Chinese Workers in the San Juan Islands

  • By Lynn Weber/Roochvarg
  • Posted 3/04/2016
  • Essay 11197

In the late nineteenth century a few Chinese immigrants found work in the San Juan Islands in domestic service, on farms, or in mining and logging camps, but most Chinese laborers came to the islands as seasonal, short-term workers in fish canneries. Labor contractors such as Chun Ching Hock (1844-1927) of Seattle sent groups north to the islands just for the months of the salmon season. By 1899 Chinese workers accounted for almost half the employees of, for example, the Island Packing Company in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. All single men, the workers lived together in quarters known as the "China House" and had only limited contact with the local community, which accepted them with little of the animosity faced by Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans elsewhere on the West Coast. Through the first decades of the twentieth century, Chinese workers were valued, especially since they did tasks that whites would not and worked for lower wages. But as mechanization increased and replaced Chinese workers for many tasks, the need for outside laborers decreased, and eventually local workers could fill the canneries' needs. Chinese workers were no longer seasonal recruits in the San Juan Islands.

The First Arrivals

Like adventurers from so many countries, Chinese immigrants first landed on the West Coast seeking their fortunes in the California gold fields of the 1850s. As the gold rush waned, expanding western enterprises were desperately in need of workers, and Chinese labor quickly became indispensable to the building of railroads, in the mines and logging camps, and in domestic work. Because most immigrants had little or no facility in English, and therefore communication and recruitment were difficult, employers relied heavily on Chinese labor contractors to fill their growing need for workers.

Although several West Coast contractors supplied Chinese and other Asian labor, no contractor was more important in the Pacific Northwest than Chun Ching Hock. Chun (whose name was sometimes written as Chin Chun Hock or Chin Ching Hock) arrived at the age of 16 in San Francisco in 1860, and soon moved to Seattle, probably that city's first Chinese immigrant. Chun initially worked in the cookhouse of the Yesler Mill but soon left to establish the Wa Chong Company, a successful establishment selling fireworks as well as a variety of Chinese goods, rice, tea, and other items. However, it was as a labor contractor that Chun became a leader in the Seattle business community. He was paid in cash or real estate for each laborer, and he soon became the largest labor contractor in Washington Territory.

Among the industries most in need of workers were fish processors. The Puget Sound region had been a rich resource for fishermen for millennia, and as American settlement increased fish packing quickly became a major business activity. Unlike many other businesses, however, fish processing was simultaneously highly labor-intensive and seasonal, lasting only for the duration of the annual salmon runs. As the need for seasonal workers dramatically increased beyond what local labor could fill, Chun became an important supplier of the workforce required during the salmon-fishing seasons.

Before 1882 a few Chinese migrants had arrived in the San Juan Islands, located between the Northwest Washington mainland and Canada's Vancouver Island, singly or in limited numbers and found employment as fishermen, domestic workers (especially cooks), and employees in small local businesses. And there were always those who arrived less conventionally. Smuggling workers in from Canada, especially after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, was a common activity in the islands. The act, a result of anti-Chinese sentiment and demonstrations throughout the West, disallowed any further immigration of Chinese citizens for 10 years, but many still sought work in the U.S. and took advantage of Canada's more generous immigration regulations.

Some smugglers, like the notorious "Pirate Kelly," became well-known characters in the region, illegally carrying alcohol, opium, wool, and especially migrants from Victoria or Vancouver to the islands. Their human cargo paid enormous sums -- often $100 to $500 -- for the trip. Many of those smuggled in sought employment on farms or in lumber camps, mines, and other enterprises in the growing frontier communities. In 1905 The San Juan Islander reported that two smugglers in a 28-foot sloop ran aground on Lopez Island in a high wind, noting somewhat condescendingly that after being rescued from the sinking ship by local farmers, 14 "terrified mongolians were landed and soon 'took to the woods'" (San Juan Islander, November 5, 1903, p. 1). They were located, taken to Lopez Village, and subsequently sent to the Chinese deportation station at Port Townsend. Their fate was not at all unusual.

Fishing and Canneries in the Islands

Located near the Salmon Banks in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, considered to be among the most abundant fisheries in the Puget Sound area, the San Juan Islands were a busy center of activity for fishermen and canners. Techniques used by fishermen included purse seining and, after 1892, fish traps. Purse seining, sometimes said to have been introduced to the area by Chinese fishermen in 1886, required the careful release of an enormous net, lead-weighted on one side to cause it to sink, and with cork line on the other side to keep it afloat; the result was a bowl-like trap. Fish swam over the sunken edge into the net; the lowered edge was then drawn up, retaining many fish in the enclosing net. The fish were then dipped or "brailed" from the net and dropped into the hold of the fishing vessel.

But an even more efficient and productive method of maximizing the catch was the fish trap. This structure, an adaptation of Native American reef-catch techniques, involved a long lead line that would funnel fish into a series of inverted-V-shaped nets leading to a net cage. A net at the bottom of the trap could then be drawn to the surface and the fish transferred into holds. It was reported that a single day's catch could be up to 7,000 fish. Fish traps were so successful that they largely supplanted other commercial fishing techniques until they were outlawed in 1934.

When their holds were filled, fishing boats took their catch to one of the islands' canneries such as the Salmon Banks Cannery and Hidden Inlet Cannery on Lopez Island or, later, the Deer Harbor Cannery on Orcas Island, or the Island Packing Company in Friday Harbor. Established in 1894, the Island Packing Company already employed 74 white and 80 Chinese and Japanese workers in 1899 when Pacific American Fisheries (PAF) bought it out. Ultimately, PAF not only controlled the processing plant but also owned most of the fish traps in the area. Chinese workers continued to be essential employees. While the fish harvests were often abundant, personnel to process them in the canneries were not. In Seattle Chun Ching Hock continued to be an important source of Chinese workers in the islands. By the early 1900s, Chun not only was contracting with San Juan Island canneries but had acquired property on the island north of Friday Harbor, acreage he eventually sold to J. A. Gould of Seattle, a cannery owner himself, and the founding president of the San Juan County Bank, the first bank in Friday Harbor.

Chinese Workers

The Chinese workers in the canneries were all itinerant single men, employed for the season only. In Friday Harbor they were housed in a large two-story building known by local residents as the China House, or sometimes, using common racial slurs of the time, the "Chink House" or even occasionally the "Jap House," although the number of Japanese workers was very small and they lived elsewhere. Housing and eating facilities for the Chinese and Japanese workers were kept separate, reflecting long-standing ethnic tensions. The China House occupied land above the cannery, on a slope where the car-holding area for ferry traffic was later established. The facility was minimally furnished and without running water or other conveniences, but the Chinese laborers were supplied with rice mats and cookhouse supplies. A brief note in a July 1899 issue of the San Juan Islander mentioned that a "bright young Chinaman who is commissary for the Chinese at the Friday Harbor cannery, was [on the island] Monday buying pigs. He says it is not easy to get enough good ones to supply the force [in Friday Harbor] and at the Anacortes and Fairhaven canneries ..." (San Juan Islander, July 6, 1899, p. 3). To supplement their diet, some of the Chinese workers, if they arrived early enough in the growing season, planted vegetable gardens around China House and on land rented from local residents.

The Chinese workers were generally accepted by the island residents without the intense anti-Chinese agitation experienced in many other West Coast communities beginning in the mid-1880s. Almost all Chinese laborers were on the island only temporarily and largely, if informally, segregated from the daily life of the community. They did, however, participate in the island's lively July 4 festivities, and there are reminiscences of Chinese cannery workers organizing races for island children.

Employers found that Chinese laborers would take on onerous tasks that white employees would not and would work for lower wages. Many Chinese workers were employed in the monotonous, constantly wet, and grueling job of chopping off heads and tails and gutting the fish, the first stage in processing. Their importance to the packing industry was recognized. An article in the Fairhaven Evening Herald in 1900 declared that "the Chinese are efficient, cleanly and peaceable and there can be no question that any interference with them that would deprive the canneries of their services would be the greatest blow that could possibly be struck at the business or labor interest here" (Radke). At almost exactly the same time, however, E. B. Deming (ca. 1861 -?), head of PAF operations, made it clear that it was the policy of the company to phase out the Asian workers as quickly as possible while improving the skills of white employees, enabling them to take on more complicated tasks.

The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and Goon Dip

In 1908 PAF leased out its San Juan Island facility, which then became the Friday Harbor Packing Company. The following year a fish-cleaning machine invented in 1903 by Edmund A. Smith (1870-1909), designed to do the work then undertaken almost exclusively by Chinese labor and therefore dubbed the "Iron Chink," was exhibited at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition on the University of Washington's new Seattle campus. It attracted much attention. Smith was not able to savor his success, however, as he died while on his way to the fair when his car's gasoline tank exploded. But his machine and others like it revolutionized cannery operations throughout the Northwest.

The enormous Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition was organized and built over two years at a cost of $10 million and included exhibits from all over the United States and Pacific Rim countries in a beautiful setting of gardens and lanes. While the Chinese government, unlike some others, did not sponsor an exhibit or officially participate, the Seattle Chinese community financed and organized a large Chinese village that included a two-story temple-style building, a restaurant, shops, and entertainment on the Pay Streak (the popular midway of the exposition). Local Chinese Americans also spearheaded activities for the exposition's China Day on September 13, 1909, during which E. B. Deming of the Pacific American Fisheries first met Goon Dip (ca. 1862-1933), a highly regarded Seattle businessman and Imperial Chinese Consul of the exposition.

As a result of this fortuitous encounter and subsequent, apparently cordial, discussions, Goon Dip became the sole labor contractor for the by-then-expansive PAF (Chun Ching Hock had returned permanently to China), including operations in the islands. Goon Dip and Deming formed a lasting partnership that was celebrated in The Shield, a PAF publication. While discussing the success of Pacific American Fisheries, it was noted that it was necessary to "include and give full credit to the important part in that development played by that gallant, gentlemanly Oriental, Goon Dip ... a businessman par excellence -- shrewd, astoundingly so -- generous to the supreme and everlasting hilt -- a good winner and a better loser, above all, Goon Dip is what is known as a 'damned fine friend'" (Radke).

Evolving Labor Needs

The annual salmon catch was unpredictable and variable. Some years it was enormous; in 1901 and 1917, for example, catches were so large that there was insufficient cannery capacity to process them, and more fish were disposed of than canned. At the opposite extreme, as in 1902, the cannery did not operate at all. When salmon runs were small the canneries might operate for only a limited period. Consequently, cannery facilities were sometimes available to be put to other uses. In 1905 University of Washington biology students used the China House during the summer-school term, turning the lower floor into their kitchen and dining area. Despite the fluctuations in fish harvests, the canneries continued to prosper, and improved and expanded facilities continued to be built.

Pacific American Fisheries was constantly seeking better efficiency and productivity, and mechanization seemed key to reducing the amount of human labor needed, the most expensive aspect of the cannery operations. Importing Chinese workers for the short season, especially, was viewed as a necessary expense, but one which should be reduced or eliminated as soon as possible. Even before Smith's 1903 invention, the San Juan Islander noted with satisfaction that an inventor had designed a fish-cleaning machine that could process 50 fish per minute and do the work of 50 men. It was felt that an especially positive feature of this machine was that "the work which the machine does is of a class done exclusively by Japanese and Chinese" (San Juan Islander, July 31, 1902, p. 1). PAF and the San Juan Islands' canneries quickly adopted new machinery such as weight machines, filling machines, and topping machines, and Smith's fish-cleaning machines were soon in use too.

As mechanization of the canneries increased, the number of Chinese workers needed for the more demanding and undesirable tasks decreased, and, instead, more women and other local laborers were employed for the finishing and physically-less-arduous work. Eventually the area population grew, islanders could fill the labor needs, and it was no longer necessary to bring Chinese workers to the islands for the canning season. Because the Chinese laborers were on island only intermittently and briefly, lived largely separate from the community, did not bring wives and establish families, and did not settle permanently, there is little remaining evidence of the workers' individual achievements or permanent influence on the culture of the San Juan Islands. But their reputation for hard work, civility, and important contributions to a vital local industry over many years is a legacy both positive and lasting.


Gordon Carter, 85 Years of Service: The San Juan County Bank (Friday Harbor: Harbor Press, 1978), 1-2; Jack J. Crawford, Time Shadows & Tall Tales: San Juan Island in Earlier Years (Friday Harbor: Illumina, 2010), 168-169; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Chun Ching Hock Opens the Wa Chong Company in Seattle on December 15, 1868" (by Margaret Riddle), "Friday Harbor Waterfront" (by Boyd Pratt), "One Hundred and Fifty Chinese Workers Bound for Salmon Canneries at Blaine Leave Seattle on April 2, 1900" (by Margaret Riddle), and "Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (1909): Chinese Village" (by Phil Dougherty) (accessed February 16, 2016); The James Francis Tulloch Diary, 1875-1910: The True Story of the Ups and Downs of James and Annie Tulloch and Their Nine Children, All of Whom Were Born and Raised on Orcas Island in Washington State's San Juan Islands, ed. by Gordon Keith (Portland, OR: Winford & Mort, 1978), 27, 47-48; Washington Rural Heritage website accessed February 26, 2016 (; Shauna O'Reilly and Brennan O'Reilly, Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition (San Francisco: Arcadia, 2009), 11; August C. Radke, Pacific American Fisheries, Inc.; History of a Washington State Salmon Packing Company, 1890-1968 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2002), 62, 63, 64-65; Caroline Reed, Underpinning: A Vivid Recollection of Life in Washington State in the Early Part of This Century (Seattle: Frontier Publishers, 1989), 18-19, 27, 78-9, 106-107; Harry Ritter, Washington's History -- The People, Land, and Events of the Far Northwest (Portland, OR: Westwinds Press, 2003), 72, 85; San Juan Islander, July 6, 1899, p. 3; Ibid., September 7, 1899, p. 3; Ibid., August 2, 1900, p. 3; Ibid., November 8, 1900, p. 2; Ibid., July 31, 1902, p. 1; Ibid., May 7, 1903, p. 1; Ibid., July 16, 1903, p. 1; Ibid., June 24, 1905, p. 1; Ibid., November 5, 1903, p. 1; Ibid., May 21, 1909, p. 1; Ibid., June 10, 1910, p. 3; Ibid., April 21, 1911, p. 1; Alan J. Stein, Paula Becker, and the HistoryLink Staff, Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition: Washington's First World's Fair (Seattle: History Ink with University of Washington Press, 2009), 30, 119; Jen Vollmer, "Smuggling Chinese Laborers," History Corner, The Islands' Weekly, February 4, 2003, p 4; Mike and Julia Vouri and the San Juan Historical Society and Museum, Friday Harbor (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 2009), 37, 41, 85; Mike and Julia Vouri and the San Juan Historical Society and Museum, San Juan Island (San Francisco: Arcadia Publishing, 2009), 37, 40, 41, 42, 60, 85.

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