Cannery Workers

Chinese Heritage in Astoria

Chinese people began coming to the western United States to make a better life for themselves. Many came intending to earn what was comparatively a significant sum of money and return home to the families they'd left behind. Others planned to bring their families to America after they established themselves in the States.

The California Gold Rush lured some of the early Chinese immigrants to the West Coast. Many of them migrated north to Oregon Territory in the early 1850s when gold discoveries were made there as well. By 1870, more than half of the miners counted in the state of Oregon were Chinese.

It was in 1876 that the Chinese began arriving in Astoria in large numbers to work in the canneries. Hard laboring Chinese – often referred to as “coolies” – were the workhorses of Astoria's fish processing industry. Known for their skill and speed, Chinese cannery workers regularly toiled more than 10 hours a day. During the busy season, a typical workday might stretch to 20 hours.

Approximately 75 percent of Astoria's Chinese men (and the Chinese population was overwhelmingly male) made their living in the canneries, earning an average pay of one dollar per day plus board.

The Chinese population in Astoria peaked around 1880, and then began a slow decline following the Federal Exclusion Act of 1882, the closure of several canneries in the early 1900s, and the advent of automated packing machines in the canneries that continued operation.

Not all of Astoria's Chinese worked in the canneries, and some of those who did saved enough money to move on to more lucrative endeavors. By the early 1900s, there were a number of Chinese business owners in Astoria, among them restaurateurs, tailors, barbers, clothiers, gardeners and laundrymen. Chinese are also credited with helping to build the seawall along Astoria's waterfront and the jetties at the mouth of the Columbia River; building the railroads that connected Astoria with points inland; contributing to infrastructure projects like the city's sewer system; and developing the fish farming industry.

Influenced by a strong ethic for education and hard work, many Chinese children who grew up in Astoria went on to earn college degrees and and make their own respective marks in the professional world.