Chinese Workers

On the Water - Fishing for a Living - Chinese Workers

In the canneries, gangs of butchers beheaded, cleaned, and cut the fish into pieces. On the Columbia River after 1872, this work was done exclusively by Chinese men, who were supplied by Chinese labor contractors based in San Francisco. The expert cutters could clean 1,700 fish a day.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited new Chinese laborers from entering the United States, and by the 1890s the canneries felt the shortage of skilled laborers. They recruited Japanese, Filipino, and Mexican laborers to fill the gap, but many cannery owners insisted the Chinese butchers were the best in the business.



Courtesy of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

A Mechanical Fish Dresser

Cannery operators mechanized as many aspects of canning as possible to increase production with fewer laborers. But butchering and cleaning the fish remained hand work, which created a production bottleneck during heavy runs of fish. In 1903, Edmund Smith of Seattle introduced his “machine for dressing fish,” and its success marked the beginning of the end for Chinese fish butchers.


“Iron Chink”

The common name for Smith’s machine was the “Iron Chink,” a term that acknowledged the superior skills of Chinese butchers and insulted them with an ethnic slur. The machines were installed at canneries along much of the coast.

Courtesy of the Museum of History & Industry, Seattle