Growing up, Paneet Singh heard so much about Mewa Singh—a martyr to many in the South Asian community here—that one day he searched for a monument to the man. As a teenager in New Westminster, he looked in vain for it on the site where Singh died a century ago.
“I had an idea there must be a monument to him on the quay there,” the theatre artist, filmmaker, and Arts Umbrella instructor tells the Straight by phone. “I even remember seeing a statue of Simon Fraser with this beard and thinking ‘That must be him!’, then running up to it and being disappointed to see it wasn’t.
“That’s when I realized it’s not a quote-unquote mainstream story.”
The drive to share the tale, considered the last chapter in the Komagata Maru incident, with a wider audience stuck with Singh. And today, he’s preparing to stage The Undocumented Trial of William C. Hopkinson, a newly reworked play he’s written and is directing on the subject, at the Monsoon Festival of Performing Arts.
The play’s title refers to the immigration inspector whom Mewa Singh shot at the provincial courthouse, now the Vancouver Art Gallery, in October 1914. Only a few months earlier, Hopkinson had been a key figure in sending home the Komagata Maru, the ship carrying 376 Indian would-be immigrants to Canada who were denied entry. But that wasn’t the main event that pushed Mewa Singh to his violent act. Hopkinson, who had grown up in India and spoke Hindi, had developed spies within the local Punjabi Sikh community, all in an effort to quell Ghadarite revolutionaries pushing for their homeland’s independence from Britain. One of those informants murdered two men at a local temple. Pushed to the edge by an act he saw as blatant sacrilege, and facing pressures from Hopkinson’s agents himself, Mewa Singh killed Hopkinson at the courthouse, then immediately surrendered. He was hanged in New West the following January.
Paneet Singh heard these stories as a young boy, mostly from his mother. And now he wants the rest of Vancouver to learn about the historic events. “The part that spoke most to me was the absence of history—growing up and going to Sikh places of worship and then stepping out of those spaces and not seeing it,” says Singh, who has compared his subject’s plight to Louis Riel’s. “That really propelled me to put it out there.”
From his starting point about four years ago, Singh wrote The Undocumented Trial of William C. Hopkinson with one specific stage in mind: the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Courtroom 302, where the trial of Mewa Singh took place, and where the show will be performed. The gallery was also the site of the shooting of Hopkinson.
“There was this parallel story, this urban myth of Charlie the Ghost at the Vancouver Art Gallery,” Singh says, pointing out the ghost staffers talk about seeing is supposedly Hopkinson, whose middle name was Charles. “That raised the question ‘Which histories live on and which are erased?’ Staging it in the art gallery—it’s the idea of reclaiming the space from the point of view of the South Asian community and putting the voice of the story into the hands of the marginalized.”
To write the play, Singh turned to actual court transcripts of his subject’s murder trial and found both overt and subtle signs of prejudice against Punjabi-Canadians throughout.
“You could see how deeply embedded the racism was,” he says.
Since debuting the play in a small production three years ago, Singh has significantly reworked his script for the South Asian arts festival, adding a female character to what was once an all-male cast.
But in both its original and new forms, Singh stresses, the play is interested neither in lionizing Singh nor in vilifying Hopkinson. Instead, he wants to reopen the forgotten case for dialogue. “That’s what really propelled me to put it out there,” he says. “Where there isn’t a presence, there can’t be discussion.”
The Monsoon Festival of Performing Arts presents The Undocumented Trial of William C. Hopkinson from Friday to Sunday (August 10 to 12) at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The festival runs from Thursday (August 9) to August 19 in Vancouver and Surrey.