Chinese Cannery Workers in Friday Harbor

Though they left little trace, Chinese cannery workers drove Friday Harbor's most lucrative industry for decades.

The late 19th century was a hostile era for Chinese immigrants in the United States. During this era, Chinese immigrants faced prejudice and hatred both from anti-immigrant politicians who thought that Chinese people went against American values and from labor organizers who believed that Chinese people undercut the value of their native labor. Both Tacoma and Seattle were home to anti-Chinese riots in 1885 and 1886 respectively. This was even after the Chinese were almost entirely banned from entering the country in 1882 under the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Despite these measures, numerous Chinese workers came to work in Friday Harbor’s fishing industry. The sporadic nature of the fishing industry caused many Chinese people to travel to San Juan Island to work at the Island Packing Company cannery and then return to their home which typically was Victoria, British Columbia. However, while living in Friday Harbor during salmon season, they needed a place to stay.

In 1897, James L Farnsworth purchased 30,000 feet of lumber to make a building next to the cannery to house the workers. Even during its construction, it was referred to as China House reflecting the communities’ knowledge that it would primarily be occupied by Chinese cannery workers. By 1898 the building was completed. The building lacked accommodations such as running water. However, the residents made the best of their space, and residents that stayed longer even took to making a garden in the yard outside of the house.

Throughout its years in service, China House fluctuated from being over capacity with workers, to barely housing any depending on the bounty of salmon. Chinese workers living in China House maintained an inconspicuous but tolerated presence on the Island for the next few decades. They are seldom mentioned as individuals in the newspapers.

This fluctuating arrangement of Chinese workers in Friday Harbor continued until mechanization gradually reduced the need for their labor. Since almost all of the Chinese workers were single men without family, the absence of jobs left them with no reason to stay on San Juan Island. The area of land where China House was located currently functions as Friday Harbor's ferry boarding area.