A Forgotten Chapter of the American Chinese History?

Last month, we were invited by the Chinese American Heritage Foundation to present a talk on the book we edited and published this summer, “The Price of Salmon.” One question that come up consistently in our webinars is “Why is the history of the Chinese Americans in the salmon canning industry so rarely been heard or talked about?”

The contribution the Chinese Americans made in the salmon canning industry was significant. The Chinese labor force dominated the industry from 1870 to 1910. At its peak, thousands of Chinese laborers went up to Alaska and worked in the canneries. The Chinese contractors were prominent and acted as middlemen between the canners and the Chinese workers. Even after the Chinese influence was waning, the Chinese contract system was still active until 1938 when the labor union took over. Economically, canned salmon was one of the top industries in the northwestern states of Oregon, Washington and Alaska.

Together, Chinese laborers, Chinese contractors and the Chinese contract system created a sphere of semi-independent influence that dominated the industry for 60-70 years. In terms of its duration and impact, this was unparalleled in other American industries. So why was this chapter of the American Chinese industry being overlooked by the Chinese Americans? Aside from some significant scholarly studies, there is little public knowledge or celeberation.

There are many reasons that may account for this phenomenon. To begin with, the Chinese involvement in the salmon canning industry did not end in a singular major historical event like the Transcontinental railroad. Also, by compassion, the canning process was not as heroic as the building of the railroad. After 1910 the Chinese involvement in the salmon canning industry was waning . The Chinese laborers were aging, and there were competitions from the Japanese and the Filipinos. The Chinese contractors were corrupt and were losing grounds and the Chinese contract system itself was deteriorating and was being challenged. Things came to a head in 1938 when a union was created and won the collective bargaining right with the canners. The Seattle based union were mostly backed by Filipinos, and the Chinese were forced out. So while the Filipinos celebrated their victory in the labor movement, that was not much cause for celebration for the Chinese.

The Chinese employment dropped drastically after 1938. In 1938, the first year after the union and the American Filipinos took over, only 367 Chinese were sent to Alaska. That number dropped steadily to 20 in 1952. It was as if the Chinese had retreated from the industry en mass, and few decedents from the first Chinese migrants returned to the industry. In sum, there was a discontinuity of Chinese labor involvement after 1938. The fact the Chinese were forced out of the industry did not help the situation. By comparison, the Filipinos, who are still controlling the union today, are proud of their leading role in the labor union movement that overthrown the Chinese contract system. Individually, or collectively, the Chinese chose to suppress what was a difficult and stained ending.

Since the 1950s, the number of Chinese Americans who went to Alaska were perhaps numbered in the teens each year. However, none of them were the migrents from Canton. Some of them could be the second or third generation Chinese Americans, and some were Chinese foreign students from China or Taiwan. Either way, few were in a position to realize the long and difficult history of the Chinese involvement in the salmon canning industry. When I and my brother, James, were working in Alaska during our college summers, we had no idea we were following the footstep of the thousands of our countrymen who toiled in the canneries over 100 years ago.

Another reason for lack of public knowledge of the the history of the Chinese Americans in the salmon canning industry could be due to the lack of physical artifacts, especially written documents. Few Chinese workers and contractors left us with detailed documents such as dairies, publications, records and photographes. The canning companies kept record of their official interactions with the Chinese contractors, but none of the Chinese workers who were legally not their employees. Also some documents must have perished during the 1906 San Francisco fire. But things will change as many scholars, researchers and students continue to uncover more information and bring them to the attention of the Chinese Americans and the general public.

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