Chinese apology town hall comes to Richmond for final public talks

Teresa Wat, Richmond’s MLA and Minister of Multiculturalism, led the seventh and final town hall meeting on a potential government apology to the Chinese community for historic wrongs.

According to the Richmond News close to 300 people attended, and most of them were ethnic Chinese. The stop was the last of her tour and an important one as Richmond consists of roughly 50 per cent ethnic Chinese residents.

The issue is complex and often divisive as the federal government has already addressed the issue of the Chinese head tax and compensated families for those wrongful acts.

To summarize briefly, early in the twentieth century Chinese people played a significant role in the agriculture and fishing industries. As they succeeded the province of B.C. enacted racially biased laws to prevent Chinese people from succeeding. For decades the government blocked blue collar workers from China from entering the country and Chinese-Canadians only got the right to vote until after World War II.

Equally contentious is the thought that if the province apologizes to the Chinese community then what about other minority groups who have been wronged – namely native First Nations, and, well, just about any group that didn’t have Western European blood.

Below is a story I wrote for a feature on Chinese farmers in Richmond. It gives you a sense of what it was like back then:

When Chinese farmer Chung Chuck tried to cross the Lulu Island Bridge with his crop of potatoes one fateful August day in 1935, he was confronted by a group of Caucasian farmers and members of the newly formed B.C. Vegetable Marketing Board.

Chuck normally sold his potatoes at markets in New Westminster or Vancouver, but this time he wasn’t legally allowed to do so. When he tried to make it over the bridge illegally, Chuck was beaten to a pulp by a board enforcement officer and six Caucasian farmers.

The incident was born of Richmond’s Chinese potato growers’ indignation for the new Vegetable Marketing Act, which barred them from selling their products whenever and wherever they wanted. If farmers were caught selling produce without the permission of the marketing board, they faced stiff penalties of up to $500 in fines and three months in jail.

The act particularly affected Chinese farmers more than their Caucasian counterparts because they depended more on the local connections they had made with vendors.

Logistical problems followed the act, such as vegetables rotting in barns for no reason other than bureaucratic red tape.

On Jan. 12, 1938, Chuck, after failed appeals, was found guilty of illegally transporting his potatoes. During the sentencing, he bolted from the courtroom with a policeman in high pursuit. He evaded capture, but eventually turned himself in, according to the local newspaper.

Chuck’s story is etched in the city’s history and represents many of the struggles Chinese immigrant farmers faced during the early twentieth century. Richmond has a long farming history and Chinese-Canadian farmers are some of its the most important subjects.

A 2011 Simon Fraser University study on Chinese-Canadian farmers noted by 1921, 90 per cent of vegetables in B.C. were produced and distributed by Chinese immigrants.

But, as the study notes, because of their success, racism took hold. In 1923, the Chinese Immigration Act was enacted and fear from Caucasian farmers that Chinese immigrants would take over spread. Then, in 1927, the province enacted its first laws to regulate and market vegetables.

“It was the use of laws to break an existing industry. Anti-Chinese racism was about driving them out of an industry that they helped to build,” notes history professor Henry Yu of the University of British Columbia.

Eventually, Chinese immigrants were forced into creating their own farmers associations in order to protect whatever rights they could hold on to. As a result of this overt and systemic racism, a separate food supply network emerged for unregulated, non-marketed Chinese vegetables.

Hence, it’s argued by some scholars like Yu that Chinese-Canadian farmers developed a local and sustainable food movement long before this century’s own mainstream movement took hold.