To celebrate AAPI Heritage month in May, Robert Palos of Alaska Bureau of Land Management decided to host a talk on the impact of Asian workers in Alaska salmon canneries. Jeff Chen, multimedia journalist from Alaska Public Media, my brother Philip and I were invited to participate in this virtual event for the employees of Bureau of Land Management.
Marnie Graham, a BLM manager, gave the opening remark. She happens to have worked in Alaska canneries when she was attending college. Her experience in the egg-house brought back some fond memories since I also worked in the egg-house and as an egg-puller in the 1970s.
While Asians were generally excluded from fishing salmon, Asian laborers were heavily involved in the workforce inside the canneries. The Chinese contract system was in use from the 1880s to the late 1930s before it was eventually replaced by the labor union. The first group of Chinese migrant workers came to Klawock, Alaska in 1878, by 1900, Chinese peaked at 5000 workers. After 1900, Chinese start to diminish in number due to the effect of Chinese Exclusion Act. Starting in 1900, the second wave of Japanese workers began to replace the aging Chinese workers. The Japanese influx was later stopped by Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 and immigration policies. The 3rd wave of Filipinos soon followed, and they began to dominate in the 1930s. The Asians played an important part in the Alaska canning industry, even though they were at the bottom of the totem pole. Some Asian workers chose to stay in Alaska, a few Chinese and Japanese but probably more Filipinos. Today, Asians can still be seen inside Alaska canneries, but they are no longer a dominant force in the cannery labor market.