Earlier this month, my brother Philip and I gave a talk to a group of people from OCAW (Organization of Chinese American Women) in Silicon Valley. Many of OCAW members are immigrants from Taiwan, and many are about my age.
In the book “The Chinese in America”, author Iris Chang talked about the three waves of Chinese emigres: the first wave of over one hundred thousand laborers came to California during the gold rush era, more followed to work in railroad, mining, and farming. The majority of them were laborers, single, and came from one province in China: Guongdong.
The second wave came from China in the 1950s, after communists took over China, and this group included people who were highly educated and professionals. Many also fled to Hong Kong and Taiwan. From the 1960s, to 1980s, as their kids grew up, thousands of them came to America for education as foreign students. Many found work after graduation and stayed.
The third wave came during the last two decades of the 20th century as the relationship between China and US thawed. This group included Chinese of all socio-economic groups and backgrounds.
The story of the Chinese in salmon canning industry is essentially a story about the Chinese laborers from the first wave. They came to this country beginning in the mid 19th century, and ended in 1882 when Chinese laborers were no longer allowed to enter this country after the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act. They dominated the salmon canning labor market from 1870s till 1910s. Many remained bachelor, never made enough money to get rich or return home.
We gave the talk in Mandarin, and tried to inform them about the history of early Chinese emigres as cannery workers. Personally, I came to this country in 1968, and belong to the second wave, just as many member of OCAW. For many of us from the second wave, we have never heard of the story of the Chinese cannery workers. And in general, we are not familiar with the history of the Chinese from the first wave because they seem so distant. Yet, we share the same experience of coming to America, and found it shocking of their experience as aliens and low wage laborers. In comparison, it’s easy to see that the world has changed a lot over the past 150 years, there is something we can learn from the past and this part of Chinese American history.