APA Museum attraction highlights role of Chinese labor

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The Alaska Packers Association (APA) Museum in Semiahmoo Park has a new attraction. A rusty old “Iron Chink” machine has been sandblasted, painted fire-engine red and placed on a concrete pad. Peeled poles support a new roof and allow the machine to occupy its rightful place in the history of the Alaska Packers cannery, which operated from 1880 to 1973 and was miraculously transformed into Semiahmoo Resort in the mid-1980s.

In the late 1800s, Chinese laborers were recruited to work in the West Coast’s canneries. A skilled “China hand” could clean six salmon a minute by chopping off the head, tail and fins and slitting the belly. The fish were then sent on down the conveyor line to be “slimed” – washed, chopped into smaller pieces and then stuffed into cans to be cooked.

To be blunt, the Chinese workers were a cheap source of labor. Canneries had separate houses for Chinese workers that were always referred to as “China House.” They worked in the canneries but were segregated by housing, transportation and meals.

Chinese laborers played an important role at the Semiahmoo cannery. Cannery managers valued the skilled labor they provided for the short summer canning season. Working conditions were often dangerous and dirty, yet determined laborers sent money home to help their families and improve their communities.

The “Iron Chink” machine was invented to replace the Chinese workers in 1901. The now-racially charged name, “Iron Chink,” was patented in 1905 by Edmond Smith of Seattle and used into the 1930s. Whereas a Chinese worker could process six salmon a minute, the machine could process 100 salmon a minute. Each of the nine Iron Chinks at Semiahmoo took the place of 15 to 20 people on the fish line, jobs traditionally held by contracted Chinese laborers.

Entering the machine from the right side, the salmon was beheaded with a curved knife, the tail and fins were removed and a round saw blade at the top center of the wheel split the body open. Wheels and brushes removed viscera and scrubbed the fish cavity. Water continually sprayed on the fish to aid the cleaning process. Each machine processed over 30,000 salmon per day.

Visitors to the APA Museum can’t miss it. As you walk from the parking lot to the museum, on the boardwalk, it is on your right. It is a very large, red contraption. There is a roof over it. Previously it was just sitting on the dirt, kind of tilted and very rusty. Those who are regular park visitors and former cannery workers know it well. It has been in that spot for at least 30 years. Bellingham-based Advanced Powder Coatings did the blasting and painting, and the rest of the work was done by Whatcom County’s parks maintenance crew.

Now that it has had a facelift and received proper shelter, it is the object of much interest. There is a descriptive sign that briefly tells the history. Kids climb on it. Men stand and ponder how it works. Often they come into the museum for an explanation. The new, covered shelter was just completed last week. There has been no ceremony marking the event, and as far as I know, none is planned. I believe this particular machine is an early 1920s model. There is a patent plate in the museum for 1922, but it may not be the plate that goes with that machine.

With the advent of refrigeration and same-day transportation, canneries are no longer the main fish processing plants. The few fish canneries that remain still use fish processing machines which are now called butchering machines.

Our museum honors the people of this community who worked in our Blaine fishing industry. There are quite a few of them still here. Modern-day boats are bigger. The processing plants are in Bellingham. The fish runs are carefully monitored to provide replenishment of the species. But back in the day, this was the wild west of fishing, boat building, sawmills and smuggling. We have a rich history.

The next project is to complete the restoration of NN59, our Bristol Bay sail boat, so that we can all go sailing in Drayton Harbor. Donations can be made at the APA Museum on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

Alice “Sunny” Brown has been the APA Museum’s docent and volunteer coordinator since 2002.

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