Chinese Labor on the Lower Columbia

This stereopticon slide is titled: “Butchering Salmon — Interior at a Canning Establishment, Astoria, Oregon, U.S.A.” The printed information on the reverse side reflects the turn-of-the-century attitudes at the time the photograph was taken:

As a young reporter in 1891, Rudyard Kipling traveled up the Columbia River on a fish-buying expedition. He wrote of his experience in his book, “American Notes.” His description of the workforce employed in the canneries is considered a classic: 

Only Chinamen were employed on the work, and they looked like blood-besmeared yellow devils as they crossed the rifts of sunlight that lay upon the floor. When our consignment arrived, the rough wooden boxes broke of themselves as they were dumped down under a jet of water, and the salmon burst out in a stream of quicksilver. A Chinaman jerked up a twenty-pounder, beheaded and detailed it with two swift strokes of a knife, flicked out its internal arrangements with a third, and case it into a blood-dyed tank. The headless fish leaped from under his hands as though they were facing a rapid. Other Chinamen pulled them from the vat and thrust them under a thing like a chaff-cutter which, descending, hewed them into unseemly red gobbets fit for the can.

The first Chinese labor force on the Columbia had been contracted by George Hume in 1872 for his Eagle Cliff Cannery in Wahkiakum County. The Chinese, though unskilled, proved efficient and dependable and would accept low pay. Soon canneries up and down the river followed suit and by 1881 more than 4,000 Chinese men were working in Columbia River canneries. 

While many Scandinavians were also employed in the fishing industry, it was the Chinese who were confined to cannery jobs.  By unspoken agreement among those of European descent, the Chinese were not allowed to fish. They were relegated to the difficult and dirty jobs in the canneries, working as fish slimers and cutters.

Toward the end of the 19th century, however, Chinese immigration was beginning to be looked at as a threat to the living standards of whites in North America. The Chinese were seen as invasive, and this mounting xenophobia culminated in what has since been termed the “Yellow Peril Hysteria.” 

In the U.S., Chinese immigration was banned with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. This act provided a 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration, but was renewed in 1892 and made permanent in 1902. For the first time, Federal law proscribed entry of an ethnic working group on the premise that it endangered the good order of certain localities. 

Although the early 20th century Chinese work force was considerably curtailed by the Exclusion Act, there were limited provisions in the Act allowing Chinese who had immigrated before 1880 to stay. In 1903, as if in answer to the growing labor problem, E. A. Smith of Seattle invented a machine which did the work of 15 to 20 people. It could remove fish heads, fins, and tails, open and clean fish, and complete all preparations for cutting – all this at the rate of 22,000 fish per hour!  It was offensively labeled the "Iron Chink" because it replaced much of the Chinese labor force.

Still, there were a number of Chinese workers in Pacific County well into the 20th century. As a participant in the Washington State Oral History Project in 1975, Charlie Koe of Pacific County told about his father’s experience as part of the Chinese labor force at P.J. McGowan’s cannery in Ilwaco: 

My father was born in Canton, China, in 1861. He came over to this country, I don't exactly know the age. But according to the 1880 United States census of Pacific County, Washington Territory, most of the Chinese came over to work in the cannery when they were about 18 to 25 years old.

In those days most of 'em came over to America to become Gum San, that means gold hill. They figured there was gold here in those days. More opportunity for them. My father was a cannery foreman. He was working for P. J. McGowan and Son in Ilwaco. The 29 Chinese crew was contracted by season, from May the first to the end of August. Then, for the fall season they send another contract; we had a smaller crew on in the fall season because it's only three months and there is not as much fish.

Those days’ wages were pretty low, 50, 60 dollars a month around 1910. Most of the workers were single men; he'd get his crew from Astoria or Portland, and they'd come over and work about eight, nine months out of the year. Most of the Chinese crew would work about ten hours a day. When there was too much work they'd generally work on Sunday overtime. They would be all tired out and have no place to go; not even go to a show or downtown. The only time they'd go downtown those days was to pick up the mail for the crew.

In those days the Chinese were just one community; they didn't stray away from the bunkhouse too much, you know. They generally worked on the garden and then went to bed. Early morning they would go to work. There was not too much machinery there during those days. The only thing they had was a steam engine to run the crimping machine which sealed the tops.

It would seem from Koe’s recollections, that the McGowan Cannery in Ilwaco was not yet using Smith’s new-fangled invention to replace their Chinese workers.  Nevertheless, the industry was gradually changing due in large measure to declining salmon runs rather than to immigration laws and mechanization.  

As the century wore on and the number of canneries diminished, fewer and fewer Chinese were hired from the increasingly competitive labor pool.

As unbelievable as it might have seemed in the early 1900s, the last major cannery on the Columbia River closed in 1980. Not only the stories of the early Chinese labor force but the stories of the salmon canneries, themselves, have already become the subjects of museum exhibits and history books.

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