History repeating: A new book revisits Vancouver’s long history of anti-Asian racism

Incidents of anti-Asian racism rose dramatically during the pandemic, fueled by rhetoric that COVID-19 was somehow a Chinese disease.  Sadly, anti-Asian sentiment is hardly a new phenomenon in Canada, particularly on the West Coast.  The author of a new book reminds us those ugly feelings have always been bubbling below the surface.

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“The first anti-Chinese riot in Vancouver was in 1887, just a few months after the city was founded.  So, it’s not an uncommon event unfortunately,” said Henry Tsang, author of White Riot:  The 1907 Anti-Asian Riots in Vancouver.

Tsang points out racial tensions on the West Coast can be traced back to the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century.

“There were a lot of massacres of Chinese miners, the largest one being in San Francisco.  I think something like 300 miners were killed.  And so, the anti-Asian Riots of 1907 was only one amongst many, many events.”

Tsang, who is also an artist and an associate professor at BC’s Emily Carr University of Art and Design, based the book on his 360 Riot Walk. The 13-stop self-guided walking tour recreates the route taken by the rioters, starting from Gastown, and going into Chinatown and Powell Street, the site of Vancouver’s historic Japanese community on the Downtown Eastside.

White Riot contains the original script of the walking tour as well as seven contextualizing articles by contributing writers.  The result is a fascinating look at what happened on those two days in September 1907 and how that history continues to reverberate today.

The riots began as a demonstration at City Hall and then a parade through the streets of the city, organized by the local chapter of the Asiatic Exclusion League, to lobby the federal government to prohibit more Asians from entering Canada.  There were inflammatory speeches to rile up the crowd and the proceedings devolved from there.

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“It’s scary when things go backwards or sideways and things can happen really quickly,” said Tsang.

“All you need is a change in the political climate, all you need are certain leaders who espouse a certain kind of antagonism towards certain people, scapegoating.”

“Some of these angry people went down to attack the Chinese because it was right next to City Hall at the time.  It took a little while for the Chinese to organize and start fighting back, gather their weapons, and set up patrols,” Tsang explained.

“There was hand-to-hand combat that lasted for two days and after it finished the Chinese went on strike for three days and effectively shut down the city.”

“The Japanese went to work on Monday morning, and then by the afternoon they left work and gathered in Oppenheimer Park to discuss what they were going to demand from the city and the government for an apology and reparations,” Tsang added.

Vancouver Mayor Alexander Bethune was sent in to negotiate on behalf of the city.  Tsang finds this ironic given how Bethune was one of the co-founders of the local chapter of Asiatic Exclusion League.

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A Royal Commission was convened to investigate the riots and determine compensation.  It was led by none other the man who would later become Canada’s longest-serving prime minister.

“It was William Lyon Mackenzie King’s first big opportunity politically,” Tsang noted.

One of King’s recommendations resulted in the 1911 Opium Act, what is now regarded as Canada’s first anti-drug legislation.

“He came across receipts for opium factory equipment, and it was an opportunity for the government to target the Chinese for the drugs being used in that area,” said Tsang.

“It was seen more of a Chinese problem, although it was impossible for Chinese to consume all the opium that was being produced.  So obviously they were non-Chinese coming down to smoke opium.  And, yeah, that was the beginning of the war on drugs.  And that came out of the Royal Commission’s investigation into the riots.”

For Tsang, it’s important not only know this history, but to review our relationship with the land and with each other.

“We’re trying to build a new history too, but we can’t just kind of erase the one that that happened yesterday and before.  So, that kind of awareness, I think, can only help, hopefully, towards building a better future.”

White Riot:  The 1907 Anti-Asian Riots in Vancouver is available from Arsenal Pulp Press.

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