Historic South Downtown Oral Histories: Tony Chinn Discusses His Experiences on the Seattle Waterfront

  • Posted 7/21/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11091
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Tony Chinn (b. 1947), who grew up in the Chinatown-International District neighborhood, was interviewed in April 2015 as part of a project HistoryLink did in partnership with Historic South Downtown to document the historical connections between the Chinatown-International District and Pioneer Square neighborhoods and the central waterfront. Dominic Black talked with Chinn about his experiences on the waterfront and in the Chinatown-International District.

Fishing for Shiners

We would go fishing there. My mother told me I couldn’t go there because she thought I was gonna drown. But my friends did and I did once or twice -- all we had was a hand line -- we would catch shiners, they caught shiners.

Dominic Black: Now what’s a shiner?

A shiner is a small fish something like a minnow. But evidently they were plentiful down there because my nephew, he’d -- my nephew was 5 or 6 years old -- and he went with my cousin. My cousin who came over in 1963.

That was cousin Paul. And he was like, same age as me, 14 or 15 years old. And he took John, who was my nephew, who was 6 years old, and they spent the whole day down there fishing for shiners and according to John they got a whole bagful of them.

And when he got home, they got a whippin' because my mother was looking for them. My mother would be John’s grandmother. And why is John living with us? Because my sister and brother-in-law were working and she was the babysitter and John grew up in Chinatown too. Anyway he got a whippin', and to this day he says he should not have got a whippin' because he was with Paul and Paul was in charge -- Paul was, like, the grownup.

DB: Can you paint a picture for me of what that landing there looked like and what would you see, if you’re standing on that landing, what would you see if you looked back at the city?

Well, this was a floating dock so to speak. It was like, maybe 25 yards long and maybe 10 feet wide and it was floating on the water. See, and we’re using hand lines. So if you were on the pier you could be 20 or 30 feet down you know, you’re dropping your hand-line all the way down there, and then if you pulled a fish, as you’re pulling it up I think it’d get away from you, because when you’re right on the water it’s better for hand-lines.

DB: Would there be a lot of other people fishing?

You know, it was just us kids.  But I think other people must’ve gone there because that was one of the few places that you could actually get right onto the water. And because you were low like that, you didn’t see much of the skyline. You saw the other piers, adjacent piers.

Cracking Crab

I seem to think there was a fish thing down there. My mother, in, I think it was 1970, because I was -- let’s see, that would make me 18 or 20 years old -- I remember she was working down at the piers. We call it the piers, but the waterfront there, cracking crabs. And I think her job was to take the shell off the crab and separate the meat. And I think it was already cooked -- yeah I’m pretty sure it was already cooked.  

And I remember one time I was visiting her and she had crab meat stuffed inside rubber gloves: "Here I got a treat for you." And they were good, I think they were Alaska king crab. These were big hunks of crab meat. I don’t think the company missed it.

I think there was a lot of Chinese women that did that job of shelling the crab. That was the only job that was available to them because of limited language skills, and you could walk from Chinatown to work, you see. So that was another thing -- easy to get to work.

I guess the other occupation for these Chinese ladies was seamstress, working for the garment industry. 

A Bachelor Society

I knew about the cannery in Alaska and the ... . Actually my father went to Alaska, but he didn’t work in a cannery. He got a job as a bartender, waiter, and he worked in Fairbanks. But he would go away for months at a time, and I remember because we were told we had to write a letter. I think I only wrote one letter, I didn’t know what to say. What am I gonna tell him?

But he would go away for months at a time. And I realized when I went down to get a haircut -- because my mother would give me haircuts and I would complain because she would do such a terrible job. But she’s "OK, you can go to a professional barber." So I went to a Filipino guy down there and there was like, one, two, three -- I think there was three Filipino barbers there on Maynard Avenue. And they must have been there to service the Filipinos that came back from the canneries. And then these apartments that they have there: the Publix Hotel, the Eastern Hotel, the Rex Hotel. I think these were for those bachelor Filipinos.

And the Filipinos weren’t the only ones that went to the canneries. My grandfather, he lived in this building at 507 -- I think the address was 507 7th Avenue -- he lived on the second floor, but it was called the Oak Tin Association. And the Oak Tin Association, basically you had to be a Chinn, a Wu, and there was one or two other surnames. And that was like your family association.

And then bachelors, Chinese bachelors, when you come into Seattle, you didn’t know anybody. So you go to the, you know, "Where’s the Chinn Association?" "Oh, it’s the Oak Tin." And they would go there, they would help you out, they would tell you where things are and you can get a room there. As a bachelor. I think my grandfather ... he lived there until he fell down and then we had to put him in a nursing home. I think that was in the 70s.

But there was a Chinese-bachelor society because of the immigration laws. You know they were bachelors because … like my grandfather. He went back to China to get a wife , but you know I never met my grandmother. They talked about her, but I guess she never could come over to the United States.

So that was the reason. Because of Chinese immigration laws, I think the Chinese Exclusion Act, you ended up with a bachelor society.  


Dominic Black interview with Tony Chinn, April 2015.

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