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Title: Frank Miyamoto Interview IV
Narrator: Frank Miyamoto
Interviewers: Alice Ito (primary), Tatsuya Fukunaga (secondary)
Location: Seattle, Washington
Date: July 7, 2003
Densho ID: denshovh-mfrank-04-0006

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FM: There are two main parts to the canning business, catching fish and bringing it to the cannery, and then canning, which is a factory operation. The catching fish was done, at least at the Waterfall fact-, cannery to which I went, essentially by the usage of traps. You can catch fish in several ways: by trolling, which the Native Americans would do, and trolling, of course, is simply a matter of dragging fishing lines and catching fish on hooks, very inefficient from a cannery standpoint because of the smallness of the catch under these circumstances. A second would be fishing boats going out to sea with nets and of, seine nets and of catching fish in that fashion. But salmon have a characteristic that enables a third way of catching fish, namely by traps. And the reason for the possibility of traps is that salmon, although they go out to the open sea for part of their life career, nevertheless end up swimming very close to the seashore or sealine-, shoreline especially at certain points in their lives and doing so in huge numbers, thousand, hundred thousands, swimming along the shoreline. And if, given this situation, if you set a trap so that they will swim directly into the trap, then, of course, they can be caught much more efficiently than by other means. And this is what the salmon packing industry did. The traps were huge blocks of logs with nets hanging down below them in the path of the fish runs, salmon runs. And they were set up in such fashion that at one end there would be a large opening, so to speak, with a tunnel that narrows down as you advance farther into the trap, and the swim -- salmon, unfortunately, not being smarter than they need to be, swim into these tunnels, so to speak, and end up on the far side under conditions where they then cannot return out of the trap and are caught therefore. Then if you have from the cannery, trap tenders, or fishing boats coming out with huge nets to scoop out the salmon from these traps, this is the way that they would load them up in their holds. This is the way they would be transported to the cannery and therefore available for canning.

At the cannery there are several kinds of jobs then that need to be undertaken to take the fish from the boat and end up having labeled cans available for the markets. The... and I want to go over each of these jobs because they bear on the point of which I ultimately want to get into about the kind of relationship which the workers had with each other. The first job is to unload the salmon from the boats or scows sometimes, and into the cannery. And this job, I've forgotten what it was called, but call 'em sorters because the sorting, sorting of the salmon was the most important function in this unloading process. There are four kinds of salmon: sockeye, coho or silver; humpback and dog. And they are listed there in descending order of price. Sockeyes are very valuable and dog salmon are the least valuable, although, actually, each of them has its own merits. In any event, because salmon are going to be packed in different cans, or labeled cans, you have to sort them at some point and the sorting is done right as, at the point of unloading from the fishing boat. Now, the people who pitch out the sal-. you pitch the salmon with, so to speak, pitchforks, must work in two ways: very fast because you've got thousands of fish coming in every day and you can't delay and the other thing that needs to be done is to have the sorter recognize, almost without looking, what the character of the salmon is, sockeye, humpback, whatever. What they do is, when it is, the humpback that is to be taken off the ship, then they are to pick out the humpback out of this pile of salmon and pitch only those onto the conveyer belt that goes into the cannery. And at the cannery side there are huge bins which are identified for humpback or sockeye or whatever, distinctively. So, the sorting starts at the boat and at the bins, why, there are additional sorters to make sure that the right fish go into the right bin. Now this is a... there are two skills involved here, one, the skill of recognizing the fish and two, the skill of doing this work rapidly enough so as to, and physically strong enough so that to, they might effectively unload as quickly as possible. At Waterfall, the work was done by Filipino workers. They were the most experienced in a sense, because the Issei at this point are the older people, unable to, they might have a capacity for recognizing different fishes, but they aren't strong enough to last at this kind of work and the Nisei, like myself, most of us are inexperienced and relatively too young and weak to last very long at this kind of job. So, Filipinos were then the prime candidates for this particular job at Waterfall.

AI: Just to give people an idea, could you describe a little bit about the size of these salmon? When you say that --

FM: Oh yes.

AI: -- the physical strength needed to do this job?

FM: Yes. The humpbacks, which are the most numerous, at least in Southeastern Alaska, are relatively small fish from as small as three or four pounds to a maximum size of eight pounds or so. Relatively, they are the smallest of the salmon. The biggest are the king salmon, but King salmon were not included here because they do, are not numerous enough for salmon canning and they are difficult to deal with as, at a cannery. In fact, I'll tell you that I had a special job about king salmon later on. But anyway, the dog salmon, which is kind of a offshoot from a king salmon, are the largest of the other salmon and they would measure, maybe as much as thirty inches long, but weigh as as much as twenty, twenty-five pounds. But most of them are under twenty pounds and, most of these fish are. Now the sockeye, which is the most prized of all the fish, beautiful salmon, would on the average be, let's say eight to ten pounds, beautiful, hard salmon, and coho, silver salmon, are somewhat bigger. So these are the size of fish and if you're pitching salmon of this kind, you know, eight, ten, twelve hours a day, that's not an easy job. You have to be strong and at the same time very quick in identifying the fish.

Okay. From the bins, the next job is the, what we call the "iron chink crew." "Iron chink" refers to the fact that this job -- which involves taking the head and tail off and removing the fins and gutting the, opening the belly and gutting the fish -- used to be done by Chinese workers, very, very effectively by men who became skilled at sharpening knives so that they could do this work all day and not become overly worked and at the same time do it fast enough so that they could handle thousands of fish. But they mechanized this thing into a machine that you would have a, the machine, let's say, is to the left of the worker and you have a knife here, and sorters have laid out the fish with the head pointing in the right hand direction and the knife is right here, you could cut the fish head as this thing turns up and brings the fish through. Then, the sort-, the feeder grabs the fish and shoves the tail into this machine which is a rotary thing that cuts the tail off, removes the fins and guts it so as to send it on to the rest of the cannery. Called the "iron chink" and I never thought of, or nobody thinks of it as a deprecatory statement about Chinese, you know, the Chinese "chink," but, because you think of this as a machine, and a very effective machine. But that was the origin of the term because the Chinese were the ones who originally did this kind of thing manually and now then, the machine takes over and deals with this problem. This is one of the higher paid jobs, the highest paid jobs in the... because there is a certain danger to, to the knife being right at your hand, point of hand and you have to have skill to work fast enough to poke the tail into the machine.


FM: So at Waterfall, this was a crew made up of, in fact, it was a mixed crew of Issei and Filipino, the most experienced fish workers worked at the "iron chink," maybe there would be two or three of these "iron chink" machines in our... and each one would have its own crew of five people... four, four people. Nisei were working into this kind of work, also, at Waterfall, but Issei were in there and Filipino, the most experienced and the most skillful were being chosen for this kind of work. It would get paid particularly well. And when the fishing season started and the salmon day begins, the "iron chink" crew is the first crew to go in because they're the beginning of the canning process.

<End Segment 6> - Copyright © 2003 Densho. All Rights Reserved.