Hail, the Conquering Asian

Published in the Vancouver Sun on Saturday, October 2, 1999

“It is war now between Oriental the Euro-Canadian for possession of British Columbia –the  prize region of the whole Pacific.”
— Tom Maclnnes, The Oriental Occupation of British Columbia, 1927


“British Columbia is on its way to becoming an economic, cultural and finally political dependency of Asia — a Pacific Columbia likely dominated by China.”
Vancouver Sun columnist Trevor Lautens, Sept. 4,1999


UP WITH Pacific Columbia
Hail, the conquering Asian

Not long after Dec. 7,1941, John Trevelyan Gawthrop received an urgent message from the department of national defence. With the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour by the Japanese, he was told, a new crisis was looming on Canada’s West Coast. The 26,000 Japanese living in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island would have to be resettled and their property seized immediately. Would my grandfather, a mid-level bureaucrat with the provincial government, kindly drop everything he was doing and help organize the internment camps? It was a matter, the message said, of national security.

I will never know what Grandad truly felt about Japanese or other Asian people. (He died in a car accident eight years before I was born,) What I do know is that, as an English immigrant and career civil servant, he was ready and willing to answer the call of his adopted country and had done so on many occasions.

An expert on unemployment and disaster relief, J.T. Gawthrop had worked on flood-rehabilitation measures in the Fraser Valley during the Depression and assisted the Doukhobors after the loss of their mortgaged communal lands. When the war was over, he would serve as regional director of development for the B.C. ministry of trade and industry. At the time of his death, he was heralded as a model citizen; his obituary in the Victoria Times exceeded 12 column inches.

But he was also a chronic alcoholic. Chances are, the decision he was facing over Christmas in 1941 would not have curbed his addiction. Grandad was being asked to serve his country by harming a great number of people living within it. This “public service” involved a plan that would destroy generations of hard work and the ambitions of thousands of citizens. It was a plan that would break up families, causing decades of grief for all who endured it.

J.T. Gawthrop’s claim to Canadian citizenship was more recent than that of many Japanese residents he would soon be displacing. Those he tore from their homes were people whose dreams of prosperity in a new land were much like his own. Nonetheless, he surrendered to the climate of the times and took on the assignment. By serving as one of internment’s pencil-pushing foot soldiers, he played a minor role in one of the sorriest chapters of race relations in Canadian history.


Today, 58 years after Pearl Harbour, I live in a Vancouver that Grandad’s generation could not have envisioned. At 788 Denman, just two blocks from my apartment, a Japanese ice-cream shop that had its window smashed by a brick in 1942 is now a bustling, full-service Japanese restaurant — one of four that dominate the block. Whoever threw that brick in 1942 wouldn’t have cared to know that business would be thriving today. People of all nationalities fill these establishments every night, the spirited clamour of their various languages mingling in a way that has become commonplace. Our city has grown up.

Grandad’s Vancouver was a colonial backwater in which Asian “otherness” was something to be feared, and Asian people were reduced to bigoted stereotypes (inscrutable Japs, asexual Chinamen). My Vancouver is a pan-Asian city where Oriental cuisine, art, fashion, design, spirituality and sex intertwine with those of white culture, infusing the local scene with variety and colour — Asian otherness is something to be embraced.

As the European colonial mentality that once governed this city has gradually been supplanted by a fluid cosmopolitan fabric, Vancouver has gone from Yellow Peril to Yellow Fever, from Asian Invasion to Asian Persuasion. White folk who once regarded Asians as the enemy are now cutting deals, breaking bread and jumping into the sack with them. Asian folk who once regarded whites with suspicion now attend Christian churches and allow their offspring to wed the descendants of the same xenophobes who once tried to drive them out.

In the midst of all this, a personal irony that John Trevelyan Gawthrop didn’t live to appreciate is that I, his youngest grandson, would turn out to be an avid Asiaphile whose favourite lovers are Oriental (including more than a few from Japan) and whose ideal Vancouver would include as many Asian citizens as possible.

It was therefore painful for me this summer when public opposition to the Chinese migrants who arrived on B.C.’s coast began heating up. I couldn’t help thinking we had turned back the clock to the summer of 1914. That’s when the Komagata Maru — a Japanese freighter carrying 376 East Indians — dropped anchor in Burrard Inlet, touching off a two-month imbroglio that ended with the expulsion of most of these “illegal migrants” and exposed Vancouver’s ugly, racist underbelly.

This year’s Summer of the Boat People called up many such demons from the past. In doing so, it revealed that we white folk still have a deep fear of being conquered by Asians — a fear so presumptuous that the aboriginal people we displaced 100 years ago to call this land our own must now be having a good laugh at our expense.

University of B.C. geography professor Cole Harris, borrowing from Edward Said’s Orientalism, has said that certain Euro-immigrant populations that arrived here in the last century used an imaginative geography (or “European inspirations without European space”) to impose an Old World social vision on the surrounding territory. In his 1997 collection of essays, The Resettlement of British Columbia, Harris noted how upper-middle class Brits “who no longer had the means to sustain their social pretensions in England … considered a farm or ranch in a British settler colony a socially acceptable safety valve.” To serve such vanity, an entire aboriginal population had to be displaced and the flow of Asian immigrants reduced to zero.

In 1858, the same year the first Chinese arrived in this province, Governor James Douglas addressed a group of British miners in the Fraser Canyon. “I am commanded to say to all her Majesty’s native-born subjects,” he announced, “that this is their country.” In 1904, the “head tax” on Chinese immigrants was raised to $500 from the original $10 of 1884. But it was only after the sweat of Chinese immigrant labour had completed two more transcontinental railways that white British Columbians voted overwhelmingly in favour of 1923’s Chinese Exclusion Act.

Politicians, of course, have played on the free-floating insecurities of the public. In 1912, it was white premier Richard McBride standing in the legislature to call Chinese immigrants “a menace to white labour and the desire to preserve British Columbia as a white man’s domain.” Even the more benign examples of xenophobia can demonstrate our fear of being conquered, as West Vancouver MLA Ted Nebbeling did when he arose in the legislature in 1997 to heckle East Vancouver MLA Jenny Kwan, one of the first two Chinese-Canadians voted to the House.

Following the incident, Nebbeling claimed that it was all in good fun, that his pidgin-Chinese catcalls — delivered moments after Kwan switched from English to Cantonese in her first speech — were a clever way of dismissing his NDP adversary’s partisan defence of government policy. But there were murmurings in the House that Kwan’s Cantonese delivery (a public-relations gesture on behalf of her many Chinese constituents) was also a breach of parliamentary protocol and a threat to the social fabric. If Kwan could speak Chinese in the legislature, soon B.C.’s parliament would be a cacophony of foreign tongues. Where would it all end?

I can recall similar fears being expressed in a conversation I had with a friend of my father during the Expo summer of 1986. Just as promoters of the world’s fair were encouraging British Columbians to “invite the world,” this retired Anglo-Saxon executive from one of B.C.’s major Crown corporations was lamenting the changes the fair would bring. “Enjoy the view while you can,” he said, leading me on to his West Vancouver sundeck with a couple of gin-and-tonics. “One day it’ll all be taken over by the Chinese.”

Anglo-Saxon triumphalism has a proud tradition in this province. During the 1920s, its standard-bearer was a God-fearing Scot named Tom Maclnness. A Vancouver Province columnist and member of the Vancouver Poetry Society, Maclnness was something of a literary sad sack, reduced by failure to populist pamphleteer. He was perhaps best known for a 1927 tract entitled The Oriental Occupation of British Columbia, a phenomenon he said “threatens our economic and even racial control of this best of all regions in America.”

Today, of course, Maclnness’ appeal to “fair Nordic- readers” would place him in good company with the Heritage Fronts and Aryan Nations’s of the world. Remove the racist hyperbole and earnest rhetoric, however, and his argument is eerily similar to those being advanced by many of today’s media pundits, Reform party MPs and assorted reactionaries.

Their fear of how B.C. culture might be diluted or lessened by more Asian immigrants is something I can’t begin to share. With the exception of a few art- world pioneers and architects, much of the white, Euro-immigrant “culture” produced here since the 1950s is freighted with Hallmark environmentalism, frontier clichés or the kind of philistinism that glorifies American suburbia, complete with its strip-mall chain stores and teenaged boredom. By the late 1980s, “West Coast culture” (if there was such a thing to begin with) was in dire need of a facelift. Just the kind, in fact, that a massive influx of Asian immigrants could provide. And did.

Gazing at an official portrait of John Trevelyan Gawthrop, probably taken in the early 1950s toward the end of his life, I’m struck by the visual clues that separate his generation and times from my own. In the portrait, he is dressed in what appears to be a black wоol jacket and a fedora, its brim resting high on his forehead. Some kind of Commonwealth pin is attached to his lapel. He sits casually for the photo, with his left hand in his coat pocket and right hand dangling a cigarette.

His face is a canvas of burdens. He seems very tired, and his heavily-jowled features suggest a lifetime diet of meat and potatoes, along with a heavy drinking habit. His expression is that of a man who has dedicated his life to pleasing others, and you can see the weight of expectation in those sagging cheeks and melancholy eyes. It is the expectation of parents who sent him to the colonies to seek a better life, of a wife and two sons who depended on his income during the Depression, of various government employers who counted on him not to go off on another bender, and of the God he believed in who he hoped would not punish him for his sins.

Looking at the photo, I’m reminded of a letter he wrote to my father on his 16th birthday. It was 1943, the year after Granddad had begun serving his country by rounding up its Japanese citizens. “Do not slacken,” he told my father, “or allow yourself to slip away from your religious duties and always remember your obligations to your home and family.” (Come to think of it, isn’t that what a Japanese patriarch would have told his children, too?)

Now I look at myself in a mirror. Of course, there’s a family resemblance in the eyes, the mouth, the jawline. But the similarities end there. Even taking into account that I am 25 years younger than Granddad was in that photo, mine is the face of a person who tends to pass on meat and potatoes in favour of anything stir-fried in a wok.

The contrast between Grandad’s image in that photo and my own in the mirror suggests that the Asian Invasion has already occurred and that I’m living with the results just fine. Unlike Grandad, whose vocabulary was sprinkled with phrases like “divine providence” and “immaculate conception,” I’m much more likely to spout yin-yang platitudes about “balance” and “harmony.” I very much doubt that Grandad would have understood why my father — his son — adopted acupuncture to complement his western medicine practice.

Should the Euro-immigrants’ hold on this province one day be usurped by Asians, we will not be conquered by smallpox or one-sided treaty agreements, the way newcomers conquered the natives of this region. Instead, we’ll be beaten on our own playing fields of global free trade, real-estate ventures and arts philanthropy. If in the process of such great change it becomes essential for me to learn Japanese, Mandarin or whatever the new dominant language may be, I eagerly welcome the challenge and opportunity. Indeed, if it happens in my lifetime, I will be more than happy to surrender to my Asian conquerors.

Daniel Gawthrop is author of Vanishing Halo: Saving the Boreal Forest (Greystone/The David Suzuki Foundation), to be released this fall.

SIDEBAR: Cultural equation:
Vancouver minus Asia equals…
•          No colourful Robson Street. Face it: the most terminally gorgeous people strolling the fashion district these days are the 35-and-unders from the big Asian cities: Hong Kоng, Tоkуо, Taipei, Seoul, Singapore. Whether decked out in the latest from Alfred Sung, Versace, Hugo Boss, or Banana Republic, these boys and girls put white folks to shame with their flair, good looks and grooming. And nobody wears black better than they do.
•          No real estate boom. The arrival of Asian immigrants following Expo 86 and the Tiananmen Square massacre jumpstarted the economy by increasing property values — thus allowing some fortunate residents of Kerrisdale to sell homes for three-quarters of a million dollars that they bought for $20,000.
•          No False Creek North. Okay, so the largest development scheme in North America is not the low-cost housing mecca some of our civic activists hoped it would be. But ever since Li Ka-shing paid $320 million for the 84-hectare site in 1988, the Hong Kong-inspired vision of Concorde Pacific has turned this once-dreadful eyesore of industrial sludge into a livable mix of residential, business and green space. There’s even enough room for a community centre (The Roundhouse), four parks, a new public market, schools, marinas and a three-kilometre seawall. Got any better ideas?
•          No Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. Thanks to this elegant, state-of-the-art contribution to the city’s cultural scene, music lovers can now listen to Japanese violinist Midori play European classics on the University of B.C. campus. Of the centre’s $24-million total cost, $10 million was provided by the Chan Foundation of Canada, a fund set up by Tom and Caleb Chan and their father, Chan Sun — a family of Hong Kong immigrants.
•          No ESL teaching/tutoring industry. The large number of Lower Mainland students requiring English language lessons represents a lot of “knowledge industry” jobs in Vancouver.
•          No Asian art and design. We all know about the Chinese Cultural Centre and Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. But we’d also be all the poorer without the Art Beatus Gallery, architect James Cheng’s Burnaby public library and Civic Square, any number of projects designed by Bing Thom, public sculpture such as Chung Hung’s Goddess of Democracy statue at UBC, and the scores of exhibitions and performances by Asian artists throughout the city.

  • Daniel Gawthrop

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