Lee Chong is the shrewd Chinese owner and operator of the neighborhood grocery store known as "Lee Chong's Heavenly Flower Grocery". "The grocery opened at dawn and did not close until the last wandering vagrant dime had been spent or retired for the night. Not that Lee Chong was avaricious. He wasn't, but if one wanted to spend money, he was available." "No one is really sure whether Lee ever receives any of the money he is owed or if his wealth consisted entirely of unpaid debts, but he lives comfortably and does legitimate business.
Doc is a marine biologist who studies and collects sea creatures from all along the California coast. Most of these creatures are preserved in some way and are sent all over the country to universities, laboratories, and museums. "You can order anything living from Western Biological, and sooner or later you will get it." Doc is described as "deceptively small" with great strength and the potential for passionate anger. He wears a beard, very strange and unpopular at the time, and has great charisma. "Doc tips his hat to dogs as he drives by and the dogs look up and smile at him." Doc is also the smartest man in Cannery Row, interested in knowing something about everything. "Doc would listen to any kind of nonsense and change it for you to a kind of wisdom. His mind had no horizon," Steinbeck wrote. "Everyone who knew him was indebted to him. And everyone who thought of him thought next, 'I really must do something nice for Doc.'"
The character of Doc is based on Steinbeck's friend Ed Ricketts, to whom he also dedicated the novel. Ricketts was a noted marine biologist and the one who got Steinbeck interested in the subject. Doc's Western Biological Laboratory is a reference to Ricketts' real Pacific Biological Laboratories, which stood at 800 Cannery Row from 1928 to 1948.
Owner and operator of the Bear Flag Restaurant, Dora possesses a keen business mind as well as a strong spirit. Despite the fact that she runs a whorehouse, she has certain standards - selling no hard liquor, keeping an honest price on the services of the house, and allowing no vulgarity to be spoken on the premises. Dora is also kind to those who have helped her, never turning out a girl too old or infirm to work: "Some of them don't turn three tricks a month, but they go right on eating three meals a day." Being an illegal operation, Dora has to be "twice as law abiding" and "twice as philanthropic" as anyone else in Cannery Row. When the general donation for a policeman's ball is a dollar, Dora is asked for and gives 50. "With everything else it is the same, Red Cross, Community Chest, Boy Scouts, Dora's unsung, unpublicized dirty wages of sin lead the list of donations." During the darkest days of the Great Depression, Dora paid people's grocery bills and fed their children, very nearly going broke in the process. Dora runs a business that plays an important role in Cannery Row's society. Dora is debatably the most successful character in the book.
Mack, a 48-year-old man, described as "the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment. But where as most men in their search for contentment destroy themselves and fall wearily short of their targets, Mack and his friends approached contentment casually, quietly, and absorbed it gently." Mack has few compunctions about lying, stealing, or swindling, but his intentions are generally good, so he is able to justify his actions and those of his friends as means to an end. It is said he is highly intelligent and "could be President if he wanted to be". He and his group of friends are known to all as "Mack and the boys" and spend a great deal of their time in an abandoned storage shed they christen "The Palace Flophouse and Grill".
Hazel is a dim but good, strong and loyal young man living with Mack and the boys in the Palace Flophouse. His name is feminine because his mother was tired when he was born (the eighth child in seven years) and named the baby after an aunt who was rumored to have life insurance. When she realized that Hazel was a boy she had already gotten used to the name and never changed it. Hazel "did four years of grammar school, four years of reform school, and didn't learn anything in either place." Hazel loves to listen to people's conversations and remembers everything he is told but can hardly make sense of any of it.
Another resident of the Palace, Eddie is a part-time bartender who supplies the boys with "hooch" poured off from whatever patrons leave in their glasses at Ida's Bar. "He kept a gallon jug under the bar and in the mouth of the jar was a funnel. Anything left in the glasses Eddie poured into the funnel before he washed the glasses... The resulting punch he took back to the Palace was always interesting and sometimes surprising. The mixture of rye, beer, bourbon, scotch, wine, rum and gin was fairly constant, but now and then some effete customer would order a stinger or an anisette or a curaçao and these little touches gave a distinct character to the punch."
The enigmatic figure of "The Chinaman" appears in the story several times. He walks quietly through the town, usually while the narrator is himself on the way down to the ocean. The Chinaman's association with the eternal sea reminds one that the fast-paced and hilarious adventures of the Cannery Row characters are merely ripples in the vast sweep of human experience.