Contractor Lem Sen’s Story

It was exactly a year ago when we gave a talk at CHSA (Chinese Historical Society of America) in San Francisco. The talk was originally planned in early 2020 as an in-person event; however, it became a virtual event because of the pandemic. Because it was a virtual event, we were able to reach out to a wider audience.

After the talk, I received an email from Deborah Lem, telling me that her grandfather was a labor contractor and she has some of Lem Sen’s documents in her possession. I was overjoyed to hear that because Lem Sen was one of the most important contractors in San Francisco. In fact, Lem Sen was a member of the firm Quong Ham Wah which was the number one contractor of APA for over 30 years. In the early 20th century, close to 1500 laborers were hired each spring and shipped to work in APA canneries in Alaska. This relationship lasted until the late 1930s when the labor union took control of the labor market.

The majority of the laborers were Chinese in the late 19th century. However, with the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1892, the Chinese population was aging and diminishing in number by the 1890s. In the early 20th century, the contractors began hiring Japanese workers, and later Filipinos. By the 1920s, the Chinese gang included people of many different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds.

Many of the contractors were merchants engaged in import/export and general merchandize. They were mainly located in three major cities: Portland, San Francisco, and later Seattle. Many of the contractors are quite well known, as their business dealings could be found in canners’ documents. However, their personal life is well hidden from the public. Here, thanks to Debora, we get to know a lot more about Lem Sen, such as his families, his four trips back to China, and his business. His testimony during an immigration interrogation was particularly revealing.

To read his full story, click on the Lem Sen’ Story under the Spotlight tab. Enjoy.

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