BELVEDERE, Calif. — An unassuming hall overlooks the gentle waters facing San Francisco in the sleepy bedroom community of Belvedere, Calif., located north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County.
Yet the Victorian social saloon itself is steeped in history, particularly as it relates to the Japanese experience in America.
Today it is known as the China Cabin, but the structure now overlooking the Bay once was the majestic centerpiece of the ship that brought the first sizeable group of immigrants from Japan to the United States — the settlers of the ill-fated Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony in Gold Hill, in the El Dorado Hills east of Sacramento.
And while the colony itself failed, it is nevertheless seen as the Japanese American Plymouth Rock, its Jamestown, which would forever leave its footprint on U.S.-Japan relations.
“It was the start of the first Japanese settlers, as far as agriculture was concerned,” said Fred Kochi, president of the Gold Hill-Wakamatsu Project, a group working to help preserve the history of the Placer County site.
The group of settlers, led by John Henry Schnell — a weapons trader who married a samurai warrior’s daughter — traveled aboard the SS China paddle ship in 1869 to pioneer farming in a new land. The China Cabin, used as a social hall, rested atop the ship, which arrived in San Francisco in May of 1869.
Some 50 immigrants from Wakamatsu, Japan — in present-day Fukushima Prefecture — came on two voyages aboard the ship, bringing with them mulberry trees, Japanese bamboo, wax trees and tea seeds, among other agricultural products from their native country.
Schnell purchased some 160 acres of land in Gold Hill from Charles M. Graner for $5,000, with the hopes of setting up a farm to produce tea and silk.
While said to have initially prospered with the planting of some 50,000 mulberry trees for silkworm farming, 140,000 tea plants and large quantities of bamboo roots for food, building and crafts, their fortunes were short-lived. California’s climate was very dry in comparison to Japan’s, and there was a drought in 1871. Schnell also ran out of money, and left the colony with his wife and two children in May of 1871, never to return.
The colony scattered, although two members — a young woman named Okei Ito and Matsunosuke Sakurai, believed to be a samurai in Wakamatsu — stayed behind and lived with the family of Francis Veerkamp, who acquired the property after Schnell fled.
A third member of the colony, carpenter Kuninosuke Masumizu, went to Sacramento and married the daughter of a Blackfoot Indian woman who was married to a freed slave. The only known descendants of the Wakamatsu Colony are of Masumizu’s lineage.
Okei, a nursemaid to the Schnells, passed away in 1871 at the age of 19 — said to be the first Japanese woman to die in America. According to legend, her grave sits on the knoll of a hill she used to climb to watch the setting sun in the direction of her homeland.
State of the art at the time, the paddle ship SS China traveled at 10 knots and could make the trans-Pacific voyage from Japan in 22 days, and back to Japan in 30, said Jack Fiorito of the Belvedere-Tiburon Landmarks Society, the head docent of the China Cabin site.
The SS China was one of four sister ships owned by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, which carried mail, passengers and currency. Two of the ships were based in Yokohama while two were based at the foot of Brannan Street in San Francisco.
The ship made its maiden voyage to Japan in 1867. The 380-foot long, 47.5-foot wide ship — designed by East Coast shipbuilder William Henry Webb — also carried some 1,500 tons of coal, used to help fuel the non-stop voyage from Brannan Street to the Yokohama Harbor.
It had two 50-foot high paddles, one on each side of the ship, and two 1,800-horsepower engines drove the paddle wheels at 10 revolutions per minute. “It must have been very noisy,” Fiorito mused, reflecting upon what he called “one of the largest wooden ships ever built.”
“They carried live animals,” Fiorito said. “They carried cattle.”
At times, the Pacific Mail ships would meet in mid-Ocean. One of the other ships was lost at sea, however, killing 387 people.
“This ship made 30 round trips from San Francisco to Yokohama, Shanghai and Hong Kong,” he said.
First class passengers — some 200 on any trip, Fiorito said — would pay a steep $249 per way, while steerage with no windows went for $49 per person.
Steerage was “not pleasant,” Fiorito said, but the Wakamatsu colonists were in first class. Among the others on the ship: some 1,250 Chinese immigrants in steerage, hoping to start new lives in a distant land.
The hall that is now the China Cabin was the social saloon. On Sundays, Episcopal services were held there, and passengers even put on plays in the venue.
According to Fiorito, the ship was removed from service in 1879, stemming from industry changes toward higher speed ships. The move toward iron hulls made the SS China and its wooden hull obsolete.
It was brought to the area for salvage in the 1880s.
“The rest of the ship was burned to get the copper bottom,” said Fiorito, noting the value in the metal.
After the SS China was taken out of commission, “The Cabin” became a dancing hall. In 1886 Captain Nicholas Bichard, a retired master mariner, partitioned the cabin into two apartments, including one for himself — located some 20 yards to the east of its current location.
The Belvedere Land Co. had bought it in 1915 and peaked the roof, and Fred Zelinsky and his wife leased it as their home from 1938 to 1978. The company gave it to the City of Belvedere in 1978, when it was designated a National Maritime Monument.
The Belvedere-Tiburon Landmarks Society has leased it for $1 a year since then, taking on the task of its restoration. “We manage it. We restored it,” said Fiorito.
And while records from the shipbuilder showed where the cabin originated from, its historical significance as it pertains to the early Japanese experience in America, however, wasn’t always known.
“We had the cabin,” recalled Fiorito. “What we didn’t know is who was on the ship.”
It was author Joan Barsotti, whose historical fiction novel “Okei-san: The Girl from Wakamatsu” chronicled the famed member of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony, who informed the preservationists about the significance of the cabin in relation to the Wakamatsu colonists.
“We were very fortunate to find Joan Barsotti,” said Fiorito.
Restored to Former Luster
“It took eight years of restoration to get it to look like this,” said Fiorito, who noted that there had been seven additional coats of paint on the walls, accumulated over the years. “This very room is where they spent their time for 22 days.”
The $600,000 restoration process lasted from 1978 to 1986.
The saloon boasts details such as 22-karat gold leaf paint, etched-glass window panes with a floral design, brass chandeliers and elaborate walnut woodwork.
Fortunately for the restoration team, the Webb shipyard in New York had ample records to draw from.
“We had experts come in for everything,” Fiorito said. “We had to remake many of the molds.”
Of the original 72 windows, only 20 were salvageable, said Fiorito. The rest are replicas.
“It’s beautiful,” said Kochi. “All that gold dust was hand-painted. A tremendous amount of work was put into it. Very precise.”
According to Kochi, the 20 visits he has made to the cabin recall a journey into the past. “Being in that cabin, you could just about feel what those colonists felt,” he said. “You try to picture what they experienced. The cabin itself is so big, so you try to imagine how big that ship actually was. That was a humongous ship.”
Fiorito says the local community now realizes the impact the ship had on the development of the country.
Colony Site Restoration
According to Kochi, about $1.27 million in loans still needs to be paid for the 272-acre site that once housed the ill-fated Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony, which the American River Conservancy recently purchased from the Veerkamp family.
The Graner House, owned for generations by the Veerkamp family, has already been completely restored.
Current plans are to make a Japanese garden around the historic grave site of Okei and the restoration of an actual tea and silk farm onsite. The property also includes a 10-acre man-made lake, Kochi said.
China Cabin Exhibit, Wakamatsu Open House
An accompanying exhibit on the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony, produced by the Gold Hill-Wakamatsu Project and complemented by Fiorito’s own collection of Edo Period Japanese swords, will be on display through Saturday, May 7 at the China Cabin, located at 54 Beach Road in Belvedere, Calif. near Tiburon in Marin County.
The exhibit is open Thursday through Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m.
The China Cabin hall itself is available to rent out for weddings, reunions, corporate meetings and private parties. For more information, call the Belvedere-Tiburon Landmarks Society at (415) 435-1853.
For more information on the efforts to preserve the former Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony, visit www.arconservancy.org. An open house for the project is planned for Saturday, May 21 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Gold Hill Ranch, 941 Cold Springs Road.