Chinese workers were important to the early Fraser River salmon canneries. Crews of Chinese men made all of the cans needed by each cannery. When the salmon began arriving, they unloaded it, butchered it and cut it to fit the cans. They then cooked, tested, lacquered and labelled all the cans, finally packing them into cases. Chinese crews could range in size from 70 to 200 men per cannery. All of their work was performed under a system known as the Chinese contract system.
Chinese contractors, called Chinese bosses, recruited work crews for the canneries. The contractors employed Chinese foremen to oversee the work crews in the canneries. The foremen were responsible for feeding, clothing, supervising, and disciplining each crewmember. They also prepared work schedules and served as interpreters. In return for supplying crews, Chinese contractors were paid according to the amount of salmon canned that year. After deducting money for room and board, each crewmember received his wage at the end of the season.
The number of Chinese workers needed in Steveston's canneries was steadily reduced though mechanization. By the 1920s, automatic salmon butchering machines and can-making machines had largely replaced Chinese work crews. By 1950, Chinese cannery workers were unionized and the Chinese contract system abandoned. Chinese-Canadian men and women continued to be a large part of Steveston's cannery workforce until the last cannery closed in 1996.