Marin County shrimper kept alive history of California Chinese community
SAN RAFAEL - When the last resident of a ramshackle Chinese shrimping village died, so did a link to a history little known outside the hikers and bikers who visit this shoreline park in Marin County.
Frank Quan was days from his 91st birthday when he died of natural causes in August at China Camp State Park. His fishing village was among more than two dozen around the San Francisco Bay Area that provided sanctuary for immigrants fleeing growing anti-Chinese sentiment in the 19th century.
In his long life, Quan watched as the village that once housed hundreds dwindled in size, eventually becoming a state park that had to fight off closure.
The World War II veteran is scheduled to be honored Saturday at a public memorial featuring Chinese lion dancers, a U.S. Navy flag ceremony and music from the 1940s, his favorite.
Friends and family described Quan as the embodiment of the historic village, a reticent man who became the face of a place nurtured and destroyed by prejudice. In doing so, he helped preserve its legacy.
"He had to fight his shyness. But he tried because he was in the public eye, and he served the public and the park, and he had to be outgoing," says Georgette Quan Dahlka, a cousin who also grew up in China Camp and later ran a small snack shack with Quan at the park.
At its peak in the 1880s the camp north of San Francisco housed about 500 people and had general stores, a marine supply store and barber shop. Residents caught and shipped shrimp back to China.
By the time Quan was born, however, the village was declining. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act shut out new immigrants. Later, lawmakers banned shrimp exports as well as the net bags used by Chinese.
"We used to pull out 3 million pounds of shrimp a year around here. One boat could bring in two tons a day," Quan told The Associated Press in 2011. "It's hard to see this all go to hell in a lifetime."
Quan was the oldest of four children born to Henry and Grace Quan, a white woman who had to marry her husband in Nevada because California prohibited mixed-race marriages at the time.
Quan's grandfather had come from China and opened a general store at the camp. Henry and his brother George grew up to operate the family's shrimping business, boat rentals and cafe. Their six children helped out after school.
Frank wanted to be an architect, says sister Bertha Quan Chew, but he returned to the village after their father died in 1950. He became the shrimper, helping support their mother and aunt, also widowed.
"He knew he couldn't do what he wanted to do. He had to take care of the family," she said on a recent Saturday, the park crowded with picnickers and sunbathers.
Quan was generous and kind, his friends say, a doting older brother and fabulous cook who presided over holiday meals with gourmet lamb roasts and dressing. Except for his time as a Navy signalman in World War II, he lived his life at China Camp. He never married.
Quan played a key role in turning China Camp into a state park in the 1970s after a developer donated the land as a memorial to the Bay Area's Chinese-American history.
Statewide budget cuts in 2011 almost closed the park, but a group called Friends of China Camp mounted a grassroots campaign to keep it open. Operating China Camp costs about $600,000 a year ate, said the nonprofit's executive director, Martin Lowenstein. The money comes from user fees and donations, not the state.
It's unclear what will happen to the snack shop or to Quan's house.
Outside the snack shop is a small memorial. Flowers surround a framed photo of Quan on a lace-topped table. Taped to the window above are sheets of white paper filled with handwritten goodbye notes. They thank Quan for his clam chowder, for the memories, for protecting a special part of history.
"I thought I just saw you in the sparkle on the water," reads one note.
Cyclists buy drinks from the shop before going out on the pier. Marin native Lilli Ferguson and other visitors wander through a small museum, marveling at what used to be there.
"If you didn't have all this interpretation, you would never have known about this community being here way back when," she says.