The Last Chinaman

I just happened to run across this article during my Internet research of Chinese in salmon canning industry. The headline “The Last Chinaman” grabbed my attention, and it is a story of the a Chinese cannery worker in Point Roberts at the turn of the 20th century. It is 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 from 1898 shows the salmon cannery where he worked, when the story took place.

It turns out Point Roberts is situated at a very interesting location, it is a pene-enclave of the United States on the southernmost tip of the Tsawwassen peninsula, south of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. It is a detached part of Whatcom County, but it is surrounded by water on 3 sides; there is no direct land connection between the two except through Canada. Today, Point Roberts is a resort town for many Canadians; however, the border is closed and business is way down due to the COVID-19.

In the 1880s, there were no tourists and the place was much quieter. In 1882, the first salmon cannery was opened in Semiahmoo near Blaine. In 1891, Daniel Drysdale built a small cannery at the end of Semiahmoo Split. In 1893, Alaska Packers Association bought out the Wedhams cannery at Point Roberts, and the Drysdale cannery at Semiahmoo Split.

In 1870, according to US census, there were only 234 Chinese residents in Washington Territory, by 1880, there were 3186 Chinese person in Washington, which was a 1262% increase. Chinese people returned at the end of the 19th century, with 839 in 1900 census – mostly cannery workers. In Whatcom County, there must be hundreds of Chinese residents in the 1880s. However, Chinese were expelled by Nov. 7, 1885, and the 1890 census record shows only one Chinese left.

According to the article, the main character of the story is Ah Fat who was born in China, and migrated to British Columbia in the late 19th century. He came to the US by following the Northern railroad to Bellingham, where he worked at at a salmon cannery. At the time, many Chinese were employed in salmon canneries and as cooks, servants, and other manual laborers. When I read the story, many images flashed across my mind, and the story read like a mini-movie with the following scenes:

  1. In 1900s, Ah Fat was the lone strange Chinese living in the neighborhood. He worked at the Point Roberts cannery and tended his vegetable garden.
  2. Back in 1880s, Ah Fat was living in Bellingham, and worked at a salmon cannery.
  3. In 1885, at the height of anti-Chinese movement, the editors of Bellingham local newspaper ‘The Whatcom Reveille’, Thomas Nicklin and Will Jenkins, bitterly blamed the Chinese for taking aways jobs from the white workers.
  4. Nicklin and Jenkins then plotted to expel all Chinese residents from the county.
  5. On Nov. 7th, 1885, ALL terrified Chinese residents were expelled from Bellingham.
  6. To get away, Ah Fat boarded a tender, crossing the Strait of Georgia, and headed for Point Roberts.
  7. Ah Fat settled down and worked at APA cannery, and changed his name to Charlie Chinaman.
  8. Later, Nicklin was rounded up and prosecuted, but he was eventually exonerated.
  9. Years later, Charlie was seen flying a giant bamboo kite, symbolizing his freedom in the remote corner of the Whatcom County… he was the last Chinaman.

This is just a simple plot, you have to read the whole article to get the full story and the background. Here is the link to the article: http://www.cascadiaweekly.com/cw/currents/2950

Photo source: Cannery Point, Point Roberts, Washington, 1895 showing the Cannery establishment and the string of three trap nets extending off from the point. 1899. Richard Rathbun. Freshwater and Marine Image Bank.

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