In Their Words : The Story of BC Packers
A Chinese-Canadian worker lining salmon up for beheading
A Chinese-Canadian worker lining salmon up for the beheading knife. Imperial Cannery, circa 1940s.
City of Richmond Archives 1985 4 625
A Chinese-Canadian worker lining salmon up for beheading Feeding salmon into the beheading knife the butchering machine crew The butchering machine crew The butchering machine crew at work

Butchering Salmon

Salmon were conveyed from holding bins to the butchering machine. This amazing machine butchered and cleaned salmon at over one per second. When it was invented in 1906 the butchering machine was known as the ‘Iron Chink'. During the early 1900s the word ‘Chink' was a derogatory term used by the dominant non-Asian community to describe people of Chinese origin. The machine was called the ‘Iron Chink' because it was a big iron machine that replaced Chinese men who used to butcher the salmon by hand. Jimmy Hing, a Chinese salmon butcher from the days before butchering machines, had this to say about the work: "An experienced butcher will do about four or five fish a minute. They have to cut off the head, open the belly, and take off the fins. They're going really fast. When they slice through the fish you can hear it, ‘whssst' right through! Hear it sing!"

The name ‘Iron Chink' reflected the racial segregation that existed in society and in the canneries at the time. The name persisted for decades in the west coast salmon canning industry. Today the machines are known as butchering machines or iron butchers.

At the butchering machine, workers laid the salmon one by one on a moving track. Each salmon had its head cut off by a sharp, rotating blade. A workman then pushed each salmon into the butchering machine. The big wheel-like machine quickly pinned the fish and cut off its tail. It cut off the fins and opened the belly with a saw. It even cleaned out the blood and guts with brushes. The butchered salmon was then ejected onto a conveyor belt and sent to the washing tables. All of this happened very quickly in a constant spray of water.

Former butchering machine operator Brian Jong recalls it as being "One of the worst jobs, cause you have to wear rain gear and you get splashed everywhere and you can't do anything. You have a rotating drum and you got water and blood... You can imagine the fish, every time it hit the knife, what happens? You get covered in blood. It sprays everywhere... I didn't like that job."

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