Who were early island Chinese and Japanese immigrants?

They came with their families, they carried their babies on boats and they envisioned a better life for themselves. They worked in orchards, in hotels and in the quarries. Some eventually bought farms.

They lived here on the San Juan Islands, they loved the land and they were Chinese and Japanese immigrants. They were a vital part of the early island’s economy and their stories are cloaked in mystery.

“[They] came to the island with little but a strong work ethic and the desire to build better futures for themselves and their families,” said Lynn Weber-Roochvarg who gave a free talk at the library on May 22, regarding the stories and contributions of these immigrants.

The two groups arrived in the islands at different times during the late 1800s and early mid 1900s, according to Weber-Roochvarg. Chinese immigrants were not residents, but came seasonally working for Seattle labor contractors in the salmon canneries.

There were as many as 70 or 80 Chinese laborers during those busy years, approximately 1885-1935. The Japanese came from the rural areas of Japan, and worked year round in domestic services such as cooks, groundsmen, gardeners, hotel staff, quarrymen in Roche Harbors Lime Works, owned by the McMillin’s, in the barrel factory and warehouses, according to Weber-Roochvarg. The McMillins built Hotel De Haro as well as owning Lime Works, and were largely responsible for the development of Roche Harbor Resort.

In 1910, there were 20 Japanese families who were integral to the community, and had children enrolled in the schools, Weber-Roochvarg said. These families came with the goal to buy farms on the mainland.

Those who worked in the McMillin household, with the family, she said, left on good terms and would send the McMillin’s fruit from their orchard as gifts.

The community reaction in general toward the laborers was one of tolerance, unlike many other communities in the state, Weber-Roochvarg said.

Although she was also careful to mention that “not all were happy with the influx of the Japanese and Chinese workers.”

For example, the San Juan County Democratic party, she noted, was reported in the local paper as denouncing the importing of Japanese immigrants and other cheap labor. The Democrats also complained that the fisheries trust, after acquiring the cannery, only operated it one season in four years, using almost exclusively Chinese labor. Bringing in foreign cheap labor, they claimed, damaged the islands working and tax paying class.

By the 1940s only one Japanese family remained on the island, according to Weber-Roochvarg. Jack Saota had worked as a cannery foreman, and eventually left to establish a nursery and florist shop in Friday Harbor. In 1942, during the turmoil of World War II, Weber-Roochvarg said, the Saotas were forced, along with all West Coast Japanese Americans and immigrants, to an internment camp off island.

They were not permitted to return to the U.S. West Coast until 1945.

“In their [Chinese and Japanese laborers] brief decades here, they were of major importance to two of our early island industries… their contributions should not be allowed to be forgotten,” Weber-Roochvarg said.