Left: Chinese Cannery Hands at the APA Diamond E Cannery at Egegik ca.1930s. Heinbockel-Payne Family. Right: Gallery view – photograph by Brian Wallace
THE CHINA HOUSE: The Invisible Cannery Workers
When not canning salmon, the processing crew lived in an isolated cannery area colloquially called “Chinatown,” referring to the industry’s first cannery workers.
The small cluster of deplorable buildings usually consisted of a Chinese Mess House and Store, cramped and uninsulated bunkhouses, and an inadequate washroom and outhouse.
The Forgotten China Gang: A Mini-United Nations
As the Chinese cannery workforce dwindled after the turn of the 20th century, Chinese contractors sought Japanese, Puerto Ricans, African Americans, Polynesians, Mexican, and Filipinos to replace them.
In 1928, Li GongBu, a Chinese foreign student working at Union Bay cannery, described the cannery social environment as a” mini-United Nations:”
“Even though the cannery hires only about 100 workers, this place is like a mini world, with people of many colors and nationalities…. These people come from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Mexico, Italy, Switzerland, and even some undocumented workers from other places. It is hard to imagine that a small cannery as this can have workers belonging to so many different nationalities.”
The Labor Contractors: Exploiting Workers
Salmon canners relied on labor contractors to provide nearly all the labor for the processing operation. The contractor was responsible for recruiting and feeding the cannery crew, managing the processors, assigning work tasks, and paying the workers at the end of the season.
Labor contractors devised many unscrupulous ways to profit off those they hired. Contractors—including <NN>’s contractor, Lem Sen- made workers purchase overpriced and shoddy clothing, charged exorbitant prices for goods once at the cannery, and hired professional gamblers to fleece workers’ of their earnings. Some workers returned to San Francisco at the end of the salmon season, surprised to find the contractors had claimed all the worker’s earnings after months of grueling work.
Q: How much money did you receive on your return?
A: He offered me $4.50
Q: Why this difference in this amount and $160.00?
A: The balance went for gambling, food, and liquor.
— Sworn testimony of Peter Hunter on Labor conditions in the Alaska Salmon Fishery in 1912
The Cannery Cemetery: The Great Equalizer
"It was a cold bed for a native of sunny Mexico,
but it was a rest for his tired old bones."
— Max Stern, The Price of Salmon, 1922
At most canneries there is a cemetery lined with headstones marking the last resting place of fishermen and cannery workers who paid the ultimate price of salmon.
Cannery graveyards were usually situated on river bluffs and set apart from the cannery’s work and living areas.
Unlike the cannery mess halls and bunkhouse, most cannery cemeteries were integrated, with various religious groups buried side by side. In some cases, grave markers serve as the only record of the names of individual cannery people.
When possible, Chinese workers exhumed their dead at the end of the season and shipped the remains back to China.
Today, nearly all cannery graveyards in Western Alaska are abandoned and are at risk due to vegetation overgrowth and bluff erosion caused by climate change.
It is well-known that contractors added opium to the list of provisions—intended to keep unhappy cannery crews stoned and pacified. Likewise, subcontractors provided moonshine and marijuana. However, cannery crews employed several other ways to cope with poor, discriminatory, and exploitive treatment.
Cannery workers supplemented their meager diets by keeping gardens. They gathered plants and shellfish and bartered with the local Alaska Natives living near the cannery. Chignik resident, August Pedersen, remembered selling bear feet and gallbladders to the Chinese workers in exchange for the dented cans at the end of the summer.
Axel Widerstrom recalled that Mexican cannery workers always had a guitar. Max Stern remembers the lonesome songs of the African Americans workers. Likewise, the Filipino crew brought with them to the cannery their love of music.
"The philippinos [Filipinos] find their recreation much the same way, except that they also have several dances a week. A guitar, a mandolin, an instrument comprised of two strings attached to a wash tub and broom handle, served as their orchestra."
— George Edward Bussell, Tallyman, 1949
Song of Salmon Gang
We’re a frouzy, lousy crew
As head-wind ever blew,
The scrapings of five continents and more;
They have gathered us and shipped us,
A good two thousand miles from home ashore.
To Naknek, Kvichak, Ugashik,
To Togiak and Coffee Creek
To tundra flats and mud o’ Bristol Bay,
To Kagione [Koggiung] and Igigak [Egegik];
Wood River, Snake and Nushagak,
Wind, skeeters, drizzle, slavin’, rotten pay.
They have packed us fore and aft,
In this rollin’, leakin’ craft,
For a fishin’ like Ike Walton never knew.
For we’re off to harvest salmon,
For our masters, Man and Mammon,
And we’ll work from Hell to breakfast till we’re through.
Alaska State Museum TD-20-9
Mahjong Tiles and Counting Sticks
Alutiiq Museum & Archaeological Repository, AM718
“Sq___” [sic] Harbor, Alaska
Watercolor by Andrew Chinn ca. 1937. Andrew Chinn worked for a summer at Squaw Harbor Cannery on Unga Island of the Aleutians as a youth before making his mark in American art history. Chinn is recognized for his significance to the “Northwest School” and Regionalism in the mid-20th century. Alaska State Museum 2021-4-1.