Coolies & Retorts

 I am very familiar with this steam cooking machine or retort in the picture. It is made of steel, cylindrical in form, about 4′ in diameter and 10′-12′ in length. It looks like a locomotive, and on the ground there is actually a section of steel railroad for use by dolleys. In 1972, my job was to stack trays of the canned salmon onto a dolley, and then the dolley was pushed into the retort for cooking. I remember very clearly that the foreman told me that my position that summer was that of a coolie. Many Chinese foreign students … Continue reading Coolies & Retorts

Cannery Bunkhouses

Chinese laborers that were hired to work in the salmon canneries beginning in the late 1800s had separate living quarters assigned to them at the canneries. This was similar at canneries from Alaska to the Pacific Northwest to even British Columbia, Canada. Depending on the cannery, sometimes these areas were called “Chinatown” because of the large number of Chinese workers. This segregation was likely due to various factors. First, the assigned jobs and wages earned was specified in the Alaska Packers Association’s contract which was broken down based on ethnicities (e.g. Caucasians, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Alaskan Natives). This hierarchy … Continue reading Cannery Bunkhouses

Workers & Machines

In the Bay Area, we are surrounded by hi-tech companies, and we are all familiar with hi tech products from the third industrial revolution such as computer, iPhone, Internet, social network,… More than a hundred years ago, Chinese workers in the United States also experienced the second industrial revolution. From 1880s to 1910s, the influence of Chinese in the salmon canning industry reached its peak when more than 50% of the low level cannery jobs on the production line were occupied by the Chinese. This period of time happens to be the age of the second industrial revolution in America. … Continue reading Workers & Machines

Ah Fat – The Last Chinaman

I first came across a story about Ah Fat over two years ago. An article with the headline “The Last Chinaman” grabbed my attention, and it was a story of the a Chinese cannery worker in Point Roberts at the turn of the 20th century. It was quite rare to find a story about a Chinese cannery worker, with name and photo, depicting his life through the era of anti-Chinese movements. This photo, taken between 1911 and 1913, is the only photo that shows Ah Fat sitting in front of his house at Point Roberts, Whatcom County, Washington, and he … Continue reading Ah Fat – The Last Chinaman

Chinese Contractors

We just released Ah King’s story on our website this month. Under the sub-category of Contractors, you will now find three new independent pages we added recently for Ah King, Chin Gee Hee, and Gong Dip. It happens that they all were successful Chinese merchants and probably knew each other working in Seattle at the turn of the twentith century. These stories of Chinese contractors from the northwest will greatly complement and argument the other stories of Chinese contractors and workers in California that we have compiled. In addition, there is a new page on Chinese Contractors under the tab of Canning … Continue reading Chinese Contractors

Li Gongpu

Li Gongpu (or Gongbu) was an intellectual and writer and became a well-known Chinese social activist and was one of the founders of the Chinese Democratic League and also served in the National Revolutionary Army. After serving, he came to the US to attend Portland’s Reed College in 1927 to study Political Science. During this time, he was still contributing articles to a magazine in Shanghai related to his American experiences and Western democratic systems when he decided to work in an Alaskan salmon cannery in the summer of 1928. He described his experiences at the Union Bay cannery, which … Continue reading Li Gongpu

Lee Mee Gin’s story

After publishing of the book “The Price of Salmon” in the summer of 2022, I received a message from Debbie Jiang who read about the news. In her email, she told me of a Portland Chinese contractor by the name of Lee Mee Gin. Debbie wrote: “I accidentally discovered the cannery middleman when I was researching my cousin’s father-in-law. Have you heard of Mr. Lee Mee Gin?  He owned and operated Kwong Lun Tai, a dry goods store, among other things.  He also was a contractor for Chinese workers heading to the canneries in Alaska. Mr. Lee was Portland’s Chinatown’s mayor and … Continue reading Lee Mee Gin’s story

A Forgotten Chapter of the American Chinese History?

Last month, we were invited by the Chinese American Heritage Foundation to present a talk on the book we edited and published this summer, “The Price of Salmon.” One question that come up consistently in our webinars is “Why is the history of the Chinese Americans in the salmon canning industry so rarely been heard or talked about?” The contribution the Chinese Americans made in the salmon canning industry was significant. The Chinese labor force dominated the industry from 1870 to 1910. At its peak, thousands of Chinese laborers went up to Alaska and worked in the canneries. The Chinese … Continue reading A Forgotten Chapter of the American Chinese History?

Seid Chee

Anacortes on Fidalgo Island in Washington state had a rapidly growing canning industry that started in 1893 and then the last cannery closed there in 1999. Both salmon and cod were processed in the canneries on the island.  At the peak of the industry, there were 11 canneries there. Seid Chee was a Chinese labor contractor and hired laborers to work in the salmon canneries in Anacortes in the early 1900s. He also supervised them as well. There are records that at one point, he did live in Portland, Oregon. It is very interesting to see an actual Chinese labor … Continue reading Seid Chee