1965 The shame of 1907

White Riot: The 1907 Anti-Asian Riots in Vancouver
by Henry Tsang

Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2023
$32.95  /  9781551529196

Reviewed by Ron Verzuh

Many British Columbians will have heard of the Vancouver anti-Asian riots of 1907. It was a brutal historic event that revealed deep-seated public prejudices fueled by paranoia about the province being overrun by non-whites. Visual and media artist Henry Tsang revisits that harsh time through a multimedia walking tour into a shameful past.

Henry Tsang. Photo Emiko Morita

Tsang provides powerful images of the locations of the anti-Asian riots and he uses his book to encourage a wide-ranging discussion about what the riots meant to the inhabitants of Chinatown, Japantown and the indigenous community of the time. More than a written record, White Riot documents the events through the use of unique digital photo technology.

In a long chapter, Tsang describes the process of “360” photography that he has used to depict street scenes from a 360-degree perspective. He then superimposes the historic images of 1907. Readers can access the 360 images at 360riotwalk.ca and vicariously follow the mapped route of the riots.

The book’s historical account is soundly anchored by historian Patricia E. Roy’s comprehensive foreword. In addition, several essayists compare the riots to present-day racism and discrimination in the downtown eastside, the city’s historic low-income area. One essay discusses a similar riot in Bellingham, WA.

Shanghai Alley after the 1907 riots

The three Asian head taxes imposed by Canadian authorities are also covered as is the Gentlemen’s Agreement limiting Japanese immigration to Canada. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 is noted and we learn how future prime minister Mackenzie King argued against “Oriental immigration.”

The essays, some more strident than others, discuss the oppression that came with settler colonialism, and there is no doubt that governments of the day as well as businesses and trade unions deserve strong condemnation for the racist policies they condoned.

As stated, “The City of Vancouver, along with the provincial and federal governments, carried out what can only be described as institutionalized racism against Asians, Blacks, and Indigenous people.”

The southeast corner of Hastings and Columbia after the 1907 riots

There is plenty of blame to go around regarding the riots. Vancouver mayor Alexander Bethune and his wife were founding members of the Asiatic Exclusion League and they proudly marched under a banner that read “A White Canada For Us.”

Also centred out for blame is the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council (VTLC). It spearheaded the formation of the league and invited politicians like Bethune to join. It was the league that organized the parade that rapidly morphed into the riots.

Interestingly, the Bows and Arrows, an Indigenous lumber workers’ union, did not support the league. It was an affiliate of the radical Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies), which promoted anti-racist policies, unlike the VTLC.

Tsang’s book does not shy from naming names, but he doesn’t dwell on blame. Instead, he presents a way forward through open dialogue. The facts are presented creatively and are properly footnoted. His walking tour includes street discussions that engage participants.

Using modern tech to review the scenes of the 1907 riots

To further facilitate dialogue he has created food stops under signs that read “Riot Food Here.” In addition, two special dinners “employing food as metaphor” brought home the racialized situation of the time.

Tsang documents his process in detail in his introductory essay, but the heart of the book is the section detailing the 13 stops on the walking tour. Here we see the violence of the riot, but we also learn of the many positive contributions Asians have made to the community. The Japanese baseball team Asahi is among them as is local architecture and art, such as the colourful three-storey mural of Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu.

A stop at 105 Keefer Street shows the ongoing efforts to keep Chinatown alive

The battle to preserve Asian heritage in Vancouver is far from over. The current threat of gentrification in the downtown eastside means constant vigilance. “For over a century, we have fought for the survival of our people and for our place,” wrote one essayist, “and we will continue to fight for Chinatown to endure.”

As a young man, I stumbled into the Gastown Riot of 1971. It, too, was about people protesting government and societal discrimination. This time it was about drug laws and the use of force. It was not the same as the 1907 riots, but some of the same political and social responses drove both events. Tsang’s book tells us that some things have changed, but far too much has remained the same.

Stop 5 of the 360 Riot Walk: The Yucho Chow Studio. Archive photography brings history alive and faces to the events of 1907


Ron Verzuh

Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian and documentary filmmaker. His latest book is Printer’s Devils (Caitlin Press, 2023). [Editor’s note: Ron Verzuh has recently reviewed books by Robert Lower, Benjamin Isitt & Ravi Malhotra, Marc Edge, Bobbi Hunter (editor), BC Hydro Power Pioneers with Kerry Gold, J. Edward Chamberlin for The British Columbia Review, and he has contributed an essay on trade unionist Harvey Murphy. Ron lives in Victoria.


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

8 comments on “1965 The shame of 1907

  1. I was quite taken by the poignant review by Ron Verzuh and the obvious and tragic content of the book of WHITE RIOT. A historic and extended family member of mine was the Anglican Bishop of New Westminster at the time of the Riots (Archbishop John Dart) — he and his wife were at the forefront of opposing such racism in both the Chinese and Japanese quarters of the city. Was opposition to both the racism and riots by Archbishop John Dart and Mrs. Dart covered in the book?
    Thanks, Ron Dart

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