Rudyard Kipling Writes About NW Salmon…and Chinese Cannery Workers

Rudyard Kipling in 1907

Warning: Quotes in this article contain racist descriptions of early Chinese residents of the NW.

On the lookout for any kind of writing about the Pacific Northwest, especially early writing by writers from elsewhere, I was delighted to see Oregonian reporter Douglas Perry’s January 6 article, “How Rudyard Kipling’s salmon-hunting trip stamped Oregon in popular imagination.”

I didn’t know Kipling (1865-1936), the once-hugely-popular author of The Jungle Book and Kim, had ever been to the NW, let alone written about it.

Perry’s piece is focused on a selection from Kipling’s 1891 book American Notes that describes his excitement at catching a salmon on Oregon’s Clackamas River. At the time, Kipling, an Englishman in his mid-20s, was living in Vermont and already famous for his stories and essays about India, where he’d been born.

While noting that the author’s “Jungle Book” tales are still popular (with Disney releasing its live-action version just five years ago), Perry tells us up front that much of Kipling’s writing has long been considered dated. And racist too. (The teller of endearing stories about Mowgli and the mongoose Riki-Tiki-Tavi also offered demeaning views of Eastern lands and people, steeped in white supremacy and justification of British colonization.)

Still, I was interested enough in Perry’s tale of the author’s fishing adventure–which included Kipling quotes about “living silver” that “leaped into the air” and “weeping tears of pure joy” after catching an 11-1/2-pound salmon–to click on a link that took me to an ebook version of the Kipling book.

I quickly located the section titled “American Salmon,” where I found Kipling’s account of traveling to the Clackamas by carriage “among fire-blackened stumps under pine-trees, along the corners of log fences, through hollows, which must be hopeless marsh in the winter, and up absurd gradients.” The description that followed–of hooking and landing the salmon–was both lively and overwrought. And apparently it made a big impression.

“With his recounting of the experience in print,” Perry writes, “Kipling helped stamp Oregon in the popular imagination, making clear to his many readers across the world, wrote one advocate, that a man who had ‘never felt the strike and seen the leap of an Oregon salmon had never really lived and was cheated of his birthright.’ This was no small endorsement at a time when most Americans knew nothing about the sparsely populated state.”

If we were to end the story there, as Perry does, we could fault Kipling for little more than helping form or perpetuate the myth of the Northwest as a paradise and playground for others like him. Unfortunately, there’s more to Kipling’s account of his visit to Oregon. Just before he describes his trip to the Clackamas, he tells us about a steamer ride on the Willamette River and a visit to a cannery:

We returned from The Dalles to Portland by the way we had come, the steamer stopping en route to pick up a night’s catch of one of the salmon wheels on the river, and to deliver it at a cannery downstream.

When the proprietor of the wheel announced that his take was two thousand two hundred and thirty pounds weight of fish, ‘and not a heavy catch neither,’ I thought he lied. But he sent the boxes aboard, and I counted the salmon by the hundred—huge fifty-pounders hardly dead, scores of twenty and thirty pounders, and a host of smaller fish. They were all Chenook salmon, as distinguished from the ‘steel head’ and the ‘silver side.’ That is to say, they were royal salmon, and California [Kipling’s companion] and I dropped a tear over them, as monarchs who deserved a better fate; but the lust of slaughter entered into our souls, and we talked fish and forgot the mountain scenery that had so moved us a day before.

The steamer halted at a rude wooden warehouse built on piles in a lonely reach of the river, and sent in the fish. I followed them up a scale-strewn, fishy incline that led to the cannery. The crazy building was quivering with the machinery on its floors, and a glittering bank of tin scraps twenty feet high showed where the waste was thrown after the cans had been punched.

Only Chinamen were employed on the work, and they looked like blood-besmeared yellow devils as they crossed the rifts of sunlight that lay upon the floor. When our consignment arrived, the rough wooden boxes broke of themselves as they were dumped down under a jet of water, and the salmon burst out in a stream of quicksilver. A Chinaman jerked up a twenty-pounder, beheaded and detailed it with two swift strokes of a knife, flicked out its internal arrangements with a third, and case it into a blood-dyed tank. The headless fish leaped from under his hands as though they were facing a rapid. Other Chinamen pulled them from the vat and thrust them under a thing like a chaff-cutter, which, descending, hewed them into unseemly red gobbets fit for the can.

More Chinamen, with yellow, crooked fingers, jammed the stuff into the cans, which slid down some marvellous machine forthwith, soldering their own tops as they passed. Each can was hastily tested for flaws, and then sunk with a hundred companions into a vat of boiling water, there to be half cooked for a few minutes. The cans bulged slightly after the operation, and were therefore slidden along by the trolleyful to men with needles and soldering-irons who vented them and soldered the aperture. Except for the label, the ‘Finest Columbia Salmon’ was ready for the market. I was impressed not so much with the speed of the manufacture as the character of the factory. Inside, on a floor ninety by forty, the most civilized and murderous of machinery. Outside, three footsteps, the thick-growing pines and the immense solitude of the hills. Our steamer only stayed twenty minutes at that place, but I counted two hundred and forty finished cans made from the catch of the previous night ere I left the slippery, blood-stained, scale-spangled, oily floors and the offal-smeared Chinamen.

The decade that preceded the writing of these words was filled with similar and even more repulsive descriptions of Chinese immigrants by writers of all kinds, especially on the West Coast. It was also filled with anti-Chinese riots, deportations, and killings, as well as the passing by Congress and signing by President Chester A. Arthur of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which, for the only time in US history, excluded an entire group of would-be immigrants from entry into the country on the basis of ethnicity alone.

What’s important to note is that white writers like Kipling, as well as their white readers, didn’t even notice how they were depicting these men from Asia, who, for them, weren’t men in the same way they were, if they were men at all. As a result, an otherwise interesting description of a NW cannery at work distorts and degrades both the workers and the work being done.

This is our challenge today, and one of the goals of this website: To render honestly the reality and legacy of writing about the Northwest–to recognize the myths and malice and misstatements, then tear through them, coming to a clearer view of what was and is and might be.

For further reading:

George Orwell on Rudyard Kipling

History of Chinese Americans in the Pacific Northwest

The Chinese Exclusion Act

Other Anti-Chinese Legislation in the United States

A Young NW Asian American’s Thoughts on Learning About Anti-Chinese Riots in Her Home State

More on Chinese Cannery Workers on the Columbia River (including a photo)