1907: ASIATIC EXCLUSION LEAGUE WAS FORMED
Anti-Asian hysteria was rampant on the west coast of North America in the early 1900s.
In San Francisco, whites formed the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League in 1905. Two years later, a Canadian version appeared in Vancouver, the Asiatic Exclusion League.
“The object of this organization is to work for the exclusion from the Dominion of Canada, its territory and its possessions, all Asiatics by the enforcement of an act similar to the Natal act,” said a story in the Vancouver World on Aug. 10, 1907. “The list of signatures was headed by Mayor Bethune, and includes several members of the legal legislature and a member of the Dominion parliament.”
The Natal act was legislation passed by the B.C. government in 1900 that would have required immigrants to pass a language test. But it was rejected by the federal government after protests from the Japanese and British governments.
The first public meeting of the Asiatic Exclusion league was held on Aug. 12 at the Labour Hall at Homer and Dunsmuir. Vancouver’s MP, Robert George Macpherson, warned of “an invasion of Asiatics who are swarming into our country every month.”
Macpherson said he “cannot blame them for coming,” given they lived in “small, crowded countries where millions upon millions of people (are) struggling for existence.” But he warned that unless Asian immigration was curtailed, “the inevitable result of this great influx of the yellow race will be the retreat of the white race already here.”
Provincial MLA James Garden warned that Asian immigration would be “a terrible menace” to the British Empire. “Thousands upon thousands of them gaining a foothold here, nearly all old soldiers, meant possibly the first step of some foreign power’s policy to overthrow the empire,” he told the meeting.
As an engineer and a former Vancouver mayor, Garden was a member of the elite. But many workers and trade unionists were also opposed to Asian immigration because they feared they would accept lower wages, and take jobs from white workers.
The anti-Asian mood was stoked by the Vancouver World, which was usually politically liberal — but openly racist when it came to Asian immigration. In an editorial, it described itself as “the one daily paper in Vancouver which has consistently set its face against the Orientals.”
A good example of the World’s approach was a front-page story on Aug. 13, 1907.
“Orient Still Sends Its Hordes,” read the headline. “With the arrival of 160 Hindus on the steamer Athenian and with 2,000 Japanese reported to be on the Indiana which sailed from Honolulu to Vancouver last Tuesday, it is evident that the invasion of Asiatics to British Columbia continues.”
In fact, when the Indiana docked in Vancouver Sept. 18, the World reported there were 275 Japanese on board, not 2,000. But it didn’t apologize for the mistake.
On Sept. 7, another public meeting of the Asiatic Exclusion League was held at City Hall, which was then on Westminster (Main) between Hastings and Pender.
It’s hard to say how many people were there — one World story just says it was “mammoth,” while another story on an Asiatic Exclusion League parade that marched from the Cambie Street Grounds (today’s Larwill Park) to the meeting at City Hall said there were 5,000 marchers.
Some of the marchers turned into an unruly mob, smashing their way through Chinatown and Japantown in Vancouver’s worst race riot.
“When the rioters got through with Chinatown it looked like a wreck,” the World reported. “Every Chinese window was broken. Thousands of dollars worth of plate glass lay in fragments, and then a start was made on Powell Street, where not a Japanese window was spared.”
In Japantown, the white rioters fought a fierce hand-to-hand battle with Japanese-Canadians.
“The police on the scene were utterly unable to cope with the mass of struggling, cursing, shouting (rioters who) surged back and forth under the glare of the street arc lights,” reported the Daily Province.
“Armed with sticks, clubs, iron bars, revolvers, knives, and broken glass bottles, the enraged (Japanese) poured forth into the streets. Armed with only stones, the mob could not stand before the onslaught of knives and broken bottles propelled by the Japanese while they made the air ring with ‘banzais.’ ”
The Asiatic Exclusion League was around into the 1920s, but it never enjoyed the mass support it had before the 1907 riot. Still, racist attitudes toward Asians continued.
A boatload of South Asians aboard the Komagata Maru sailed into Coal Harbour in 1914, but they were denied the right to disembark and had to return to India. In 1923, the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which stopped virtually all Chinese immigration to Canada until 1947.