The Asian Canadian
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The Asian Canadian

The Riot I Never Learned About

Jan. 8, 1908. An Asiatic Exclusion League ad from the 1908 civic election in the Vancouver World.

The Asiatic Exclusion League (AEL) was founded in 1905 in San Francisco in order to rally public opinion against Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian migration.[1] They had branches set up all along the Canadian and American Pacific coasts because of the proximity of Vancouver and Seattle, the AEL factions were closely tied together.[2] Factors such as unemployment, a lack of housing, and cities struggling to handle the population booms contributed to fear and prejudice towards Asian Immigrants. Chinese workers at this time moved into unregulated neighbourhoods which meant that they were poorly serviced, and considered the undesirable/dangerous parts of the city, where drugs and prostitution were rampant because poor white men had previously occupied the areas.[3] Fears and racism towards the Chinese populations contributed to the lack of help they received from city officials.[4] AEL and other exclusion leagues organized protests against what they saw as policies and incentives for Chinese immigrants to settle in Chinatowns along the Pacific Coasts.[5]

This all came to a head on September 7th 1907. “Vancouver was plenty agitated to begin with…Workers and politicians were looking for someone to blame and ‘cheap oriental labour’ had become a regular target.”[6] It didn’t matter to the AEL that Chinese immigrants were moving into spaces the members of the AEL would never consider or Chinese Immigrants took jobs that they believed themselves to be above. They saw them occupying space and collecting (tiny) capital they felt that should go to white hands. This hatred and entitlement consumed them.

“In a society in which Asian immigrants had been disenfranchised, politicians had been able to defame the Chinese, Japanese, and Indian communities with impunity. There was therefore nothing new in the speeches at City Hall.”[7] Organizations like the AEL and the desire to blame their troubles on an outside party don’t spring up over night. Prejudice and racism aren’t things you throw into a microwave to activate. They are reinforced and nurtured through everyday life and the ways we view the world around us. Some days you fight against it others you try to survive. On the night of the riot, the residents chose the latter.

The birth of segregation and eventually Chinatowns can be attributed to the racism that drove the riot in 1907. “Racism, hatred, and violence had resulted in residential segregation.”[8] White landlords refused to sell or lease their properties to Chinese immigrants unless they were in the unattractive spaces to the white community.[9] In Vancouver and Victoria the Chinese communities were left to set up living spaces on mudflats, in the cheapest districts of the city, where the low rent was an attraction for people opening brothels and saloons.[10]

What happened after these rioters ransacked Chinatown and what was the response from the government? The Deputy Minister of Labour of the time Mackenzie King was tasked with reporting and finding the cause and the consequences of the riot. King’s report only measures the material damage done in dollars. There isn’t an acknowledgement of why these attacks happened beyond the belief the crowd lost control of itself.[11] The mob wanted blood and all King could see was broken windows. He reports, “I found that the losses amounted in all to $25,990, of which amount $3,185 was on account of damage to property, $2,569 on account of losses incurred by the Chinese Board of Trade, and $20,236 on account of losses consequent upon the suspension of business and in other ways.”[12] This wasn’t a report about race and race relations it was a property damage assessment and a settlement as a means to repair international relations with foreign countries. The purpose was to fix the relationships between the countries that were wronged instead of the people who lived on Canadian soil where this riot occurred. The most important thing to the government was the property damage not the people who had to endure the attacks. The Chinese population preemptively bought firearms and ammunition as a means to defend themselves. A fact that King notes, “As it appeared that there was no necessity for the purchase of these firearms, any amounts claimed for payment on this score were wholly disallowed, as were also sundry small charges for the purchase of lanterns, hose and the like, which some of the claimants alleged they had obtained as means of protecting their property in the event of incendiarism.”[13] He couldn’t comprehend why Chinese communities would want to arm and defend themselves. He didn’t see the people, he only saw a torn up part of the city.

[1] Gilmour, Julie F. Trouble on Main Street: Mackenzie King, reason, race, and the 1907 Vancouver riots. Toronto: Allan Lane, 2014, 11.

[2] Gilmour, Julie F. Trouble on Main Street: Mackenzie King, reason, race, and the 1907 Vancouver riots, 11.

[3] Gilmour, Julie F. Trouble on Main Street: Mackenzie King, reason, race, and the 1907 Vancouver riots, 13.

[4] Gilmour, Julie F. Trouble on Main Street: Mackenzie King, reason, race, and the 1907 Vancouver riots, 13.

[5] Gilmour, Julie F. Trouble on Main Street: Mackenzie King, reason, race, and the 1907 Vancouver riots, 13.

[6] Gilmour, Julie F. Trouble on Main Street: Mackenzie King, reason, race, and the 1907 Vancouver riots, 15.

[7] Gilmour, Julie F. Trouble on Main Street: Mackenzie King, reason, race, and the 1907 Vancouver riots, 17.

[8] Lai, David. Chinatowns: Towns Within Cities in Canada. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1988, 34.

[9] Lai, David. Chinatowns: Towns Within Cities in Canada, 34.

[10] Lai, David. Chinatowns: Towns Within Cities in Canada, 34.

[11] King, Mackenzie W.L. Report by W.L. Mackenzie King, C.M.G., Deputy Minister of Labour, commissioner appointed to investigate into the losses sustained by the Chinese population of Vancouver, B.C. on the occasion of the riots in that city in September, 1907. Ottawa: S.E. Dawson, 1908, 9–11.

[12] King, Mackenzie W.L. Report by W.L. Mackenzie King, C.M.G., Deputy Minister of Labour, commissioner appointed to investigate into the losses sustained by the Chinese population of Vancouver, B.C. on the occasion of the riots in that city in September, 1907, 11.

[13] King, Mackenzie W.L. Report by W.L. Mackenzie King, C.M.G., Deputy Minister of Labour, commissioner appointed to investigate into the losses sustained by the Chinese population of Vancouver, B.C. on the occasion of the riots in that city in September, 1907, 12.

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