For the last 35 years, I worked in the high tech industry in Silicon Valley, and spent a lot of time in front of computers. A few years ago, after I retired from my professional work, I started looking into the history of the Alaska canneries. It was quite a surprise to learn that the Chinese laborers were the backbone of the salmon canning industries for close to half a century from 1870s to 1920s, as they worked on the production lines and filled the lower tier of cannery employment. Towards the end of the 19th century, thousands of Chinese workers were recruited by Chinese contractors to work in canneries along the Pacific Coast, from NW states Oregon and Washington to Alaska. At the turn of the 20th century, the Chinese laborers were slowly replaced by Japanese, Filipinos, Mexicans, women, and native Indians. Just prior to WWII, there were still 400-500 Chinese making annual trips to Alaska from San Francisco.

In recent years, there has been a lot of books and studies done on Chinese American histories, on topics such as the Chinese railroad workers and Chinese fishermen. Even though the Chinese have had a long continued history of working in the West Coast canning industry since 1870, not too many people are aware of this, including Chinese Americans. Next year, 2020, would mark the 150th year anniversary of the first employment of Chinese workers in Hume’s Eagle Cliff cannery, and we think it is time to bring awareness to this important part of our history.

When I got started, I approached my brother Philip and asked if he would be interested to join me in this project. He was quite excited and agreed to participate; it is always nice to have a brother as a partner, let alone a twin brother. It is hopeful that by the end of our project, we can answer some of the following questions:

  • Who are the people in the first group of Chinese workers?
  • What is an “Iron Chink”?
  • What is it like to be part of the “China Gang”?
  • What is the Chinese Contract system?
  • What is it like to work in a cannery?
  • Are there any Chinese working in Alaska canneries today?

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