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History Watch

June 12, 2018

Marin history: China Camp, from shrimpers to Hollywood to state park

China Camp was once a thriving fishing village. (Courtesy of Marin History Museum)

Posted in the Marin IJ: 06/11/18

China Camp near Point San Pedro in San Rafael was once a thriving fishing village and home to thousands of Chinese-American fishermen.

Early Marin and Sonoma pioneer John McNear had purchased the land in 1868 and operated a dairy ranch and brick manufacturing plant on Point San Pedro. In 1870 only 77 Chinese were living at China Camp, but by 1890 estimates numbered into the thousands. The rapid growth of China Camp has been linked to passage of California’s 1882 Exclusion Act that barred virtually all immigration from China. Fleeing persecution, hundreds of Chinese-Americans from San Francisco relocated to China Camp with the assistance and support of McNear.

Every year China Camp shrimpers pulled millions of tons of shrimp from the bay, exporting 90 percent to China. At its peak, the town had multiple piers for the shrimp boats, houses built on stilts over the bay and a number of commercial buildings serving the residents. On the hill behind the beach were vast tracts of vegetable gardens and drying beds for the shrimp.

By 1910 the population had dwindled to a few hundred though shrimping was still a profitable business for those who remained. Sport fishing for striped bass off Point San Pedro became popular with local fish and game enthusiasts in the 1940s who helped successfully block an attempt by the Navy to move its ammunition ship anchorage from Hunter’s Point to Point San Pedro. Newspaper accounts from the era describe in detail the “catches” of the day, and a 1957 Marin IJ ad encouraged fisherman to, “Get out where the fish are biting.”

For three decades, Henry & Grace Quan, the last of the original Chinese families at China Camp, rented boats, ran a snack bar and saloon, and sold fresh shrimp to local markets. Hollywood came calling in 1955, filming “Blood Alley,” starring John Wayne and Lauren Bacall, at China Camp and even employing some of the Quan family as extras.

In 1961 plans were made to develop housing in the area and build an upscale marina and restaurant where the village now stands. Fortunately, the China Camp property never saw the blades of the bulldozers. The land was purchased by California in 1976 and in 1980 China Camp State Park was established, preserving the historic site for all to enjoy in perpetuity.

P. O. Box 150727, San Rafael, CA 94915        415-382-1182    

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