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Artist Henry Tsang contextualizes a Vancouver anti-Asian riot that changed the course of history

Henry Tsang riot
Henry Tsang weaves history and geography together in art projects, such as 360 Riot Walk

Artists don’t often think of themselves as public intellectuals. But this term could apply to Henry Tsang, who has created art projects investigating the relationship between locations in Vancouver and the city’s history, languages, and food .

In a phone interview with Pancouver, the associate dean at Emily Carr University of Art + Design is brimming with ideas.

“As someone who moved here as a little kid [from Hong Kong] back in 1968, I’ve got a particular experience that’s set in a time and place that would be different than someone who would have come here from another part of the world. Or someone who came here 20 years later, 20 years prior, 50 years prior, 100 years prior,” Tsang says. “I do reflect on those possibilities and how my life would have been so different if I did come from Hong Kong when there was all this anti-Hong Kong sentiment.”

He emphasizes that he’s not a historian. But there’s no denying that history permeates his 2023 book, White Riot: The 1907 Anti-Asian Riots in Vancouver. It’s also at the core of his Hastings Park series of colour photos with infrared projection. This project draws attention to the incarceration of Japanese Canadians in buildings at Hastings Park before they were sent to internment camps or dispatched to other provinces as labourers during the Second World War.

“There are real historians who are properly trained,” Tsang acknowledges. “They know all the stuff. I’m leaning on them to make the art work.”

36 Desktop - White Riot

Riot led to immigration restrictions

On Saturday (December 2) Tsang will offer two free public storytelling sessions at 5:30 p.m. and 6:45 p.m. at the Komagata Maru Memorial in Harbour Green Park. They’re part of Liven UP – Coal Harbour, a monthlong series of free events at taking place between Canada Place and the Westin Bayshore Hotel. The following Saturday (December 9), Vancouver family folksinger and songwriter Ginalina will be the storyteller at the memorial from 5:30 and 6:45 p.m. followed by author and artist Naomi Steinberg (December 16, 23, and 30) and playwright and poet Carolyn Nakagawa (December 22).

The memorial in Harbour Green Park commemorates the 1914 expulsion of a Japanese vessel, the Komagata Maru, from Coal Harbour. More than 350 aspiring immigrants from British-ruled India were onboard when the ship was ordered out of Canada.

Tsang is well aware of the connections between the 1907 white riot, which he has highlighted through his art and his book, and the fate of Komagata Maru passengers. Prior to the riot, there were no restrictions on people from British-ruled India or Japan entering Canada.

However, that changed after a mob went on a rampage through Chinatown and the Powell Street neighbourhood that was home to many Japanese immigrants and their families.

In fact, Tsang even incorporated Punjabi food into a 2018 art project, which set a series of events in motion leading to Arsenal Pulp Press’s publication of White Riot.

“It actually came out of this pop-up food project called Riot Food Here,” Tsang explains. “I got this small public-art commission to do an ephemeral public-art intervention around Vancouver—and it was open-ended.”

Food linked to riot

Tsang devised the idea of inviting people to share a meal at locations linked to anti-Asian attacks in 1907. They included where Asiatic Exclusion League members started their parade, as well as the old Vancouver City Hall next to the Carnegie Centre. In addition, meals were served in Chinatown and along Powell Street.

“There was white food, Chinese food, Japanese food, Punjabi food, and Indigenous food,” Tsang recalls.

Diners were asked questions, such as what an angry white man might have eaten before he went to attack Asians in their homes. Or they were asked what a Chinese person would have eaten just before the white people attacked.

Another question concerned bystanders from British-ruled India. What would they have eaten before watching white people attack other Asian people shortly after they had fled Bellingham? Punjabis faced similar attacks in that city and other communities along the West Coast of North America.

As part of Tsang’s project, he asked what Indigenous people might have consumed before seeing people attacking other people on their land.

In the wake of Riot Food Here, Tsang created 360 Riot Walk, which is a video walking tour of the 1907 anti-Asian riots in Vancouver.

His book, which emerged from 360 Riot Walk, includes a chapter by retired educator Paul Englesberg. According to Tsang, Englesberg has chronicled seven different anti-Asian riots along the West Coast of North America over a 12-month period more than a century ago.

“He focuses more on the anti-South Asian sentiment,” Tsang says.

Moreover, the artist adds, the hostility to Asian newcomers didn’t begin or end over that 12-month period.

Henry Tsang photo riot
A colourized photo of 245 Powell St., a stop on a walking tour that retraces the angry mob’s route. (360 Riot Walk, Henry Tsang),

360 Riot Walk precedes book project

In the script for 360 Riot Walk, there’s a quote from a Harvard PhD thesis by Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, Mackenzie King. It makes the case that Asians would never fit into society in Canada.

“That was a really common refrain,” Tsang says.

Following the riot in Vancouver, the foreign ministers of Japan and Canada reached a “gentlemen’s agreement”, via a handshake in 1908. It stipulated that Japan would only allow a maximum of 400 of its citizens to immigrate to Canada each year. Tsang maintains that this deal, known as the Hayashi-Lemieux Agreement, resulted from what happened in Vancouver.

Moreover, Parliament amended the Immigration Act in 1908 to require immigrants to take a continuous journey from their native countries to Canada. This imposed a barrier to those from British-ruled India because they would need to stop for provisions along the way, due to the distance.

“Of course, the anti-Asian activists were trying to figure out how to exclude the people from India, so that was the continuous journey [rule],” Tsang says.

Ultimately, a later version of this regulation, which arose out of the same sentiments that drove the anti-Asian riot in Vancouver, led to the expulsion of the Komagata Maru from Coal Harbour in 1914.

“What I would ask people is this: is understanding this history useful for us to reflect on how things are now?” Tsang asks. “What is it that we can be vigilant about and try to change that’s not fair?”

He recognizes that race relations have improved since 1907. But the artist also notes that there’s still a way to go.

“It’s not like we’re perfect,” Tsang says. “There are people still having way fewer rights and considered less human than others.”

Event details

Liven UP – Coal Harbour presents Storytelling by Henry Tsang at the Komagata Maru Memorial at 5:30 and 6:45 p.m. on Saturday (December 2). Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.