I usually bypass Chinese ghost towns.
Maybe that’s because their histories don’t inspire the same sepia-tinted romantic awe in me as they do with my ethnically Chinese friends, whose families have been in America for generations. It wasn’t so long ago that my parents flew over on a Boeing airplane with a 6-year old and a 6-month old.
Besides, I’ve already spent my share of weekend hours walking amid similar deserted settlements, the English and Chinese signs still hanging over ramshackle apothecaries and dusty grocery stores, empty but for a single, dusty crate.
So it must be confessed that my recent trip to China Camp State Park near San Rafael was compelled by coincidence and timing alone. May is State Parks month, when the park service encourages visitors to revisit their protected natural lands, and the shoreline park looked to be the closest and easiest Sunday morning drive.
Indeed, even though it was a flawless spring day, the approach on the two-lane North San Pedro Road seemed remarkably uncongested. Quickly my friends and I left behind the tract homes to drive along silver tides languidly drifting in from the San Pablo Bay and the dense green San Pedro ridge. Below, the waters wrinkled over the mudflats, where ducks and a single heron comfortably stationed themselves.
The historic village takes up just a small part of the 1,512-acre spread of meadows, oak trees, redwood groves and salt marsh. A working pier and about a half-dozen wooden structures remain: homes, shops and storage areas mostly empty except for the converted museum and snack bar. Most of this camp’s nearly 500 inhabitants were shrimp fishermen, displaced laborers who had come for gold or railroads but were either unwelcome or pushed out after the job was done.
The Cantonese immigrants who gravitated to this shoreline found its waters familiar in an otherwise unfriendly land, and the grass shrimp were remarkably like those in the homeland. At one time, 26 of these shrimping piers existed along the San Pablo Bay, but exclusionary laws and environmental concerns eventually ended this tiny, flourishing industry.
It’s unimaginable to some, that this small settlement accommodated so many. Overcrowding, of course, is a way of life in China. Certainly the hills stretching above, where the fishermen spread the shrimp to dry, and the still waters below might have seemed vast compared to the urban congestion of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Even today, the many walking and biking trails now carved into the hillside offer miles of uninterrupted sky, giving a hint to what it was like before.
Maybe the ghost towns seem unreal to me, because the cycle still continues: the willingness to leave behind the faces you know, the language you speak, the spices you taste, to stake out a cramped corner in a new world and live cheek-to-jowl with people dreaming the same dream.
In a way, the ones who leave are the ones I can understand. The ones who stay despite the hardship or the hate, those are the people I can’t fathom, and for whom I have endless admiration.
Coincidence in timing: For State Parks Month, a coupon waiving normal day-use fees is available at libraries, visitor bureaus and chambers of commerce (not valid for Hearst Castle, Angel Island and Ao Nuevo or any park during the Memorial Day weekend). May is also Asian Pacific Heritage Month. China Camp State Park, then, is as good a place as any to use the coupon. Otherwise, day-use parking is $3, while fees for the 30 walk-in campsites range from $12-$15.
On a clear day you can see all the way to China Camp: Sheltered by the hills to the west, the camp escapes the fog more than 200 days a year. This leaves many clear days for bicyclists and joggers to take advantage of the 15 miles of beautiful trails, or for boaters to sail and windsurf in the bay. China Camp offers several picnic sites, and the one near the village has barbecue grills. Be warned you might get a craving for shrimp, especially after visiting the museum (open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m.). Frank Quan, the only village resident, does carry on the family shrimping tradition here but his harvest is usually sold as bait. The village concession stand does sell food and drinks.
Details, details: From the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, take 101 north and exit North San Pedro Road and go east for five miles. On the Internet, check http://parks.ca.gov for maps and general information. To reserve a campsite, call 800-444-7275; the park can be reached directly at 415-456-0766.