Chinese Bachelors Seek Fairness 1936-37

By Johns, Daniel | Alberta History, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Chinese Bachelors Seek Fairness 1936-37


Johns, Daniel, Alberta History


In February 1936, the invisible walls separating Calgary's "Chinatown" from the mainstream community suffered the first of a series of fractures when 169 Chinese "bachelors" joined the Communist-inspired Calgary & District Unemployed Association (CDUA). (1) Together, over the next year, the Chinese and Communists staged a series of confrontations, culminating on February 6, 1937, with the arrest of thirteen bachelors after they blocked traffic at Calgary's busiest intersection by lying across the street car tracks. These protests forced the reluctant relief authorities to almost double the relief paid to Chinese unemployed single men from $1.12 a week to $2.12, but still less than the $2.50 a week paid to single white men.

Support to the Chinese was provided by Communist leaders such as William Griffin and Ivan Flenry Matthews. However, while leftist political groups struck the first blows, establishment of the relationship between Chinatown and the white community required a foundation built by spectrums of society that could access established political power. This excluded the Communists. As well, the willingness of the bachelors to work with the Communists embarrassed the more prosperous in the Chinese community, forcing a realignment of relationships inside Chinatown.

Prevailing scholarship claims the Chinese merchant elite, through Chinese organizations such as the clan associations and Freemasons, had power "that made control over their members nearly absolute." (2) The elite were permanent residents of Canada who owned businesses while the members, or bachelors, were working class. (3) In spite of being referred to as bachelors, the members often were married and would have retired back to China where their families lived if they could have afforded it.

Realizing that strikes were not in their interests or the interests of white political leaders, the elite reached outside Chinatown in a search for justice for the bachelors. In the process they discovered they could wield power in white society by using nontraditional institutions in Chinatown, such as the Chinese Mission, to work with churches and the local and provincial governments. It could transcend some of the racial prejudice of the time. Overt injustice drew support for the Chinese from white political allies, churches, newspapers, and from public opinion outside Chinatown.

The segregation of Chinatown from mainstream Canadian society was not an arrangement unique to Calgary. Kay J. Anderson concluded that Chinatowns were primarily a white construction based on race as ideology. (4) Chinatown, by "disclosing the categories and consequences of white European cultural hegemony, reveals more about the insider than it does the outsider." (5) Rather than be seen as a ghetto, Chinatown should be seen as a "social construction with a cultural history and a tradition of imagery and institutional practice." (6) Anderson acknowledges that Chinatowns did provide some advantages for Chinese, such as protection and economic opportunities. In a similar manner, Brian Dawson argues that Chinatowns were a defensive mechanism against institutional racism, more than an attempt to maintain a cultural identity, but he also states that the bachelor society, which described the Calgary unemployed, "had little interest in conforming more than was absolutely necessary to the surrounding society." (7)

David Chuenyan Lai argues that Chinatowns were shaped by the prejudice and discrimination of white society, but also by the social nature of the Chinese who wished to be with people who spoke the same language, shared the same customs, and would assist them with their economic needs. "Thus Chinatown represented both voluntary and involuntary segregation," (8) Lai said Chinatowns provided an "ecological niche" occupied by the Chinese where they could meet the changing social and economic realities of society. (9)

Gunter Baureiss states when the Chinese began to arrive in Canada, the nation saw itself as "white-man's country" and isolated the Chinese. …

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