Student digs up new info on city's race riot

A UBC student from Taiwan has uncovered Chinese-language newspaper reports of a 1907 race riot in Vancouver. And they provide a significantly different account from English-language newspaper records, which have shaped historians' views over the last century.

In September 1907, hundreds of angry Caucasians went on a rampage in Chinatown, beating up local residents. Then the mob moved on to Japantown, which at the time was concentrated around Powell Street. Following the riot, English-language newspapers stated that there were no deaths.

In an interview with the Georgia Straight, W. Wang said that Chinese-language newspaper records in Taiwan, on the other hand, reported multiple deaths in the riot. For example, the Taiwan Daily News reported on September 22, 1907, that Japanese residents killed four white men in the Vancouver riot, which damaged 18 businesses in Japantown.

"The English-language newspapers, they kind of downplayed the riot," Wang said.

She added that the English-language newspapers also minimized B.C.'s long history of anti-Asiatic agitation by suggesting that Americans in the Asiatic Exclusion League were the cause of the trouble. Wang said that the mayor of Vancouver at the time, Alexander Bethune, was slow in suppressing the riot, which sent a message that it was acceptable to bully people of Asian descent. She added that the English-language press also did not pay attention to the reaction of local Chinese residents.

An article she wrote about her research is available at www.instrcc.ubc.ca/1907_riot/.

Wang said that in September, 2006 when she began her search for Asian-language records of the riot, she couldn't find anything in Canada. "I started to think that maybe, if I wanted to find Chinese-language materials, I would have to find it in a Chinese-dominant country like China or Taiwan."

She contacted universities in Taiwan, where she learned there were microfilm records of the Taiwan Daily News, which was published in Chinese and Japanese in 1907. She also came across other records, including a notice distributed by the Chinese Benevolent Association that was printed in the Chinese English Daily. It urged any Chinese residents who had been beaten by westerners to report to the CBA.

"The CBA actively organized Chinese Canadians to parry the often violent tactics used by anti-Asian organizations, part of the long term strategy to remove Chinese workers from jobs and replace them with white workers," Wang wrote in her article.

Japanese residents resisted Caucasian attackers in 1907. "It is interesting to note how many English language newspapers focused on how the Japanese heroically fought back the rioters, showing the Chinese in contrast were relatively passive in protecting themselves," Wang noted in her article. "However, the Chinese language newspapers revealed a different perspective on violence, suggesting the response of the Chinese in not fighting violence with further violence as a virtue."

Wang immigrated to Canada four years ago and said she knew nothing about the riot before enrolling in courses taught by UBC history professor Henry Yu. She confessed that she was "very surprised" to hear that a race riot had happened in Vancouver 100 years ago.

She added that her classmates who went to high school in Canada also didn't know about the 1907 riot prior to taking Yu's course. "Most of them are Asian Canadians," Wang said. "They hope that this part of the history can be reclaimed and can be incorporated into grade-school history texts."

Wang recently graduated with a double major in history and in Asian language and culture. She said she now plans to obtain a master's degree in archival studies.

Wang will be one of the speakers at a conference from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 10 at the Vancouver Museum, called "Vancouver since the 1907 Anti-Asian Riots: A Century of Change through Students' Eyes". The conference will highlight several student projects reflecting the rich but often silenced voices of Vancouver's past.

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