In Racial Solidarity: Historicizing Anti-Asian Racism, Violence, and White Supremacy in Canada

Toronto Solidarity Rally Against Anti-Asian Racism. Author’s photo.

This post by Melanie Ng[1] is part of the “(In)Security in the Time of COVID-19” series. Read the rest of the series here.

Vancouver: On a cold February night in 1887, an anti-Chinese lynch mob  of white men razed a Chinese work camp. Lanterns in hand and singing the U.S. Union army marching song “John Brown’s Body,” the mob set Chinese tents afire, violently beat un-armed Chinese workers, and ran many more off a 20-foot bluff into the Burrard Inlet. W.H. Gallagher, an eyewitness to the scene reported, “The tide was in; they had no choice; and you could hear them going plump, plump, plump, as they jumped into the salt water. Scores of them went over the cliff—McDougall [the camp contractor] was supposed to have two hundred of them up there.”[2]

What, or who, incited the mob with such racial hate? What was the end goal to such violence? And why would an anti-Chinese mob be chanting a famed U.S. Civil War-era abolitionist anthem? What did anti-Chinese racism in Canada have to do with an end to Black chattel slavery in America?

Jumping to the present, in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, anti-Chinese racism in Canada appears more virulent today than what we have seen in recent decades. Cowardly racists are violently assaulting vulnerable Chinese and Asian-presenting seniors in public spaces. Asian Canadian businesses, cultural centres, and landmarks have been repeatedly smashed and vandalized with racist graffiti. And Chinese public servants like Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, have been racially targeted and accused of national disloyalty by Conservative party politicians.

How much has changed from 1887 to 2021? Anti-Asian hate and white supremacy is a longstanding tradition in Canada. Racist laws including the Chinese Head Tax Acts, 1885, 1900, 1903, and the Chinese Exclusion Act, 1923 defined Canada’s immigration system as discriminatory. And, as the past year’s protests against anti-Black and anti-Indigenous police brutality and racism in the U.S. and Canada sparked by the murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto indicate, just as on that night in 1887, anti-Asian racism today does not take place in isolation. Rather, it is but one facet within a greater context of systemic racism that includes violence and oppression against Black, Indigenous, and other racialized communities.

We cannot hope to fully understand our current moment of anti-Asian racism without a grasp of two other intensifying Canadian racisms – that of anti-Blackness and white supremacy.

White supremacy, anti-Chinese and anti-Black racism are and have long been interrelated and co-produced. Conversely then, considering historical constructions of and resistances to these racisms might inform present and future refutations of white supremacy. Importantly, these refutations transcend solely isolated protests of either Anti-Asian violence, or Anti-Black violence. Rather, they encourage a solidarity response from both Asian and Black communities, united by common experiences of racism, racialization, and oppression.


Members of the Knights of Labor and a so-called “Vigilance Committee” incited the 1887 Vancouver race riot after assembling their supporters at the Sunnyside Hotel for a public meeting on keeping the “city clear of celestials.” Numbering 300 to 400 men, the mob set out to the Chinese work camp after an unidentified voice in the audience provoked, “those in favour of turning out the Chinese tonight.” An eyewitness, William H. Gallagher, testified to what followed:

When the Chinamen saw all these men coming, they were terrified. The crowd came up to the camp singing ‘John Brown’s Body,’ and such songs; the Chinamen poked their noses out from beneath their tents; the ‘rioters’ grabbed the tents by the bottom and upset them, the ‘war cry,’ ‘John Brown’s Body,’ still continuing. The Chinamen did not stop to see; they just ran. Some went dressed, some not; some with shoes, some with bare feet; the snow was on the ground and it was cold. Perhaps, in the darkness, they did not know that the cliff, and a drop of twenty feet [was there]; perhaps some had forgotten; some may have lost direction.[3]

The Chinese workers may have been caught off-guard when the singing of “John Brown’s Body” announced the mob’s arrival that night, but they were all too familiar with the racism that drove the charge. By the 1880s, racist ideas about Chinese alienness, clannishness, inferiority, lack of women, and pagan rituals combined with fears about labour competition and fast increasing numbers that circulated amongst the so-called “white men’s countries of the world” were particularly salient on Canada’s west coast.[4]

As more Chinese workers entered British Columbia in the nineteenth century looking for employment on the Canadian Pacific Railroad and in other unskilled industries such as logging, mining, and salmon canning as cheap labour, white working-class men who refused to work for the same low wages felt increasingly threatened by what they saw as unfair job competition. The racial rhetoric of “the Chinese Must Go!” became the physical racial violence of lynching and expulsion.

In many cases, violence was an effective tool for driving out Chinese workers – at least in the short term. The morning after the 1887 riot, the same mob raided Chinatown to intimidate Chinese residents into leaving. As Gallagher reported in his account,

The following morning…the crowd again assembled at the Sunnyside. Several of the draymen owned their own dray or wagon; others were hired…there were probably twenty-five drays and wagons used altogether. The crowd moved over to Dupont Street, to Chinatown, between Carrall and Columbia Street, now known as Pender Street East. …the elderly Chinese merchants assembled their fellow countrymen to a man…probably one hundred, assembled quietly, were loaded onto old fashioned horse drawn drays. They all stood up crowded together on the drays, and one by one the drays and wagons moved off to New Westminster—a pretty rough ride in a springless dray over a rough road—and put on a steamer for Victoria.[5]

To further the humiliation, members of the mob inhumanely bound Chinese workers like animals before shipping them away. “I have heard it said that four Chinamen were tied together by their pigtails and thrown in the creek at McDougall’s camp,” remarked Gallagher. “If so, I know nothing of it. I do know that some of them were tied together by their pigtails to prevent them escaping in Chinatown the following morning.”[6]

The singing of “John Brown’s Body” illustrates the connection between racist anti-Chinese thinking and anti-monopoly working class sentiment. As Beth Lew Williams has argued in the U.S. context, white workers alleged that Chinese innate servility and productivity enabled capitalist monopolizing.[7] White employers enriched themselves through paying Chinese workers cripplingly low wages. As white workers believed that cheap, Chinese labour also kept their own wages down, they blamed Chinese workers for white class disparity.

Read one way, the mob’s singing of “John Brown’s Body,” an American abolitionist song, suggests that, in some twisted sense, the mob saw themselves as “liberating” Chinese workers from their slave-like condition. Indeed, as Moon-Ho Jung has argued, by the 1880s, at least in the U.S., there was no more potent a symbol of chattel slavery’s enduring legacy than the racialized figure of the Chinese “coolie.”[8] Importantly however, such a comparison served less as an argument for Chinese emancipation than for Chinese exclusion. Racialized indiscriminately as “coolies” (despite the fact that the majority of Chinese workers in North America were not coolie labourers), the exclusion of Chinese immigrants served a white working-class agenda that sought to protect what was ostensibly American freedom and free-market ideology. In reality, the only people white workers wanted to protect was themselves. The image of the coolie, when projected onto Chinese workers in Vancouver and beyond, spurred on the violence of the rioters’ labour-centred anti-Chinese ideologies.

While racism and class anxiety went hand in hand, they also blurred the traditional lines of racial thinking. Read a different way, the mob’s choice of John Brown’s Body as the backing track to their carnage also reveals their belief that in expelling the Chinese from Vancouver, they were emancipating themselves from what they saw to be their own enslavement to elite white capitalists. By acclaiming the figure of John Brown, and presenting their condition as in need of abolition, white workers drew parallels between themselves and formerly enslaved Black people in the United States. And yet, to affirm their white supremacy, white workers had to disaggregate the racial thinking of enslavement from enslavement’s condition. Put another way, the racialization of the slave subject as naturally inferior and innately suited to servility could not be associated with the white worker. Instead, such racialization was projected on the very subjects to be blamed for white “enslavement”: the Chinese workers.


Over seventy years later, capitalism’s opponents again invoked the figure of John Brown. This time, it was to challenge white supremacy. In 1959, civil rights advocate and Black Internationalist W.E.B. Du Bois arrived in Beijing. There, he met with Mao Zedong, addressed faculty and students at Peking University, and promoted his new book, a biography entitled, John Brown, to be published in Chinese. Throughout the trip, Du Bois spoke passionately on solidarity between the People’s Republic of China and African Americans in the fight against racial oppression and white American imperialism. Du Bois and his allies believed that the elevation of Africans and Asians, Native Americans, Latin Americans, and Pacific Islanders to the status of absolute social equality with Europeans, could be ensured through non-white racial solidarity in opposition to racial oppression and colonialism.[9]

Movements of Chinese and Black racial solidarity during the twentieth century was not just the arena of high politics and intellectualism. In Canada, this solidarity against white supremacy played out in public and in the press, in private and in subversive arenas.

Sometimes, these moments were fleeting and the motivations behind them unclear. In 1923, when an unnamed black man helped smuggle a number of Chinese men hoping to find work and better life opportunities across the Windsor-Detroit border, he aided their violation of U.S. immigration law.[10] But, read another way, these actions might also be seen as presenting a direct challenge to the ideology of the racially exclusionary nation state. We likewise have to imagine what was said over a 1948 radio broadcast hosted by the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL) when interest convergence led the previously anti-immigrant organization to bring on Chinese and Black activists to discuss racial discrimination.[11]

Other moments of solidarity were more definite. In 1979, Canadian television network, CTV, aired a blatantly racist episode on its current affairs and documentary segment, W5. In this episode, titled, “Campus Giveaway” the network inaccurately accused foreign students from China of taking away university spots from (presumably, white) Canadian students. And, in zooming in on six Chinese students walking across the University of Toronto campus, the program labelled them as “foreign students,” despite the fact that five of the six filmed were Canadian citizens.

The condemnation that followed the airing of the episode was swift and the following anti-racist, anti-W5 social movement led by Chinese Canadians united racialized communities across the country. At the following protest in Toronto organized by the Chinese Canadian community, speakers included Wilson Head of the National Black Coalition and George Imai of the National Japanese Canadian Citizens who voiced their support and called for racial solidarity in fighting against white racism. On the streets, protesters chanted, “CTV Apologize Now! Red, Brown, Black, Yellow, and White – We Canadians Must Unite! Biased Show, W5 Got to go!”[12]


However, racial solidarity has not always been easy, and Asian Canadians still have much work to do in confronting anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racial prejudice within our own communities. For too long the white supremacist Model Minority Myth has functioned as a racial wedge between Asian and Black people. It perpetuates the image of Asian communities as a monolith, masking higher rates of poverty amongst many non-Chinese Asians, and naturalizes the insidious idea of Black failure and Asian success.

And yet, change is possible. This past year the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice (CCNC-SJ) spoke out in support and solidarity with Black communities facing anti-Black racism to demand police accountability. In action, the CCNC-SJ has created a series of learning resources to fight anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, and anti-Chinese racism in Canada, as well as to give Chinese Canadians the tools and language to condemn anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism within our own communities, families, and friends.

This is a fight we must continue. Entering our second year of the pandemic, though mainstream news cycles on, we can neither allow our condemnations of COVID-racism nor our denunciations of police brutality to fade. As the 1887 mob’s chanting of John Brown’s Body reminds us, though anti-Chinese and anti-Black racisms may have their differing histories, they are not unrelated. These racisms have and continue to be co-produced and interrelatedly mutated by white supremacy in service of itself. And as white supremacy survives and functions through the division of those it deems non-white, it only ever allows for the elevation of whiteness atop all else in the deeply racist status quo. Fittingly then, it must be through the solidarity between the very targets of racialization that white supremacy will be brought to an end.

Melanie Ng is a history PhD student at the University of Toronto and an educator at the Royal Ontario Museum. Her dissertation explores race, racism, and clandestine Chinese migration networks in Canada and the Transpacific. You can follow her on Twitter @Mel_speakiNg


[1] This post was submitted prior to the white supremacist and misogynist Atlanta Spa Shootings that took place on March 16, 2021. The author has decided not to make changes to the original submission in response to this tragedy. The memory of Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Ashley Yaun Gonzalez, Paul Andre Michels, Soon Chung Park, Hyun Grant, Suncha Kim, and Yong Ae Yue, six of whom, are women, massage parlour workers, and of Asian descent, deserve their own thoughtful, careful, and sensitive treatment, though it is all too clear that the history and violence of white supremacy and anti-Asian racism recounted here is very much part of our present.

[2] Major James Skitt Matthews, Early Vancouver, Vol. 1 (Vancouver: City of Vancouver, 2011), 213.

[3] Major James Skitt Matthews, Early Vancouver, Vol. 1 (Vancouver: City of Vancouver, 2011), 213.

[4] Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008, 19.

[5] Major James Skitt Matthews, Early Vancouver, Vol. 1 (Vancouver: City of Vancouver, 2011), 213.

[6] Major James Skitt Matthews, Early Vancouver, Vol. 1 (Vancouver: City of Vancouver, 2011), 213.

[7] Beth Lew Williams, The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America, Cambridge: Harvard University, 2018, 119.

[8] Moon-Ho Jung, “Outlawing “Coolies”: Race, Nation, and Empire in the Age of Emancipation,” American Quarterly 57, no. 3 (2005): 678.

[9] Michael T. Martin and Lamont H. Yeakey, “Pan-American Asian Solidarity: A Central Theme in DuBois’ Conception of Racial Stratification and Struggle,” Phylon, Vol. 43, No. 3, (1982), 204.

[10] “August 13, 1923,” Dahan Gongbao / The Chinese Times, 3.

[11] “August 20, 1948,” Dahan Gongbao / The Chinese Times, 3.

[12] Alice Ming Wait Jim, “Asiancy and Visual Culture: The Asianadian Magazine, 1978–198,” Journal of Canadian Art History, Vol. 36, No. 1 (2015), 160.

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