000,000 pounds in 1929.
The design of the Grace Quan illustrates the skill and ingenuity of the Chinese. It’s a compact vessel, 43 feet long, with multiple watertight bulkheads for storage, safety, and sturdiness. Its open deck provides workspace. Its fenestrated rudder allows for easier steerage. The fan-shaped sail is fully battened, spreading stress points over a wide area. With the wind it can travel at 8 knots. With no wind, a long sculling oar (yuloh) propels the craft. The junk’s recognizable sail has an orange tint which comes from the practice of soaking it in dried tanbark oak chips to protect it against mold, mildew, and rot.
Unfortunately the success of the Chinese shrimping business also led to its decline. Overfishing and discriminatory laws against the Chinese are part of this story:
- 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act made it illegal for the Chinese to sail beyond the 3 mile limit
- 1890 A new law banned shrimping at the height of the season (May, June, July, August)
- 1905 Shrimp exports were banned
- 1911 Traditional bag nets (preferred by the Chinese) were banned
Over time, changes in the composition and water flow of the Bay affected the shrimp population. The Chinese were blamed, sometimes unfairly. Hydraulic mining added silt and mercury to the water. The city dredged the bay for ship channels, added bridges and hardscape, diked and drained wetlands, and created new dams and diversions. Eventually the Chinese turned to other occupations leaving only a few remaining shrimp fisherman including Frank Quan’s grandfather Quan Hung Quock. With newly designed trawl nets, he and his sons continued the shrimp business in China Camp, processing as much as 5,000 pounds per day.
Today Frank Quan is the sole remaining resident of China Camp. Frank calls today’s bay “a desert”, yielding only 1.5 pounds of shrimp on a good day. Quan, age 89, operates the concession stands at China Camp. The Grace Quan junk is named after Frank Quan’s mother.