Li Gongpu

Li Gongpu.

Li Gongpu (or Gongbu) was an intellectual and writer and became a well-known Chinese social activist and was one of the founders of the Chinese Democratic League and also served in the National Revolutionary Army. After serving, he came to the US to attend Portland’s Reed College in 1927 to study Political Science. During this time, he was still contributing articles to a magazine in Shanghai related to his American experiences and Western democratic systems when he decided to work in an Alaskan salmon cannery in the summer of 1928. He described his experiences at the Union Bay cannery, which is 37 miles north of Ketchikan, Alaska. His personal account as a Chinese laborer may be the only documented account before WWII and provides a priceless first-hand look into the industry at the time.

He kept detailed observations in a diary about the cannery, the work, and the people there. “The cannery I am working in is the largest in the neighborhood, equipped with the state-of-the-art machinery. It can handle four to five thousand three-foot-long salmon, from cutting, cleaning, canning, cooking, labeling, and packing in a matter of hours.” The tasks in the factory “includes cutting fish, clearing fish, canning, making cans, and packaging. Many of the steps are done by machines.” On his duties and working hours: “My job is to operate the machines that make empty cans. The main thing is to put large pieces of tin into the first machine, which cut them into round pieces, and then another machine shapes them into empty cans. ” He “only stand in front of the machine and feed the piece of tin in. …… Compared with cleaning fish, this is an easy and clean job.”

His initial impression of the cannery is as follows. “The factory is located onshore of Union Bay, where is not only plenty of fish but also splendid scenery.  It faces the Pacific Ocean, and its back is a high mountain with a stream. A walkway next to the factory leads to the stream, and the cannery water comes from the stream.  Pristine forests cover the mountains with old and big trees. We can sometimes see bears and deer, although bears are scarier. Even in summer, the snow on the top of the mountain makes us very cool.” He praised the “beautiful scenery here… Never tired of watching the sunset, walking, or fishing.” But “the factory is isolated from the outside world, except for a ferry delivering mails once every two or three weeks.”

Union Bay Cannery. Wikimedia Commons.

He was also amazed at the diversity of the workers at the Union Bay cannery. “Although the factory has only about a hundred workers, this place is like a small world, with people of all colors and nationalities. For example, Americans are white, Japanese and Chinese are yellow, Filipinos are brown, and Blacks originated from Africa. The workers are from China, Japan, the Philippines, Mexico, Italy, Switzerland, and other places. Most of the Chinese workers have been replaced by Filipinos. It’s hard to imagine such a small factory with people with so many different nationalities.”

Other observations he made of the cannery workers included “From observing the contacts of these workers, I can feel the psychology of their different nationals. Whites came from more than 30 countries, about half of them with little education and only spoke simple English, but they felt like they were the most civilized people in the world. The Japanese are polite to Whites but arrogant to others. Filipinos are fond of showing off before the Reds and Blacks. And what about those Chinese? Although having the same color of skin like the Japanese, they are not treated the same as the Japanese. Such a situation may be because China…” has a low international political status in world.

After his experiences in America, he returned back to China. He helped lead the movement to unite China against the Japanese invasion in the 1930s and he continued his peace efforts as a member in the Chinese Democratic League. His assassination in 1946 in Kunming by the Chinese government was such an important moment in history that it was taught in Chinese schools and also documented in a film there.


Chinese in Northwest America Research Committee (CINARC). The Diary of Li Gongbu as a Cannery Worker at Union Bay, Alaska. Data-2 (

Neilson, Tara. Li Gongpu: Undercover cannery worker in 1928. Juneau Empire. Li Gongpu: Undercover cannery worker in 1928 | Juneau Empire

Song-James, Zhida. Historical record of Chinese Americans. Alaskan Chinese Story II: Li Gongpu and Salmon Canneries.

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