In Search of Ancestors:
A Scientist’s Lifelong Search for Family, Fishing, and Fortitude Along Monterey’s Coast
Chinese migrants to America have made many contributions to American history in the West; the story of the transcontinental railroad being a well-known example. However, the history of fisheries and maritime past is often more difficult to grasp, being less well-documented and sometimes unseen from shore. Many Chinese sailors and fishermen crossed the Pacific and continued their traditional lifestyles—fishing from coastal villages amidst California’s wealth of marine resources. This Chinese fishing heritage is remembered by families and descendants today.
Dr. Munson A. Kwok is the definition of a polymath: a leading researcher in high energy lasers with more than 30 published papers and numerous reports; a scholar in studying and sharing the Chinese American history of Southern California; and an activist who founded and/or served on a number of nonprofit organizations devoted to preserving Chinese American heritage. But perhaps his most personal role is exploring and sharing the more than 150-year history of his family in California, a chronicle that began with the arrival of his fisher ancestors in Monterey.
“My family history in North America began in 1867, both in my paternal and maternal lines, a Pilgrims-style narrative of family arrival and settlement. Our family lore tells that the ancestor who led the family group to America was Kwok Fook Lai,” Dr. Kwok explains. “They voyaged here by crossing the Pacific on an ocean junk and settled at the Point Alones Chinese fishing village in Monterey Bay.” Dr. Kwok’s ancestors were among the Chinese immigrants who were the first commercial fishers taking advantage of the amazing fisheries in what is now Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
Some of the first Chinese immigrants settled in the early 1850s east of Cabrillo Point and west of Point Alones, near what is now Cannery Row. The community was soon involved in every aspect of catching, processing, and selling fish and shellfish, much of which was dried for export to China from San Francisco, and was established enough that the point was locally known as China Point. A market for abalone shells developed in New York, Europe, and China where they were turned into buttons and jewelry or used for inlay. The Chinese also harvested and dried seaweed before shipping it through San Francisco to China. Other Chinese communities quickly grew up in other places around Monterey and on Carmel Bay.
Though the Chinese communities were well established for some years, increasing competition for fishery resources in the late 1860s created resentment and prejudice. A new railroad between Monterey and San Francisco allowed for the rapid transportation of the catch to the Port of San Francisco, and a small group of Italian fishers from the north expanded their efforts south. By 1868, the Italians controlled the waters of Monterey Bay and had pushed the Chinese toward Carmel. Conflicts arose between the two groups to the point that after a suspicious fire destroyed Point Alones village in 1906, the village was never rebuilt.
Dr. Kwok’s family ties touch two national marine sanctuaries: Monterey Bay and Greater Farallones. His ancestors fished along Monterey shorelines but also harvested shrimp in San Francisco Bay. “Being long-time delta folks, we gravitated over centuries to bays, estuaries, and wetlands, both in China on the Pearl River delta and here in America on Monterey Bay, then on San Francisco Bay, then others who eventually lived in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta areas, in Lodi and Isleton, for example,” Dr. Kwok speaks further of his family’s history. “Five generations down from the first settlers, we have a tugboat skipper who became something of a master of all of Chevron’s tugs moving the tankers through the bay to Richmond, and so he made it out through the Golden Gate to the Farallons a number of times. Must be still in the blood somehow.”
Dr. Kwok knows his family story is part of the larger tapestry of Chinese American maritime history and that too is one of his favorite research subjects. “The contributions and experiences of the Chinese in the development of the West are often still unknown or forgotten,” he relates. “People are surprised to find that Chinese were involved on the Pacific Coast, the stereotype being ‘laborers’ and ‘railroad workers.’ Then they are surprised at the significance and seminal involvement of the Chinese in the earliest coastal fishing industries and some of the coastal trade, from San Diego to Seattle. The trade was largely in ethnic goods and foodstuffs with a market that extended back to China.”
But with that success came hatred and prejudice. Dr. Kwok explains: “Two to three decades of pioneering and even dominance of port industries was over due to anti-Chinese, anti-Asian hate sentiments generated in the West and then nationally. The Chinese were forced off the best fishing grounds, the best wharfs, the best ports, but even then they continued pioneering to find new venues and methods, and to discover new marketable species along the Pacific Coast as far south as San Diego and north to Oregon, the Columbia estuaries, all the way to Seattle and Puget Sound, and even to Alaska.”
These kinds of maritime history topics are under-documented and can be notoriously difficult to research, but Dr. Kwok knew he had a great starting point. “I had the advantage of a given origin myth and our family oral tradition, and the scholarly method I’d been trained in. So, to gain some insight into my family history, I decided to peel back and deep dive into the myth, line by line, to frame what I construed as research questions. These were topics like the technology used on Chinese ocean sailing vessels in the mid-19th century; the political, economic, and social background and conditions in China history that forced them to come; and the history of Pacific trade. I was also looking for evidence of my ancestors’ motivations and goals, their personal histories.”
But it was not research for the faint of heart. He continues: “The effort took the better part of four decades, searches and conversations in two continents, and significant bilingual assistance, especially in the reading of documents.” Today Dr. Kwok especially recommends oral histories, such as those undertaken by the NOAA Voices project that helps preserve the contributions of all cultures to our shared maritime history. He points out: “An increasingly important tool for historians capturing the stories of underrepresented and undocumented groups is to use the methods of oral history, such as the techniques of Pacific Islanders and Native Americans summarized generally in the idea of ‘Talk Story.’ I find these methods are an increasingly effective technique to capture narrative while stimulating and inspiring participants to share more of their stories. Once folks own a part of the narrative, they seem much more motivated to do more and participate more.” He adds that “In terms of stewardship, native folks may actually have pointers to share for sustaining the environment.”
And what was the result of Dr. Kwok’s long efforts to explore the truth of his family lore? “I have come to believe the century-and-half-old origin myth is quite plausible,” he says, adding, “with room for further study.” Regardless, his forty years of scholarship and his public activism have helped illuminate the importance of Chinese American history in California.
“The development of fisheries, trade, and other aspects of maritime industry, including ship building and crewing and commanding vessels, have had Asian/Pacific Islander American participation from the beginning,” he shares. “First, it was predominantly peoples of Chinese ancestry and possibly even earlier those of Filipino ancestry who participated in these enterprises and originated many of their elements and methods on the three Pacific Coast states. For a significant time in the 19th and early 20th centuries when the seas were fruitful, Asian Americans provided the labor and management in canneries, and sometimes operated their own businesses, even in a time of discrimination. It is obvious that their experiences are an essential part of the narrative of American diversity in all aspects of life.”
Hans Van Tilburg (李漢光) is the maritime heritage coordinator for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ Pacific Islands Region
Elizabeth Moore is a senior policy advisor at NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries