One warm Saturday night in September 1907, Vancouver witnessed a riot. A crowd that had gathered for the founding meeting of the Asiatic Exclusion League headed to Chinatown, where hooligans systematically smashed the windows of businesses. The growing mob proceeded to Powell Street, the centre of the city’s Japanese community, where forewarned residents beat them off. The rioters returned on Sunday and were again repelled. On Monday, the Chinese bought revolvers from gun shops and launched a general labour strike. Embarrassed federal authorities soon ordered the compensation of property owners but subsequently made the whiteness of Pacific Canada central to public policy by escalating restrictions on Asian immigration. Not until the turn of the twenty-first century did the proportion of Chinese British Columbians come back up to its level at the turn of the twentieth.
White Riot, the record of a multimedia walking tour of Chinatown and Powell Street first staged by the artist Henry Tsang in 2019, evokes the material traces of these disturbances and their enduring impact on civic and national identities. Tsang has published the script of his tour, together with collaged images and a sheaf of essays from scholars and activists. The result is a radical, vivid, but sometimes contradictory approach to heritage, one that uses the buildings of Edwardian Vancouver to document the racist attitudes that flourished there and to explore how they weigh on the present.
The riot was the culmination of an ugly disagreement over Pacific Canada’s place in the global economy. The capitalists who had bankrolled construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway viewed its terminus city as an imperial gateway to burgeoning trade with Asian markets. Japan, in particular, was emerging as a strategic partner. In 1902, the British signed an alliance with the country, recognizing it as a counterweight to Russia’s ambitions in the Far East. In the first ten months of 1907, over 8,000 Japanese arrived in British Columbia. The promoters of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, aiming to join a new port in northern British Columbia with Atlantic Canada, had arranged to import up to 10,000 of them to build its line. Coupled with the waning effectiveness of measures against Chinese immigration, the workers’ arrival was a provocation to the growing white population. Although Europeans had journeyed to British Columbia on a CPR line that Chinese labourers had largely constructed, these newcomers viewed Asian immigrants as a threat to their way of life. Often Asians worked for lower wages and remitted earnings, instead of spending them locally; they dressed and ate differently and practised strange vices, such as the consumption of opium.
As Tsang’s images vividly illustrate, fighting words preceded the flying stones. He layers photographs of Chinatown and Powell Street with archival images of the tracts, broadsheets, and articles put out by labour organizations and sympathetic newspapers. Violence was everywhere in such materials, sometimes barely veiled but just as often explicit, as in cartoon depictions of burly Europeans shoving “Orientals” or yanking their pigtails.
This hate speech reflected a broader phenomenon, as the retired professor Paul Englesberg shows in his contribution to the book. The mob had listened that Saturday night to A. E. Fowler, an activist from Seattle who gave an “impassioned speech,” in which he invoked a riot against Sikh workers in Bellingham, Washington, just days earlier. Beyond the West Coast, white supremacism existed throughout the British Empire — personified by the presence of a New Zealand clergyman at the league’s meeting. Nonetheless, such attitudes were an annoyance for imperial officials. Many of the “Hindoos” harassed in Bellingham were British subjects who appealed to their sovereign for protection; those whose property was destroyed on Powell Street were citizens of a British ally. Rather than imposing a ban on Japanese immigration to Canada after the riot, Ottawa tactfully negotiated one. The Hayashi-Lemieux Agreement — the so-called Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1908 — dramatically capped numbers.
Tsang’s book demonstrates the resilience of Asian communities under a barrage of rhetorical and physical aggression. Photographs from the aftermath of the riots show smashed windows, as well as the elaborate commercial architecture that migrants had constructed in the face of discrimination. Splicing them with black and white images of those same locations today is an effective if obvious way to show how Chinatown persists, just as its institutions have thrived.
For the people of Powell Street, the story turned out differently. William Lyon Mackenzie King, who investigated the events of 1907 as deputy minister of labour, was predisposed to blame the victims; in 1909, a year after he submitted his report to Ottawa, he condemned Asian immigration in his doctoral thesis at Harvard. Later, as prime minister, he ordered the internment and deportation of Vancouver’s Japanese community during the Second World War, on the pretext of avoiding similar disturbances and against the advice of military officials. The subsequent rezoning of Powell Street for industrial uses led to further destruction and dilapidation of the built environment.
In her essay, the community organizer Melody Ma describes the threat of “erosion” that faces Chinatown today, claiming that “gentrification and cultural erasure are contemporary versions of the historical anti-Asian riots and Chinese head tax.” Opening “millennial-aesthetic boxing gyms” is not the same thing as hurtling bricks through windows, however. Ma also writes, “The faces on the street start to look different. Rents hike upward.” But framing “the gentry” in such terms stigmatizes outsiders in ways that this same book shows to be dangerous. Ma’s rhetoric of struggle ignores demographic and geographical shifts within the Chinese community that have posed a greater challenge to Chinatown’s economic viability than competition from the purveyors of artisanal pizza.
By contrast, the doctoral students Angela May and Nicole Yakashiro declare we shouldn’t try to save “Japantown,” at least not the name. Few Powell Street residents ever used it, which leaves a false impression of lost ethnic homogeneity. In fact, it was a label favoured decades later by those who hoped to carve out a touristic village from a now sketchy part of downtown. Even Powell Street — or Paueru Gai — is no neutral descriptor, given that it commemorates Israel Wood Powell, a nineteenth-century superintendent of Indian affairs notorious for anti-Indigenous racism. May and Yakashiro argue that honouring the area’s past involves both the preservation of its buildings and a respect for the precariously housed people who live there today. “We refuse to let our history be weaponized against the Downtown Eastside,” they write.
Anti-Asian racism has hardly vanished from Vancouver. If anything, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in China further inflamed it. Yet the way in which it blends economic grievances and cultural anxieties has changed: fears of Asian wealth rather than dependent poverty now haunt xenophobes, who worry about offshore investors turning Vancouver into Singapore or Hong Kong. Despite discrimination, Asians are no longer a visible minority in Metro Vancouver but rather a demographic majority, reflecting the collapse of immigration restrictions since the late 1960s. (The United Kingdom has almost fallen out of the top ten source countries for new immigrants to the region.) In 1907, the mayor of Vancouver supported the Asiatic Exclusion League; in 2022, the city elected its first mayor of Chinese descent, Ken Sim.
The riot of a century ago remains relevant because it was never just an expression of primeval racism. It was a violent attempt to decide who had the “right to the city,” to use the geographer David Harvey’s phrase. Vancouver may be less white these days, but it still acts cruelly enough toward those whose faces do not fit. Officials have long corralled the indigent and the users of illegal drugs into the Downtown Eastside, creating a heavily policed district with a reputation as sinister as the one Chinatown used to have. Indeed, social media often represents the inhabitants of the area, which encompasses Powell Street, as a threat to Chinatown, because they graffiti its buildings and litter its lanes with drug paraphernalia. Sim’s administration recently sent municipal workers and police to the Downtown Eastside to clear encampments of unhoused people, seizing tents and possessions during a rainstorm. The move was a stark reminder of what Tsang’s tour teaches us: the stigmatization and displacement of minorities are no less part of Vancouver’s heritage than Stanley Park or the Gastown Steam Clock.
Michael Ledger-Lomas is a historian of religion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and a visiting fellow at King’s College, London.
Related Letters and Responses
Hamar Foster Victoria