Gutting it out on the gut line — Chinese cannery workers faced tough conditions

Photos courtesy of the H.M. Wetherbee Collection, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Polar Regions Archives. The gut line of the Alaska Packers Association Cannery at Kasilof in about 1890.

Photos courtesy of the H.M. Wetherbee Collection, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Polar Regions Archives. The gut line of the Alaska Packers Association Cannery at Kasilof in about 1890.

By Dr. Alan Boraas

For the Redoubt Reporter

As boys growing up in the 1930s, Herman Lindgren and Herman Hermanson hung out at the canneries, particularly the Libby Cannery across the river from Kenai. Young Lindgren and Hermanson were told by their fathers and uncles to never go near the Chinese barracks. That, of course, was a challenge to any self-respecting, rambunctious boy.

As Hermanson later told the story at a Kasilof Historical Society meeting, during the lunch break they would sneak over to the

Chinese cannery workers coming north to the Kasilof cannery aboard the Corea.

Chinese cannery workers coming north to the Kasilof cannery aboard the Corea.

Chinese barracks and peek in the windows. What they saw were Chinese workers lounging on their beds smoking opium. Then the boys ran.

The canneries were cosmopolitan places with fishermen from the West Coast and Europe, Chinese cannery workers, and local Dena’ina working to catch, can and export the summer salmon runs. The West Coast, European and Dena’ina fishermen built the fish traps, ran the tenders and did some drift-netting. The Chinese and, later, Filipino workers operated the gut line. Each ethnic group had its own barracks and mess hall.

Of the many ethnic groups, the Chinese workers’ history is the most enigmatic. Some who have written about Chinese opium use and the many pipes found at cannery sites have implied they were a bunch of decadent dope-smokers robbing the cannery of a decent day’s work. That is not true.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Treasury Department was entrusted with commercial oversight before Alaska became a territory and sent special agents to the canneries to report abuse of fishing and alcohol laws, among other regulatory and

Retorts at the Kasilof Cannery, about 1890.

Retorts at the Kasilof Cannery, about 1890.

legal wrongdoings. Howard M. Kutchin was one of the special agents and visited Alaska canneries, including those of Cook Inlet, during that time. In 1901, he described the gut line operated by the Chinese workers:

“The fish are thrown from the piles up to within easy reach of the butchering tables, where the butcher … puts a row of a dozen or more upon the table, regularly arranged with the tails toward him. At the further corner of the table is a chute into which he sweeps the offal, which falls into the water under the house (cannery).

“Here he stations himself, and seizing a fish by the tail with one stroke beheads it; with another sweep of his long, sharp knife he removes the back fins; then one swift cut lays it open, and about two or three scrapes takes out the roe and entrails; another cut removes the tail; and all of the body fit for use is pushed into a tank of fresh water at the end of the table.

Photos courtesy of Alan Boraas. Libby Cannery’s docks in Kenai in 2001.

Photos courtesy of Alan Boraas. Libby Cannery’s docks in Kenai in 2001.

“Not to exceed eight motions are made from the time the fish is put on the table until it is in the tank; and the process is kept up with machinelike regularity from 10 to 14 hours a day, with a brief interval for dinner. A good butcher will handle from 250 to 300 an hour, or four to five every minute.”

Gutting four to five salmon every minute would have taken a harsh toll on the workers’ bodies, particularly the hands and wrists, leading to the more believable reason they smoked opium — to kill the pain. Opium contains about 12 percent morphine, as

Libby Cannery in Kenai in 2001.

Libby Cannery in Kenai in 2001.

well as codeine. Today morphine, of course, is used in hospitals for severe pain, and hydrocodone, derived from opium, is a powerful prescription painkiller.

There were other abuses regarding the Chinese workers. The workers were controlled by a “boss Chinaman,” who was part of what is sometimes called the Chinese mafia. The system emerged during mid-1800s Western railroad construction, where a boss provided the railroads with a crew that worked for lower wages and endured longer, harsher hours than other laborers. The 1900 census for Kenai and Kasilof indicates many of the Chinese cannery workers had been in the United States for decades,

presumably once working for the railroads, and averaged over 40 years old, with many in their 60s.

An Oriental burial at the mouth of the Kenai River.

An Oriental burial at the mouth of the Kenai River.

In Alaska, the boss Chinaman contracted with the cannery to provide a crew. How much each worker was paid is not known, since the recorded contracts are between the cannery and Chinese boss. In 1892, the Chinese boss at Kenai was paid $118 per worker, from which he first took his cut.

In contrast, the white workers made about $358 for a summer ($46,200 in today’s dollars). The Chinese laborers were docked for any debts they incurred at the company store where goods, including opium, sake and gin, were sold on credit, often at exorbitant prices. One cannery supply ship brought 120 pounds of opium north for sale to Chinese workers.

It was a vicious cycle of peonage. In order to get paid, the workers needed opium to get through a horrendous workday. Then they used some of that money to buy more opium to get through the next day. And it all worked on credit with usurious interest rates.

In the 1930s the bosses were given a $30 per month food allowance to feed the Chinese workers, but typically fed them at only $4 a month, pocketing the rest. The Chinese were not fed salmon because that was considered too expensive, so they were fed mostly rice with a little chicken and pork.

Photo from the KPC Anthropology Department Photograph Archive. An “Iron Chink” being operated at a Kenai cannery, date unknown.

Photo from the KPC Anthropology Department Photograph Archive. An “Iron Chink” being operated at a Kenai cannery, date unknown.

Back in Seattle or San Francisco the bosses often ran Chinese grocery stores or cheap hotels selling food or providing housing on credit, forcing the workers to return to Alaska the following summer to pay off their debt.

In addition to horrendous work conditions, travel on the company ships to and from Alaska from Seattle or San Francisco was difficult, at best. Their quarters below deck were dark, damp and unsanitary, with eight to 10 bunks high in rows 4 or 5 feet apart.

Few cared about the plight of the Chinese workers. Like the dominant society, organized labor generally had an anti-Oriental bias, except for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which attempted to organize Chinese workers for their benefit.

–But after World War I the IWW influence waned, in part because of communist influences during the First Red Scare. In 1934, the Code of Fair Competition for the Canned Salmon Industry outlawed the contract system. But the contractors simply changed their name to a “labor agency” and continued business as usual.

Eventually the Chinese workers faded from the Alaska gut lines, victims of old age, xenophobia and mechanization. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese immigration for 10 years and was amended in 1904 to ban Chinese immigration permanently (repealed in 1943). Consequently the Chinese gut line workers gradually aged and were replaced by workers from the Philippines and Mexico.

Eventually, the human-powered gut line was replaced with the offensively named “Iron Chink,” a machine to gut and clean salmon. It could process 110 fish per minute versus the four to five fish per minute of a Chinese worker. And it didn’t need opium.

The story of the Chinese cannery workers is a triumph of human skill and endurance, and at the same time, a tragedy of human exploitation. Through documents, museums and classrooms, we should acknowledge the Chinese workers suffering as a way to make reparation for an injustice that happened in our land. Sadly, the type of abuse the Chinese workers received is still happening in parts of the world today.

Dr. Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College. This piece involved information from:

  • Howard M. Kutchin, “Report on the Salmon Fisheries of Alaska, 1900,” Office of Special Agents, Treasury Department, Wash-ington Government Printing office;
  • Jack Masson and Donald Guimary, “Asian Labor Contractors in the Alaskan Canned Salmon Industry, 1880-1937,” Labor History Vol. 22, Summer 1981; and
  • Alan Boraas and Penny Vann, “Canneries of Cook Inlet.”

2 Comments

Filed under Almanac, commercial fishing, history

2 responses to “Gutting it out on the gut line — Chinese cannery workers faced tough conditions

  1. Nice to see you take a week off from your usual opinion piece, socialist political commentary…. oh, I see you did anyway.

  2. Deborah Poore

    I greatly appreciate this article, as the history of Chinese salmon cannery workers in Alaska has been much over-looked and consequently forgotten.

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