It always felt like an epic childhood growing up in the post-apocalyptic ruins of the burned and abandoned cannery in remote Union Bay, Alaska. We were cut off from the outside world, with only our family for companionship.
But I never knew until recently that the old cannery where we grew up had a close connection to a famously pivotal moment in modern Chinese history. It’s a moment so famous it’s taught in Chinese colleges and has been documented in film.
That moment came early in July, 1946 when the beloved poet Wen Yiduo gave an impassioned eulogy on behalf of his friend Li Gongpu, a noted intellectual, writer, and anti-war demonstrator who had just been assassinated by the Chinese government’s secret service. Shortly after leaving Li Gongpu’s memorial service, Wen Yiduo himself was assassinated, energizing a student movement that helped change Chinese history.
Both Wen Yiduo and Li Gonpu were educated in America. In 1928, Li Gongpu went undercover as a writer to document what life was like in Alaskan canneries. The cannery he chose, in Union Bay, would later burn to the ground. Eventually, more than forty years after Li’s death, my family would move there. Nearly seventy years after he trod those beaches and looked at those views, I would do the same.
In what is believed to be the only first-hand Chinese account of cannery work before WWII, and certainly the most sophisticated, Li wrote about the ethnic diversity found in Union Bay’s cannery. “Even though the cannery hires only about 100 workers, this place is a mini world, with people of many colors and nationalities…. These people come from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Mexico, Italy, Switzerland and even some undocumented workers from other places. It is hard to imagine that a small cannery as this can have workers belonging to so many nationalities.”
He also commented objectively on the biases of the times: “By observing the interaction among workers, one can discern their psychology formed by the perceived status of their own countries in the world. The white workers come from probably more than 30 different countries. But about half of them were not educated. They speak rudimentary English but see themselves as the most civilized people of the world. Japanese workers are very polite to the white people but very arrogant to people of the other nationalities. Filippinos appear self-important in front of the [Native Alaskans] and [African Americans]. The few Chinese, though with similar ‘yellow’ skin color and looks as Japanese, do not get treated as courteously as the Japanese workers, probably because of China’s relatively low international political status.”
My favorite part of the articles he wrote are the paragraphs that describe the setting. He brings the ruins of my childhood back to life, describing the cannery as it was at the dynamic peak of its existence.
“People have different ways of entertaining themselves,” he writes. “Workers like playing chess and cards, fishing, talking, sleeping, and swimming. Japanese are fond of gambling—sometimes that is where they spend their salary. Filipinos love playing music. They often hold dancing parties on the beach. Occasionally the Indian [Native Alaskan] girls sing in their language. Though incomprehensible, this is often lovely to hear….”
It’s fun to think of the singing and dancing of workers cavorting where my brothers and sisters played, on the beaches where my little brothers ran barefoot until their feet turned to leather. We held picnics there with extended family coming from miles away, and played tag on the beach where the cannery workers danced.
As Li summarized, “The cannery is located at Union Bay. Not only is it rich in fish, it is also very beautiful. It is distantly connected with the Pacific Ocean, with its back against a tall mountain from where a small stream flows.”
Years later, we would call the tall mountain “the Old Man” and the stream Li mentions would flow under our floathouse. When the tide was out my sister and I used to pretend we were riding horses and jump the stream cutting through the gravel banks as a magnificent equestrian feat.
According to Li: “The cannery built a boardwalk connected with the stream where we get water for drinking as well as for cleaning the cannery fish.”
We built a sawdust trail, using sawdust from my dad’s mobile sawmill, that followed the old boardwalk exactly (after we cleared away the boardwalk ruins). We also used the stream for our drinking water. It’s odd, though. The cannery was built right alongside a major salmon creek. I’m curious why they didn’t get water from it for the cannery work, rather than the small stream on the other side of the peninsula.
Li gives further descriptions of life in the cannery: “The cannery is cut off from outside contact except for a mail ferry which reaches us once every two to three weeks. Fortunately the scenery here is extraordinary pleasant and I never feel tired of watching the sunset, taking the boardwalk retreating into the mountain, or fishing along the stream.”
I’ve been all over Southeast Alaska and I’ve never found more beautiful scenery or sunsets. I, too, used to follow the old boardwalk into the depths of the wilderness toward the mountain. The sense of remoteness was intense because we had no other people around us…only the cannery worker ghosts of the past, like Li Gongpu.
In the cannery ruins we found many treasures, especially in the remains of the cookhouse. We played with the pots and pans, dishes, and cutlery in all of our forts. We found pottery with Asian characteristics, which my Mom and I still own to this day. I wonder if any of them were touched by Li Gongpu?
As a child when I wandered around the ruins I used to wonder who the workers were and what they’d thought about working in such a beautiful and wild place. All these years later, I finally know.
For more on my experiences of growing up in the ruins of Li Gongpu’s cannery see www.alaskaforreal.com/blog/growing-up-in-the-post-apocalypse.
Special thanks to my brother Robin Neilson of Ketchikan for discovering Li Gongpu’s connection to our cannery home.
• Tara Neilson lives in a floathouse between Wrangell and Ketchikan and blogs at www.alaskaforreal.com.