Cannery’s Asian Crew

The Iron Men of the Slime Line

The <NN> Cannery’s Asian crew, hired first from China, then Japan, and later, the Philippines
via labor contractors located in the West Coast hubs of San Francisco and Seattle. These workers
were hired to process the salmon and, in the early years, soldered by hand the tin cans on the
long voyage northward. The industry’s most telling—and unapologetic—depiction of the Asian
cannery worker is a machine called the “Iron Chink,” which was invented to replace the task of
butchering salmon by human hand—a critical task assigned to the Chinese workers. Machines,
however, did not supplant Asian processors, as indicated by numerous cannery buildings built in
later years to accommodate Asian workers.

The grouping of four, small Chinese bunkhouses are some of the cannery’s oldest structures. The
fact that they were built to house the earliest cannery processors indicate that Asian workers
were vital to the operation from the beginning. Although the Asian cannery workers were
necessary, they were nevertheless isolated from the rest of the cannery complex, suggesting
policies of segregation and pacification. The plain design of these four structures represents the
“no-frills” architecture that served a purely functional purpose. Moving Asian workers from the
four bunkhouses to a larger, two-story building in later years, suggests that the Asian workforce
was actually surging as cannery lines mechanized. But the change in the building’s name from
“China House,” to “Filipino Bunkhouse” denotes the impact of national laws such as the 1882
Chinese Exclusion Act and the Geary Act, passed in 1902, that made the exclusion of Chinese
immigrants permanent, that sparked a generational transition that eventually replaced Chinese
and Japanese laborers with Filipino and Native labor.

Likewise, the construction of the <NN> Cannery’s Filipino Mess Hall suggests that crew size
was relatively large and necessary to the canning operation. But, like the Native cannery
workers, the Filipino Mess Hall reveals a darker story of racial segregation. The presence of a
separate “white” Mess Hall and the Filipino Mess Hall underscores this discrimination while the
eventual closing of the Filipino Mess Hall (converting it to a provisions warehouse and
fishermen’s laundry), and the construction of a single Mess Hall for all cannery workers,
signifies a shift in company policy that eventually integrated the workforce.

 
 
Cannery Worker Edits.JPG
 
 

Despite Asian cannery workers’ expansive and necessary contributions to the industry, historians
still know very little about them. We know that the Superintendent’s House included a “servant
qtrs” room attached to the kitchen, used by a Chinese worker, but after that, we know little else
about that individual. The Chinese graveyard near the original bunkhouses may yield new
information about these workers—who they were and from where they originated. Besides
Chinese cannery workers, village residents are also buried in the graveyard, making it sacred
ground and just as meaningful to local people as to descendants in Asia. The ground around the
bunkhouses also have the potential to yield important archeological evidence, furthering our
understanding of the Asian cannery experience under criterion D. Of all the building associated
with underrepresented communities, the Chinese bunkhouses and associated graveyard are at the
most risk from threats such as vegetation overgrowth, erosion, and natural deterioration. And,
despite being used as storage for decades, the bunkhouses, with their precariously leaning walls
etched with graffiti, still have structural integrity and together the four structures and graveyard
are physical reminders that reflect the contributions made by the contracted China crew, and
ultimately, all the Asian cannery workers who gave their lives to the industry.

Over the decades, the Asian workers experienced upward mobility within the cannery order.
Prior to the Depression, Filipino schoolboys—the Alaskeros—made their way to Alaska
canneries to seek work for college, and transformed the labor system through the power of the
Union by the 1940s. The postwar years saw Filipino workers transition into skilled positions
such as machinists and carpenters. Japan’s rise as a major player in Alaska’s canned salmon
market and industry also impacted the labor order. The fairly recent introduction of the Egg
House reflects the economic importance of the packed salmon roe, a specialty food prepared for
Asian palates. The salmon roe, or fish eggs, was packed by Japanese technicians, sold by
Japanese brokers, and considered far more valuable than the canned fish product. Bilingual
Japanese personnel were hired to supervise both the Fish House and Egg House. Understanding
the ability for these groups to adapt to their circumstances, and even move beyond them,
broadens our interpretation of the Asian experiences in Alaska canneries.

LaRece Egli