Vancouver Courier

In 1887, a mob attacked a Chinese work crew hired to clear land in Vancouver's West End. The mob accused the Chinese of taking jobs from white workers. In fact, it was the other way around.

Philip Timms photo Vancouver Public Library VPL 78362


By Lisa Smedman-staff writer

On a snowy February evening in 1887, a crew of loggers retired to their tents after a day spent clearing the dense forest that would one day be Vancouver's West End. They laid aside axes and eight-foot-long crosscut saws and stripped off their waterproof coats. Before bedding down, they peeled off damp and sweaty checked shirts and trousers, pulled off muddy boots to change their wool socks, and tucked valuables like silver pocket watches into trunks for the night.

The crew was just like the dozens of other work crews that were clearing land so it could be subdivided and sold, except for one small detail.

They were Chinese.

That night, a mob, said by one eyewitness to number close to 300 men, made their way to the spot where the Chinese were camped. Lanterns in hand, singing the U.S. Civil War Union marching song "John Brown's Body" they converged on the tents around midnight.

William H. Gallagher was an eyewitness to what followed. More than 40 years later, when interviewed at the City of Vancouver Archives, his memories of that night remained vivid.

"There was snow on the ground, it was quite clear, and we could see what we were doing," Gallagher said. "There were many tough characters among the crowd, navvys who had been working for [Canadian Pacific Railway contractor Andrew] Onderdonk, hotheaded, thoughtless, strong, and rough..."

"When the Chinamen saw all these men coming they were terrified... the rioters grabbed the tents by the bottom, and upset them, the war cry 'John Brown's Body' still continuing. The Chinamen did not stop to see; they just ran. Some went dressed, some not; some with shoes, some with bare feet. The snow was on the ground and it was cold."

The camp was located near the foot of modern Burrard Street, where a spring tumbled over a bluff into Burrard Inlet. Several of the Chinese fled in this direction, choosing a 20-foot jump into bitterly cold water over facing the mob.

"The tide was in, they had no choice, and you could hear them going plump, plump, plump, as they jumped into the salt water. Scores of them went over the cliff," said Gallagher.

The mob tore down a wooden cook house, heaped the bedding and belongings of the Chinese into piles and set them on fire.

F.R. Glover, a reporter for the Vancouver News, saw the riot first-hand. The newspaper broke the story in its Feb. 25 edition, one day after the riot.

The mob had formed after a Thursday night meeting at city hall, organized by businessmen determined to "keep the city clear of the Celestials." Their aim was to put the Chinese on a boat and send them to Victoria.

"A number [of Chinese] got away in spite of their efforts to surround them," the Vancouver News reported. "Those who were caught were in some instances badly kicked by some of the crowd, and then ordered to pack up and leave, in which they were assisted in no gentle manner."

Vancouver's Police Chief John Stewart and Superintendent Roycraft of the B.C. Provincial Police tried to stop the riot. Stewart blew his whistle, while Roycraft hustled the Chinese into a roofless shed.

"The Chief then ordered all present in the Queen's name to return peacefully to their homes but no attention was paid to the order," reported the Vancouver News. "Superintendent Roycraft and Chief Stewart then took up their position beside the fire in front of the Chinamen, facing the crowd, and by the gallant front and unwavering pluck shown by them held the whole at bay."

The mob tried to shout down the police, failed, and eventually resorted to throwing snow at the Chinese. Eventually it broke up into groups that drifted back to the city around 3 or 4 a.m.

The rioters gathered again the next morning in front of the Sunnyside Hotel on Water Street. This time, their target was the Chinese-owned stores on Dupont (Pender) Street. They ordered the residents of Chinatown into wagons. The Chinese merchants complied-but only after negotiating that one man remain behind in each store to protect it.

"The remainder, probably 100, assembled quietly, were loaded onto old-fashioned horse-drawn drays," recalled Gallagher. "They all stood up crowded together on the drays, and one by one the drays and wagons moved off to New Westminster-a pretty rough ride in a springless dray over a rough road-[where the Chinese were] put on a steamer for Victoria... some of them were tied together by their pigtails, to prevent them escaping."

The mob rounded up every Chinese person they could find. In a 1939 interview with the archives, James Keil said he was working with a CPR land-clearing crew when the rioters came through. "We had three or four Chinese in that camp, cooking for us, and at the time of the Chinese Riot [of] February 1887 the rioters came out and took them away."

The contractor whose hiring of a Chinese work crew prompted the riot was John McDougall. According to H.P. McCraney, who was interviewed at the archives in 1931, hiring Chinese labourers allowed McDougall to tender a bid of $150 per acre for the land-clearing job, instead of the going rate of $300 per acre.

McDougall-later derisively nicknamed "Chinese McDougall"-was in Victoria at the time of the riot.

"McDougall was very unpopular, and he would have had rough handling if he had been there that night," said Gallagher.

"There had been talk of tarring and feathering the contractor," Lee Charlton told the archives in 1941.

Charlton, a 21-year-old bookkeeper at the time of the riots, was part of the mob that night. He was one of three men later arrested and charged with unlawful assembly and destruction of property.

It wasn't the first time the Chinese work crew had been forced out of Vancouver. The men had begun work in January, only to be ordered out of town by a "committee" of 75 Vancouverites, backed up by 250 "onlookers."

The Vancouver News of Jan. 11 reported that the 19 Chinese labourers "quickly took down the tent in which they were encamped, packed up their blankets, saws, axes and provisions, and accompanied by the people marched down to the CPR dock where they remained until the arrival of the Princess Louise." When the ship came in around 4 p.m., the Chinese were marched aboard and the $28.50 that had been collected for their return trip to Victoria handed over, all to the "hearty cheers" of a crowd of 600.

George H. Keefer, a CPR contractor, watched as the Chinese were rounded up. "I can see the picture yet, of these poor chinks with their rice sacks and big baskets and balancing poles, all heading for the wharf; they were coming out of the blackened timber and brush from all directions, and some of them were coming on the toe of a boot. They were herded on the wharf, and... old Tom Sawyers [Tom Cyrs, owner of the Granville Hotel] passed around a hat and got a silver collection with which to pay their fares back to Victoria."

McDougall, however, had signed a contract with the owners of what was then called the Brighouse Estate (everything west of modern Burrard Street) to do the land clearing. The subcontractor he was working with in Victoria-most likely, a Chinese merchant-would also have signed a formal agreement to provide the men for the job.

If McDougall didn't complete the work, the contract stipulated, someone else would-and McDougall would have to pay any losses incurred.

He sent the work crew back to complete the job.

The anti-Chinese agitators got wind of it, however, and prevented the Chinese from disembarking. As Keefer told it, "They even turned the hose on the boat. [The Chinese] were finally landed at New Westminster and tricked over in the night, a week or so after things had quietened down. Then came the second riot [of Feb. 24]," said Keefer.

The provincial government responded to the riot by revoking Vancouver's charter on Feb. 28. Two days later, at a hastily convened meeting, Vancouver's city council drafted a letter of protest. There was no need, they said, for Victoria to send special constables to police the city. The city itself was "prepared to take all steps for the enforcement of the laws for the protection of persons of all nationalities who come to Vancouver."

On March 2, three dozen special constables in blue serge pea jackets arrived in Vancouver by boat from Victoria. Led by Roycraft, they "marched to our city hall, came to attention and formally demanded and were handed the keys of the city," recalled court registrar W.A.E Beck in a 1931 interview with the archives.

The arrival of the special constables was "humiliating and obnoxious," Beck added. Vancouverites responded with taunts; one man marched behind the specials, whistling a song from "The Mulligan Guards," a Broadway farce.

Stipendiary magistrate A.E. Vowell re-tried the three men who'd been arrested and charged earlier in connection with the riot. The result of this second trial was the same: Charlton, milkman Tom Greer, and logger John Frauley were released after the case was dismissed for lack of evidence.

By March 18, the special constables had sailed back to Victoria. The Chinese McDougall had hired were back at work, clearing the CPR lands, with two special constables-hired by the city, this time-protecting them.

When a brush-clearing fire threatened to wipe out Vancouver for the second time in June 1887, Chinese work crews clearing the Brighouse Estate pitched in to fight it. Not surprisingly, the city refused to pay the $322.25 bill their Chinese contractor submitted for the two days and one night his men spent fighting the fire-a bill calculated at a rate of $1 per man per day.

By July, the clearing job was done.

"I never knew how John McDougall came out financially on the job," said Keefer. "Some had it that he made good, but I never could find out."

Likely, McDougall lost money. By September of 1887, he'd hired a lawyer to sue the city for $10,000 in damages for "obstructing him with the completion of his contract."

Who were the Chinese who were driven from Vancouver by the mob in 1887? A letter, written to Vancouver city council on March 7 of that year by Victoria lawyer Thornton Fell, lists the names of 32 men who were attacked by the mob. Five have the surname Lee, and there were two each with the surname Chin and Ong.

Ong may have been the surname of the labour contractor in Victoria. A Jan. 19 letter to the Vancouver News, hinting that the Chinese work crew would be returning, said, "I have it on good authority that Ong Wee will have the Chinese here by tomorrow's boat or the day after to complete the contract to clear and grub the Brighouse Estate."

Several of the men are listed solely by their first names, preceded by the honorific "Ah," the Chinese equivalent of "Mr."

Fell's letter carefully itemizes the items each man lost during the riot. Ham Found Quong, for example, lost bedding, a coat, shoes, three shirts, two pairs of pants, a Chinese scale and seven pieces of underwear, with a total value of $43.50. Duck Gem suffered a $100 loss, including his cooking utensils. Gan Yook-likely, the work crew's foreman-suffered the largest loss; the $296.50 in items lost included a pair of gold wristlets, a pair of gold earrings and a gold hair ornament.

Total for all 32 men was $2,068.85-a substantial loss, in an era when non-white labourers were often paid less than a dollar a day.

The items listed are an intriguing blend of east and west. Western-style boots, checked shirts, "water proofs" and blanket coats rub shoulders with Chinese shoes, silk vests, a "China box" (likely a sandalwood or lacquered box) and a "counting board." Although some of the men may have cut their hair in the Western style, most would have worn it in a braid that hung down their backs, the end held in place with a ribbon or hair clip.

The newspapers of the day reinforced the idea that the Chinese-including those hired by McDougall-were coming from elsewhere to take the jobs of white Vancouverites. In fact, the Chinese were in British Columbia long before most of the European immigrants who eventually settled in Vancouver.

The first Chinese to arrive in what is today British Columbia were 50 carpenters aboard a ship captained by John Meare in 1788; they helped build a fur trading post in Nootka Sound. Some remained behind and married First Nations women.

Chinese next came to B.C. in 1858, during the Fraser River gold rush. Most were veterans of the California gold rush that began in 1848.

During the Cariboo gold rush of 1860-63, one of the largest "Chinatowns" in the province was at Barkerville, where Chinese accounted for half of the town's 10,000 residents.

The next wave of Chinese immigration came in the 1880s. During construction of the B.C. section of the CPR; thousands of Chinese worked on the railway. The reason was a simple matter of economics. It proved cheaper to bring labourers across the Pacific by ship than to bring them across North America by rail.

Thanks to earlier railway-building projects south of the border, there were already experienced Chinese labourers close at hand; the first 1,500 Chinese Onderdonk hired were from Oregon, and were supplied by the U.S.-based Lian Chang Company.

"The irony is, the Chinese completed the transportation network that allowed European labourers to come very cheaply [to B.C.]," said Henry Yu, a University of B.C. history professor who specializes in Chinese-Canadian history. "The railroads allowed, for the first time, the competition of European labour. The rhetoric was, 'The Chinese are taking our jobs,' when in reality it was the other way around."

Paul Marmette was a bridge draughtsman for the CPR from 1880 to 1885. As he put it during a 1931 interview with the archives, when asked why Onderdonk used upwards of 10,000 Chinese labourers, he said, "Well he had to get help; there were no men to be got here."

Historians point to famine, war, natural disasters and overpopulation as prompting migration from Guangdong and Fujian, the two southeastern provinces that supplied the vast majority of Chinese immigrants to Canada. But the migrations of the late 1800s were only made possible, said Yu, by a trading network that was in existence long before the railway companies of North America ever needed labourers.

For hundreds of years, said Yu, merchants in China's southeastern provinces made a business of supplying labourers to sugar plantations and other industries throughout southeast Asia.

Emphasis is always placed, said Yu, on the fact that the Chinese saw North America as a place to work, rather than to settle. Yu said this was true not just of the Chinese, but of European immigrants. Most tended to move from city to city, looking for work. Up to one-third of the immigrants who came to North America in the 1800s-of all nationalities, not just the Chinese-eventually returned to their homelands.

Most immigrants, said Yu, practised something called "chain migration"-a phenomenon in which immigrants follow in the footsteps of friends or relatives who had come to North America before them.

"There's one person with the guts, and about 500 who come later," said Yu. "It's all about family. All about who could help you out here and there."

European settlers, however, later developed a "mythology" that idealized the brave immigrant who came to the New World alone, and made his or her way in the new land without any support. The Chinese became the people against which the myth of the brave European settler could be contrasted.

Growing up, Yu kept hearing that the Chinese immigrants were the "weirdoes" who were clannish and dependent. "Actually, the norm is what my family and most immigrant families experienced," he said. "Lots of [European immigrants] had family already around to help them. Maybe not as extensive [a support network] as the Chinese, but they still had relatives."

Yu takes pride in the fact that the victims of the 1887 riots fought back not with fists, but by hiring a lawyer.

It's unclear whether the demand for reparations did any good; the same day that Fell drafted his letter detailing the Chinese workers' losses, the city's solicitor informed council the city "was not liable" for the damage the mob did to the store of Yune Chung. The merchant had been trying, through his lawyer, to get the city to reimburse him $952.20 for fire damage to his home, destroyed property, stolen cash and two months' rent he'd paid while his home was unfit for occupation.

When council received Fell's letter, they simply filed it.

The riot of Feb. 24, 1887 wasn't without precedent. During Vancouver's first municipal election in 1886, mayoralty candidate Richard H. Alexander, manager of the Hastings Sawmill, sent 50 or 60 of his Chinese mill hands to the polls to vote for him.

According to Gallagher, stage coach driver Charlie Queen-who later became a Vancouver alderman-climbed atop his stage coach and made a speech that incited the crowd to chase the Chinese back to the mill. He then hopped in his stage coach and tried to run the Chinese down.

Alexander lost the election in part because of this incident, and in part due to campaigning by successful mayoralty candidate Malcolm A. MacLean, who made much of Alexander's having once derisively referring to Canadians as "North American Chinamen."

Ironically, MacLean's wife employed a Chinese servant in her home. Speaking about her realtor husband's tenure as Vancouver's first mayor, she later recalled, "Those were the busiest times, so much entertaining, so many dances, so difficult to get help in the household. White help at any price was almost impossible, and the Chinamen were so independent; if there was an extra person for dinner, or something the Chinaman did not like, they would pack up and walk out without saying a word."

Throughout the fall and winter of 1886-87, anti-Chinese agitators worked hard to turn Vancouver into a whites-only city. A committee visited Hastings Sawmill to demand that Alexander replace the Chinese who worked there with white workers. On Dec. 18, 1886, the Vancouver News reported that "as fast as white men applied for work the Chinese were discharged, until all the places about the mill were filled by white labor."

In January, R.D. Pitt chaired an "indignation meeting" at which 300 people signed an anti-Chinese pledge, saying they would refuse to employ Chinese "for any purpose whatever... or to deal with them, directly or indirectly." Local businessmen posted it in their windows.

A committee visited merchants in Chinatown, offering to buy out their laundries if they would leave. The Jan. 16 Vancouver News quoted the committee as reporting that "a favourable response had been obtained from each. They were ready to sell their interest in the town and agreed to go back to China if their expenses were paid."

The city itself took steps to stamp out Chinese labour. Tenders from those who employed Chinese were not accepted.

Contractors found creative loopholes. In January 1888, Hugh F. Keefer responded to complaints that he'd employed Chinese on a gravel contract with a letter to council explaining that, "At the time the subcontractor commenced the work and during a great part of the time it rained a good deal and his gangs of white men refused to work in the rain. Consequently the Chinese were employed and as we buy the gravel from them on the [scows?] and it is obtained outside city limits I did not think it was prohibited."

The city's solicitor later agreed with Keefer.

Despite the riots, the boycotts, the anti-Chinese provisions found in city contracts, and the anti-Chinese movement of the 1880s, the Chinese remained part of Vancouver. As Beck would later recall, "[The] exhibition of mob violence certainly had the effect of many Chinamen leaving the city, but after a short interval of almost total exclusion they returned in greater numbers."

Henderson's B.C. Gazetteer and Directory of 1889 listed 26 Chinese businesses in Vancouver, including 13 laundries, four grocery stores, two labour contractors, two tailors, and a boot and shoe maker.

Beck supported excluding Chinese from Canada. When called before a royal commission in his capacity of custodian of naturalization records, he told its chair that "they would never become Canadian nationals. A few, no doubt, would be what are known as law abiding citizens, but their hearts would ever be in Asia."

published on 04/11/2007

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