The Anti-Asian Riots were a series of violent disturbances that occurred between September 7-9, 1907 in Vancouver, British Columbia. The riots were incited by white supremacist Vancouverites against Chinese and Japanese immigrants, and over the course of several days there were many instances of violence against Asian minorities in the city, as well as vandalism and significant destruction of property. This riots’ immediate legacy included increased police presence in Vancouver’s Asian communities, with long-term effects including an emboldened anti-immigration contingent of Canadians that continued to promote the adoption of racist and exclusionary policies.
During the late 19th century into the early 20th century, there were waves of Chinese and Japanese immigrants coming to Canada. Some Chinese immigrants had come to Canada during the Gold Rush in the mid-19th Century, with others coming to build—often under dangerous conditions and for little pay—the Canadian Pacific Railway. With the completion of the railway, many workers moved to British Columbia, although the “head tax” imposed by the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 meant that many could not bring their families to join them. This law, and others like it would limit the capacity of Chinese immigrants to integrate into Canadian society, including laws in British Columbia which excluded “‘Indians and Chinese” from registering vital statistics (births, deaths, and marriages),” and another excluding the same groups from voting. A wave of Japanese Canadians, largely young men, had also immigrated to Canada in the late 19th Century.
By 1907, there was an increase in immigration, particularly from Japan, and with it, a growing anti-immigration, anti-Asian sentiment among white labourers in British Columbia. The Vancouver metropolitan region had pockets of predominantly white neighbourhoods, with both city authorities and employers working in tandem to racially segregate the area by limiting Asian immigrants’ access to work, “access to urban spaces,” and “sought to delineate and restrict their access to the cities’ physical, social, economic and political spaces.” As Asian migrants opened business across the West Coast, white labourers who were experiencing economic distress blamed their conditions on the success of their Asian neighbours. By the summer, those opposed to Asian immigration formed the Asiatic Exclusion League (AEL) which aimed to “keep Oriental immigrants out of Canada.” The group had the support of many members of municipal government, including the Mayor of Vancouver, Alexander Bethune.
On September 7, 1907, thousands of people marched through the streets of Vancouver to a rally at City Hall organized by the AEL holding signs that read, “Keep Canada White,” and “Stop the Yellow Peril,” and a large banner proclaiming “Stand for a White Canada.” The protesters then marched through back through Chinese and Japanese neighbourhoods, and the march quickly gave way to rioting when protester launched stones at Asian-owned businesses. Chinese people in the area had to lock their doors and set up barricades to protect themselves. Over the next day and a half, the rioting crowd proceeded to destroy many businesses and homes in Chinatown. The rioters then moved on to Japantown to do the same thing, however, residents were prepared for their arrival and armed with “knives and broken bottles,” they pushed back the rioters which helped Japantown sustain less damage than had occurred in Chinatown. Still, “windows in every Japanese and Chinese-run store in the area had been smashed” with reports that “those of white people living adjacent or among them were left untouched.”
While most of the violence occurred relatively swiftly, the attacks continued sporadically for the next few days, including a fire set to the Japanese Language School on Alexander Street which had been opened the year before, and which was an important centre of Japanese culture for the community. Chinese and Japanese people in Vancouver continued to fight back, patrolling their neighbourhoods. Those under attack also withheld their labour—a sort of general strike—closing their stores, and not attending work at local sawmills. The riots started on Saturday, and by Monday, it was over. The estimates given by the Canadian government put the total loss at tens of thousands of dollars, especially if accounted for the lost revenue.
Impact and Aftermath
In addition to the damage caused by the riots, the events in Vancouver in September 1907 had significant and far-reaching consequences. Although the AEL eventually lost momentum and support in the decades following the riots, anti-immigration sentiment continued to have support in government, and new regulations and policies were put in place to further restrict immigration from Asia. In 1908, the Government of Canada introduced a new cap on Japanese immigration—a so-called “Gentleman’s agreement” also known as the Hayashi-Lemieux Agreement—that limited the immigration of Japanese people to 400 immigrants annually, a significant decrease from the 8000 Japanese people who had emigrated to Canada the year before. Further, following the Anti-Asian riots, the Government of Canada established the continuous journey regulation, which required immigrants to Canada had to get a ticket that took them to Canada directly from their country of origin, which effectively limited Japanese and Indian immigration (and was a significant part of the Komagata Maru affair).
The racist, exclusionary sentiment that informed these laws and the riots has continued in different ways over time. Under the Government of William Lyon Mackenzie King, in 1923 the federal government passed a new Chinese Immigration Act which aimed to ban the immigration of people from China to Canada, as well as further reducing the cap on Japanese immigration. This sentiment is also apparent in the deportation of Japanese people throughout the 1940s, and the interment of Japanese Canadians during WWII as so-called “enemy aliens.”
More recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic violence and aggression towards Asian communities within Canada has been on the rise. Many Asian Canadians have reported a shift in attitudes towards them in recent years, and there has been an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2020. The context and explicit racism of the Vancouver Anti-Asian riots is still being felt more than a century later.
- Canadian Encyclopedia Article on Anti-Asian Racism in Canada
- Article from Wilfrid Laurier University News entitled: ” Vancouver anti-Asian riots of 1907 and the parallels to Canada’s modern-day racial divide“
- Book review of: “Trouble on Main Street: Mackenzie King, Reason, Race, and the 1907 Vancouver Riots” that explains the broader impact of the riots on Canadian politics
Contributors: Asmitha Ajaikumar, Shayna Cloutier, Makayla Dickson, Colin Dunn, Adam Elhedhli, George Knight, Kaitlynn Lewis, Ryan Le, Noah Schwartz, Advait Trivedi