slime line scene: mannequin processing a fish, lamps overhead, salmon butchering knives in a display case, and cannery signage on wall.

Gallery view of Fish House  – photograph by Brian Wallace.

THE FISH HOUSE: Chinese Butchers

The Iron Men of the Slime Line

Chinese workers were vital to the cannery operation in the early days of canning.

Skilled Chinese butchers cleaned virtually every salmon by hand—about three to six per minute. Chinese butchers received the salmon, placing thirty or forty at a time on long tables, and with precisely eight strokes of their long butcher knives, removed the head, tail, and fins, slit open the belly, and scraped out the entrails. 

In 1897, U.S. Fisheries Inspector Jefferson Moser described the Chinese technique:

“After removing the head, [the butcher] seizes the fish by the tail, grasping it at the caudal peduncle, and with a few rapid strokes removes the fins, with one slash opens the fish along the ventral line, and by another removes the viscera.”

Chinese Immigrants

Most Chinese immigrants to the U.S. originated from southeastern China’s Guangdong province, within the Pearl River Delta region. Nearly all Chinese immigrants came from the Guangzhou area and the eight counties adjacent to Guangzhou.

From Rail Lines to Canning Lines

The original cannery crew consisted entirely of Chinese workers who entered the country, beginning in the mid-1850s, when the United States negotiated with Imperial China for a steady flow of Chinese immigrants to work for companies building the transcontinental railroads. Once rail lines crossed the country in 1869, Chinese laborers then moved onto work in West Coast salmon canneries. Chinese cannery workers traveled to Alaska in 1878 to help establish the first canneries at Klawock and Sitka. By the mid-1880s, Chinese laborers formed much of the basis of fish processing work from Astoria, Oregon, to Bristol Bay, Alaska. The Chinese cannery workers were active participants in shaping their work environment and essential for the development of a booming industry.

Economic Scapegoats

Despite their valued skills and contributions to the canned salmon industry, Chinese immigrants faced bitter racial discrimination in the late nineteenth century. Boom and bust economic conditions prompted labor leaders to scapegoat the Chinese, while newspaper headlines popularized the phrase, “the yellow peril.” The mostly out-of-work white laborers blamed Asian competition for depressed wages. Xenophobic fears sparked brutal violence against Chinese communities throughout the West Coast, peaking in the late 1870s.

The Chinese Exclusion Act

When the American economy declined in the 1870s, resentment and anti-Chinese sentiment grew. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which banned most immigration from China for the next sixty years.

The Iron Butchering Machine

The growing shortage of Chinese workers compelled canners to mechanize the canning operation. By 1900 the only part of the cannery not mechanized was the butchering process, which could not supply enough salmon to permit the canning machines to operate at full speed.

In 1902 a former mining camp cook named Edmund A. Smith developed an apparatus that carried fish past a series of knives and brushes that removed the fins and split and cleaned the body cavity. Introduced during the 1904 salmon season, Smith’s machine proved to be a great success. It cleaned 40 salmon per minute, the equivalent of an eighteen-man Chinese butchering gang. As a result, Smith Cannery Machines Co. unapologetically dubbed its product the “Iron Chink,” a name by which it was called well into the 20th century.

Rather than editing the past, the plate displayed here not only reminds us of this transformative invention but remembers the skill of the Chinese butchers who were central to the canning process and the unapologetic industry that insulted them with an ethnic slur.

Men and Machines

Because unskilled workers could operate the device, the Iron Butchering Machine eventually displaced the Chinese butchers, the “aristocracy” of the Chinese cannery gangs.

The technological addition increased the percentage of lesser-skilled and less-expensive workers and reduced fish house laborers to mere machine tenders.

By 1917 an assortment of Chinese, Mexicans, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Polynesians, and Filipino worked in the Fish House as “slimers” who completed the cleaning process. By the 1970s, women and college-aged students worked the Slime Line.

On Display

Bin Count Sign, ca. 1980s
The Diamond NN Cannery had 10 bins that held up to 40,000 pounds of salmon. With each tide, tenders delivered freshly caught salmon, which were held in a bin with water and systematically processes over the course of a 20 hour day. The Bin Count Sign hung so that slimers working the slime line could see how many fish bins remained for the day, and more importantly, how many bins they had completed. The Bin Count Sign created a sense of camaraderie, competativeness, and task completion that added value to the slimers’ work.

A collection of well-used slime and butchering knives show how essential these sharp implements were to the canning process.
Courtesy of LaRece Egli.

Iron Butchering Blade
Sunny Point Cannery
ASM 81-9-1