photo by: Gordon Szeto/Rene Yung

December 17, 2015

Capturing the Bay Area’s Chinese Maritime History

  • By: Lauren Walser

When she set out to learn more about the San Francisco Bay Area’s once-thriving Chinese shrimp fishing community, local artist Rene Yung didn’t just rely on old newspapers and oral histories. Instead, she boarded the Grace Quan, a replica of a 19th-century shrimp fishing junk and sailed around the Bay, retracing the steps of these early fishermen whose stories have largely been lost.

She took the images and sounds captured on this journey and combined them with information gathered from scientists, ecologists, archaeologists, historians, and others to create a visual record of the history. The result is Chinese Whispers: Bay Chronicles, an immersive multimedia installation on display at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park visitor center. It’s the latest of Yung’s projects with her team at Chinese Whispers, a community-based cultural organization that explores the stories of early Chinese immigrants in the American West.

We sat down with Yung to learn a little more about the making of Chinese Whispers: Bay Chronicles—and why she thinks preserving memories is just as important as saving places.

What inspired you to start researching the Bay Area’s Chinese maritime history?

This is where my personal history comes in. I’m an immigrant from Hong Kong. I grew up there as a child and came here as a teenager. Hong Kong is a port city. It’s surrounded by water. I didn’t think very much of that when I came to San Francisco, but the San Francisco Bay made me feel at home. And then, fast forward, I started doing the work with Chinese Whispers, and in my research, I kept coming upon little bits of reference to Chinese shrimping or Chinese fishing, or I would learn about a distribution company here. It really piqued my interest.

One of the theories about shrimp fishing in the Bay is that when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, a lot of the Chinese railroad workers came back and were looking for another way to make a living, and they took up fishing. And my hypothesis—and a lot of the oral histories have confirmed it—is people came here from China, and they were already fishermen, and this is one of the ways that many of them decided to make a living, rather than being a railroad worker or a gold miner. They stayed at the Bay.

It’s not a very well-known part of history. Did you see an opportunity to bring it to the public?

Absolutely. I think one of the things that started really piquing my interest was reading that, at the height of the Chinese shrimp fishery in late 19th century, about a million pounds of dried shrimp were exported annually to China and Southeast Asia. That’s a lot of shrimp! And I was thinking about the economic value and the commerce involved in a million pounds of dried shrimp shipping across the ocean in those days. I continued to look into the business side of it, because it’s very fascinating. How did the economics of this work? How did the business transactions work? I’m still in the process of learning about this. This was an important piece of both Bay Area’s history and American history that just isn’t heard about. And I feel it’s important to bring it to the public awareness.

photo by: Gordon Szeto/Rene Yung

Yung, gesturing at left, teamed with archaeologists, ecologists, historians, and other experts to learn more about the Bay Area's Chinese maritime history.

What was your research process like?

The research certainly, at first, was slim. There were some articles written. A certain amount of archaeological research was done at Chinese shrimp camps. China Camp in San Rafael in the North Bay is the only remaining site. It’s not an active shrimp camp at all; there’s only one resident there, and it’s now a state park. It had been excavated. The building of the Grace Quan, the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park’s replica shrimp junk, was based on excavations. And then for some reason, the last in-depth piece on Chinese shrimping in the San Francisco Bay was written in 1989. After that, nobody wrote about it, other than little casual articles.

And then there’s Frank Quan, who is the lone 89-year-old resident of China Camp. He’s a third-generation descendent of one of the big families that owned a shrimping operation, and he has stayed. Awhile back, there were a number of state parks that were going to be closed—including China Camp. There was a big effort to save it. And grudgingly, Frank Quan, a taciturn fisherman living by himself in this abandoned fishing village, became the spokesperson for Chinese shrimping history.

But the most fruitful information came from early fish and game reports. I read so many fish reports! They’re an amazing resource. They’re very technical, to some degree, but they’re also fascinating reflections on how social and cultural attitudes impacted scientific reporting.

Shrimp fishing must have been an extremely difficult and unrewarding experience for the men who fished. It was rewarding for the people who owned the camps and owned the distribution operations. But like so many immigrant stories, that piece of history is quite lost within Chinese American culture. We have to resort to fish and game reports for very detailed information.

What I’m interested in is the broader context of this larger history: What are these camps? Where were they? Who were the people there? So we took research from these very different kinds of sources to start piecing together fragments of this history. And a reason we choose cultural production as a way to bring this material and this research to the public is because so much of it is so incomplete. As an artist, I’m not interested in recreating history when we don’t know what happened. I’m interested in presenting the fragments in a responsible but intriguing way so that people understand the bits that remain, and from the fragments, they start forming a picture—an imperfect picture. But they understand these are fragments. The history has been broken, and that’s why they’re fragmented.

photo by: Gordon Szeto/Rene Yung

The site of a former shrimping camp in the Bay Area.

You also went out on the Grace Quan, the replica shrimp junk. What was that like?

We were out on San Francisco Bay for several journeys. The first time, we sailed out and tested the equipment. The whole idea was that we would chronicle these sails with today’s tools—retracing the past with today’s tools. We had, for example, GoPro cameras attached to the top of the mast and to the bow. We had hydrophones attached to the rudder. We really wanted to record not only a documentary narrative, but also the visceral experience.

We sailed from China Camp in the North Bay and across the bay to Richmond. [Each site] offered different kinds of shrimp fishing opportunities. The western part was the better shrimping environment. And in the East Bay, there were a number of smaller camps. For us, the whole journey was a journey of contrasts. Now, Richmond is a major shipping port, with enormous vessels. And yet you sail just around the point and there would be the site of the former Chinese shrimp camp—a relatively small one. That area was overtaken by the Navy and was big during World War II efforts. They reshaped the land and changed a lot of the land mass. So you have these multiple layers of cultural history there. We weren’t able to actually land there because there was too much debris in the water.

Then we sailed from there down to San Mateo. We were sailing 5 miles an hour, which is the maximum speed of the Grace Quan. It took us eight hours to get from Point A to Point B. We landlubbers on the team, we were somewhat green about the gills. And our next destination was Redwood City which is in the shadow of Silicon Valley. We had partnered with the San Francisco Estuary Institute, this wonderful research organization in San Francisco Bay. They have a branch called Historical Ecology, and, as the name suggests, they look into the ecology of past times to inform land use and other kinds of planning issues today. So we had historical ecologists on board, and they brought these fantastic maps from the 19th century. With the aid of one of those maps, we sailed to the site of an 1869 shrimp camp. Today you’d never guess its history. It’s just marshland, with debris and pieces of wood. But the map clearly says “Chinese fish camp.” So there we were, on this remaining marshland, and there were egrets, there were herons, there were seals.

Then we turned back north. I had seen information that there was a fairly well-known Chinese shrimp camp in San Bruno. It was quite productive at one point. Today you would never guess that. On the land above, there’s an enormous high-tech campus, so you get concrete buildings coming right up toward the shore. And there’s contemporary vegetation.

From there, we sailed north again to Hunters Point in San Francisco. Hunters Point is like Richmond, in that it became a naval station. But once it was the largest Chinese shrimp camp site around the San Francisco Bay. We sailed into the basin where it’s very likely the shrimp camps would’ve been located. We also did a public program at the EcoCenter at Heron’s Head Park.

From there, we sailed back to Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco, which is where the maritime park is located. And for our last night, we sailed across to the North Bay. The waters were very rough. I remember looking up and seeing the mast of the Grace Quan, and the sail was billowing with all the wind. And we’re on this little 43-foot boat. My mind was flashing back to news articles I found, talking about boats that sank. But we survived! And then, we sailed to China Camp where we had a big celebration event.

photo by: Keith Baker/Rene Yung

"Chinese Whispers: Bay Chronicles" is on display at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park's visitor center.

How did you put all this research and information together into an installation?

The installation is at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park’s visitor center. It’s a very dense little museum, with displays on San Francisco’s maritime history. It’s really interesting. They have a theater, which was the most convenient place for us to do something. It’s a very institutional-looking room, with a dark blue velvet curtain across one end, and a podium, and contemporary carpet tiles, and an acoustic ceiling. And I thought, “Wow, what am I going to do with this space?”

And then it came to me that the institutionality is actually part of the story. In 2015, it’s not about an official policy of displacing Chinese shrimp fishing. But what’s been forgotten remains forgotten. What’s been erased remains erased. Those curtains, to me, became palpable symbols for this idea of hiding something.

So the installation has an enormous sail made of very translucent material that erupts from between the curtains. And video is projected onto the sail. It uses primarily abstract, close-up types of shots, so you really get a visceral feeling of what it’s like from the boat. You see the water, you see sunshine rippling.

The other part of the installation is an immersive sound installation. There are two levels of sound. There’s a soundscape that plays back sounds that we captured on the boat from the hydrophones we attached everywhere, so you hear sounds of the water. Sometimes it’s loud because of the waves, and sometimes it’s placid and mesmerizing. Then there’s a bench positioned beneath the sail. And from behind the curtains, you hear voices. It’s a voice recording of different people reading from historical texts, like fish and game reports. One of my favorites is a list of the catch of the day.

When a wave is loud, you can’t hear the voices. And that’s essential. It isn’t meant to be somebody lecturing you with text nonstop. It is also a metaphor for how this history comes to us in bits and pieces—sometimes you hear it, and sometimes you don’t. And we used a transducer, which translates sound waves into physical waves. So if you’re sitting on the bench, you can feel the waves hitting. It feels as if you’re sitting on the boat.

It’s a poetic experience. It’s not a didactic experience, even though there’s a lot of text, if you want to sit there and listen.

What do you hope people get from their experience with your installation?

First of all, I hope they become aware of this piece of history. And second of all, because of the way the installation is crafted, I hope that they have a visceral relationship to this history now. They can have a sense of what it’s like sitting on the boat, seeing some of the images. In my experience, that creates more empathy than if you just tell people what they should know. And I also hope there’s a sense of pleasure, because some of it is just beautiful footage.

With this installation, you’re not preserving a physical structure, but you are preserving a memory. Why is that important?

The interesting thing is that the places do remain. The land is still there, but the sites have been transformed. And the physical structures are no longer there.

We chose this particular manner of presenting the research because it is palpable. It is a way to bring this history to the public in a way I’m interested in, as an artist. But there’s so much more research that doesn’t get into this installation. We have over 15 hours of footage, and it begs to be expressed in different ways.

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Lauren Walser headshot

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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