Vancouver race riots still stain city’s past

By Deanna Cheng
Special to The Post

September 7th and 8th mark the anniversary dates of Vancouver’s 1907 Anti-Asian Race Riot which took place in present day Strathcona.
Back then, it was a thriving "Little Tokyo" sitting snug to an equally boisterous Chinatown.
The riot affected more than one race, said Naveen Girn, a Vancouver arts activist who recently organised ‘Goonj! Being Brown in Chinatown’. This installation which was held recently in Chinatown, brought together a trio of young Asian artists (Nisha Sembi, Jagdeep Raina, and Yule Ken Lum) to tell the story of the riots. 
According to Girn, the riots were precipitated in Bellingham a couple weeks prior to Vancouver’s turmoil. 
University of Washington's website "Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project" said about 500 white working men in Bellingham gathered on Sept. 4, 1907 to drive a community of South Asian migrant works out of the city. The rioters threw rocks, overpowered a few police officers and pulled men out of their workplaces and homes.
"They eventually rounded up 200 or so of the South Asian immigrant workers in the basement of city hall to stay the night."
It said the South Asian workers knew there was no protection for them in Bellingham and, within ten days, the entire South Asian population left town. The group of predominantly Sikh men came to Vancouver.
At the time, a lot was happening, he said. "A large influx of people of Asian descent coming to the Pacific Coast. There's an economic downturn in the United States that takes place as well. And that British Columbians because there's a bit of crash in the lumber industry."
A ship called the North Eagle, which had Asian immigrants on board, was in Vancouver's harbour and was waiting to land, Girn added. "The Japanese ambassador to Canada was present as well in this time period."
In 1907, Vancouver is only 21 years old and all these factors came to play.
Tensions around jobs and layoffs rose with the anti-Asian sentiment.
This year in history was when the right to vote was also taken away from "Canadians of Asian origins." This includes South Asians, the Japanese and the Chinese.
Two main narratives came from this boiling pot. One was "immigrants are coming to steal our jobs." The other one was "immigrants will ruin our civilization."
When South Asians came to Vancouver, there were already pockets of this unrest, said Girn.
In a document by The Critical Thinking Cooperative, "1907: Anti-Asian Riots in Vancouver", members of a working men's association created the Asiatic Exclusion League formed in British Columbia that year.
Marchers met in front of city hall which used to be at today's Carnegie Community Centre.
It said the marchers carried banners that said "Keep Canada White" and "Stop the Yellow Peril" while singing "Rule Britannia."
"They also burned an effigy of Dunsmuir, a coal-mining baron on Vancouver Island, who 'dared' to hire Chinese."
After giving speeches against the Chinese, four hours of rioting began. Many of them broke windows and looted Asian businesses in Chinatown and Little Tokyo.
"Although the Chinese did not fight back, the Japanese did."
Girn said the Japanese ambassador questioned what was happening to his country's people, stating they should be protected.
The Asian residents in Vancouver themselves withdrew their labour, he said. "They don't go out. They don't do their shifts as washermen or chefs or cooks and that sort of thing."
The result is the city in the downtown area mostly shuts down.
Tensions eventually calmed down in the following weeks as resentment settles, said Girn.
One factor in repairing the relationship was having William Lyon Mackenzie King come in as a labour representative, he said. King wrote up a report that documents in detail the property and business that were destroyed and recommends paying back the shopowners for the damages.
King later on becomes the prime minister of Canada during 1921-30 and 1935-48.
According to UBC Library's website, only three people were charged and one person convicted of any offence despite the news of the riot reaching different corners of the world and appearing on the front pages of Ottawa, New York and London.

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