Address for the Victoria Chinatown Museum Society on the Occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the Chinese Students Strike
by Timothy J. Stanley
It is a privilege to once again be on the territory of Songhees First Nations of the lək̓ʷəŋən people. I honour their Elders, knowledge keepers and leaders as the keepers of this land, past, present, and future. I would like to begin by thanking the Victoria Chinatown Museum Society for organizing today’s event and for making it such a success. The commitment to fighting racism by organizing within the community and reaching out to allies shows that the spirit of those involved in the students strike live on.
100 YEARS AGO today, Victoria elementary school principals called Chinese students, some as young as six, out of their classes and marched them down the road to Chinese only schools. Trustees alleged that these children needed special instruction in English and retarded the progress of other students. Trustees also said there was not enough room for the Chinese and what they called “our” students in the regular schools. The Chinese only schools would be Rock Bay, the oldest in the district, King’s Road, condemned by the Provincial School Inspector as having “quite possibly the worst physical conditions of any school in the province,” much of the school was actually below ground level, and the newly established Railway Street whose two wooden huts the Chinese called the “Chicken Coop School.”.
In 1922, most Victoria residents thought the Chinese were aliens who did not belong in Canada, let alone in the public schools. The Victoria Chamber of Commerce, the Retail Merchants Association, the Great War Veterans Association, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and most trade unions supported segregation. Long-time School Board chairmen George Jay had advocated segregating the Chinese from the moment that he was first elected in 1901 when there were only four Chinese in the district. Trustees John L. Beckwith and Christian Siveertz were members of the Chamber of Commerce’s Asiatic Exclusion Committee that had called for school segregation, as well as other anti-Chinese measures. Beckwith, the former mayor of Victoria, called the mixture of Chinese and white students in the public schools “abominable.” Siveertz, the secretary treasurer of the Victoria Trades and Labour Council and former president of the BC Federation of Labour, called segregation “well calculated to meet a difficult situation.” Trustee Cecilia Spotford was the principal organizer of the WCTU in BC and a powerful advocate both for white women’s rights and Asian exclusion. Meanwhile, in January 1922, Municipal School Inspector George H. Deane had urged segregation for sanitary reasons.
But, as the Victoria Times reported, when Major Jeffree Cunningham, the principal of the Boy’s Central School, and his charges reached the King’s Road School, “A Chinese boy holding the reputation of being the quietest and most studious in the class shouted something in the Oriental lingo, and like a flash the parade disbanded, leaving Principal Cunningham in the middle of the roadway and wondering how he would overcome the difficulties of the situation.” The Chinese had organized a student’s strike to protest the school board’s racist actions. The strike would continue for the entire school year.
Many of those being segregated did not require special instruction in English because English was their first and only language. Far from retarding the progress of the others, most were in the top half of their classes and had been promoted into the next grade. The city health inspector had debunked the idea that they were a health threat. The very same Principal Cunningham left standing in the middle of the roadway had publicly pointed out that segregated instruction failed to teach English The Chinese well knew that it threatened the quality education that students from merchant and professional families, who were the majority of strikers, needed. Above all the Chinese were no more and no less alien to Victoria, British Columbia, and Canada than were any other non-Indigenous people. 85 per cent of the 240 striking students had been born in Victoria, many had roots in the city deeper than most others except Indigenous people.
The strikers were challenging a racist system and not just the individual prejudices of the trustees. Racism was a social structure that circumvented their lives at nearly every turn. It determined their political rights, where they could live and with whom, what work they could do and for how much, and even where they could be buried. In 1922, British Columbians racialized as Chinese along with Indigenous people, Japanese and South Asians, could not vote in federal, provincial, municipal, and school board elections. They could not become lawyers, pharmacists, hold logging licenses, or serve on juries. The Chinese could not work for the BC government, on government contracts, or for private companies incorporated by the province. Municipal regulations limited access to commercial licenses and banned them from swimming in Victoria’s Crystal Pool. The $500 head tax separated Chinese workers from their families who had to remain in China. Racist violence had closed entire districts of the province to the Chinese.
These exclusions were central to the settler colonial project that had made BC. The whole point of this project was to convert the territories of Indigenous people into the private property of people of European and especially British origins. Indigenous people and Asians were excluded from the Canadian state system from its inception in BC; both were barred from voting and from pre-empting land. In 1885, when John A. Macdonald was inventing a federal polity made up of the owners of private property, he took the right to vote away from all those of “Chinese or Mongolian race” for fear that Chinese property owners in BC might control the vote there. According to Macdonald, the Chinese threatened what he called “the Aryan nature of the future of British North America.”
By 1922, BC was the white man’s land. BC schools not only taught young people that the Chinese were biologically different from whites, but also that they were foreigners who did not belong. For example, a 1907 geography text urged students to consider, “the Chinaman who keeps a laundry. . . .You can easily see that he is not a native of this country. He does not speak our language. The color of his skin is different from ours. He has no family, no wife, no children.” The transpacific family connections of Chinese workers were invisible, the workers themselves aliens, while white people and the English language were naturalized as “native” to the country. This text and hundreds of others not only erased the realities that Chinese people lived, they effaced the Indigenous peoples and languages that were truly native.
In this context, the 3,500 Chinese residents of Victoria strongly supported the strike, even though most were so-called bachelor workers whose families were in China, and they did not have children in the schools. A shared sense of being Chinese and of being threatened by exclusion brought them together. When people from Guangdong province first arrived in Victoria in the middle of the nineteenth century, they had little sense of being part of the same group. They primarily identified with their home county. They spoke Hakka and different dialects of Cantonese and belonged to different ethnic groups.
Racist violence and exclusion forced them to band together. Blocked from access to the Canadian state system, they created their own alternate institutions. Of these the most important was the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), which the late David Lai has correctly called a Chinee local government. Formed in 1884, two years later most Chinese in BC were its members.
Its authority was tacitly recognized by Canadian officials. By 1922, the first generation Chinese belonged to Chinese political parties, Sun Yat-sen’s Guomindang and the rival Zhigongdang or Constitutionalist party. They read newspapers that regularly reported on the Chinese in Canada and in China and elsewhere in the diaspora. For example, The Vancouver-based Chinese Times reported on students strikes in Canton and on a 1921 Chinese student strike against school segregation in Mississippi.
Above all, the first generation were connected back to family members in China where the Nationalist Chinese Revolution had overthrown the imperial system. Thus, in February 1922 the CCBA warned the school board that segregation would be opposed “by the whole of the Chinese people.” During the summer, it organized the meetings with parents that led to the strike. The day the strike began it formed the Kangzheng Fenxiao Tuanti Hui or a Fight School Segregation Association which mobilized the support of Chinese communities across the country and even in China, raising over $16,000, the equivalent to a quarter of a million dollars today.
CCBA rallies filled the Empire Theatre to overflowing and featured all the leading Chinese associations and political parties. By November, it was evident that the strike would be protracted, so it organized a free Chinese language school held at the Chinese Public School for the striking students. As explained at the time, if the children were not allowed to be Canadian, they would be Chinese.
People supported the strike even when it was against their personal interests to do so. Since 1904 community leaders had often obtained special permits exempting their children from the board’s various segregation efforts. For example, in 1908 Lee Mong Kow, the immigration interpreter, obtained permits for his third-generation children. During the 1922-3 strike, the board issued 94 such permits, but none were made use of.
The extent of popular support also became evident In March 1923 when the Victoria Police raided #2 Fan Tan Alley at 2 o’clock in the morning. They arrested twenty-two people who were in a room filled with gambling equipment, interrupting 5 men involved in a poker game. When those arrested appeared in front of the magistrate, they argued that they were not gambling, but were attending an informal meeting of the Zhigongdang that was trying to decide whether to allow their headquarters to be used as a school for the striking students.
The locally born Chinese who were young adults in 1922 were the real leaders of the strike. There were only about 100 locally born adults at the time. Most came from merchant and professional families and had been educated in the city’s public schools, often in integrated classes. Several had graduated the Victoria High School, and some were university graduates. Many had also attended Chinese schools and at least one was a Chinese high school graduate. They were culturally assimilated to life in Canada, while maintaining connections to people and things Chinese; collectively they had considerable Canadian and Chinese cultural capital; They were also organized. The Chinese Canadian Club, the group that invented the term Chinese Canadian, was formed in 1914 as a young men’s social group. In 1919-20, they waged an unsuccessful campaign to get the vote for the locally born and war veterans. It was at their well-appointed clubhouse, surrounded by their library that included the complete works of Jane Austen, that they came up with the idea of the strike. They put together a threefold strategy: first working through the CCBA to mobilize support for the strike, second, building on the collective identity of Chinese to make clear that the strike threatened all Chinese in Canada, and third, waging a letter writing campaign in the English language newspapers of Victoria to win support from the larger white community.
Joe Hope, Low Kwong-jo, the club president was the most prominent spokesperson, but other leaders included Cecil Shit-Shun Lee and his wife Grace Won. Grace was the third-generation daughter of Won Alexander Cumyow who was the first Chinese born in Canada and one of the founders of CCBA. Hope became the president of the Resist School Segregation Association and spoke for the strikers at public meetings in Chinese in Victoria and Vancouver and lead delegations to the school board. Along with other locally born, he publicly exposed the Board’s justifications for segregation. As Hope explained, segregation put the future of the locally born into question, so that we will be unable to take our part by the side of other Canadians, and we will then be pointed out as those who refuse to learn the customs or social life of the country — in fact, refuse to assimilate. It will have been forgotten by then that it was not because we did not want to learn, but because certain narrow-minded autocrats have taken upon themselves the responsibility of preventing our learning.
Importantly, in a world that said you could either be Chinese or Canadian, the locally born affirmed that they were both. Another key player in the strike was Harry Hasting. Hastings was a Chinese-English interpreter, and importer/exporter, who often acted as a go-between between for the Chinese and the larger white community. He was born in Taiwan to a British father and a Chinese mother, both Christian missionaries, and grew up in Hong Kong where he attended the leading English private schools. Hastings published several articles and dozens of letters to the editor directly challenging the board in the English language press. He even published the names and class standings of close to 200 of the 240 striking students. Many people thought that Hastings was the leader of the strike, and he may even have thought of himself as such, but he did not become involved until mid-September and does not appear to have participated in the CCBA rallies. Still, in early October, Hope introduced Hastings to the Board as the leader of a delegation and for a time, the board communicated through him. However, his vitriol against the board was such that early in 1923 it banned him from meeting with them.
By the end of 1922, the letter writing campaign was beginning to win over the larger white community. The school board elections that year elected two trustees determined to end the strike. However, attempts to resolve the dispute fell apart as they did not go far enough.
In May, the federal government introduced the Chinese Immigration Act, effectively banning the immigration of people of Chinese race, and requiring all those living in Canada, including the locally born, to register with the federal government. Failure to produce the certificate of registration could result in fines, imprisonment, and deportation. One of the Canadian born forced to register under the act was the seven-year-old Annie Fong of Montreal, my mother.
During the summer of 1923, the board ordered inspector Deane to reach a settlement to which the exhausted parents agreed while Hastings who thought the strike should continue was out of the country. In September 1923 Chinese students went back to their original classes. However, all new students entering the schools had to attend a special class at North Ward School (held at King’s Road) until their English was judged sufficient for integration into the regular classes. This class continued for Chinese, Japanese and South Asian children until after the Second World War.
Looking back, what is the significance of the strike? In 1960, Joe Hope compared it to the struggle against school segregation that was then unfolding in Little Rock, Arkansas and further suggested that the unity created during the students strike ultimately enabled the Chinese to achieve full political rights.
I think the strike shows that racism is not only a social structure that people make, but that the key to fighting racism lies in mobilizing the excluded group around key demands while also bringing home the lived consequences of racist exclusion to members of the dominant group. The strike reminds us that racism, including racial school segregation, has been integral to the making Canada. The last racially segregated public schools in Canada were only closed in the 1980s, while segregation continues in some ways in the separate system of First Nations education controlled by the federal government.
Perhaps most importantly, the strike shows that if racism has lost its grip on public policy in Canada today, it is because people have actively resisted racism. Finally, the strike exposes the central lie of white supremacy; absolute differences between racialized groups is a myth. People live across and between the either/ors of identity categories. If we can openly live this diversity today in Canada, it is because people like Joe Hope, Grace Won and Cecil Lee gave life and public affirmation to a term they had invented to describe the reality of their lives. They were Chinese Canadians.
(Timothy J. Stanley is the emeritus professor of Faculty of Education and Institute of Indigenous Research and Studies at University of Ottawa. You can read more of his work through his website. )
This article was first published by the Victoria Chinatown Museum Society.
Cover picture: First Graduation Class of the Chinese Public School, Chinatown, Victoria. Principal: Lee Mong Kow. Credit : BC ARCHIVES – ITEM D-08821
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