Norris and Carol Hundley Award, Pacific Coast Branch American Historical Association
Passion, Violence, and Asserting Honor
South Asian migration to North America has been part of a broader international movement of peoples since the 1790s. Sailors, servants, peddlers, and merchants from Madras, Bombay, and Bengal appear periodically and fleetingly in memoirs, customs registers, census records, and newspaper accounts from ports on every North American coast from Salem, Massachusetts, to New Orleans, and from Victoria, British Columbia, to Mazatlán, Mexico. In the 1890s, charismatic Hindu and Buddhist spiritual teachers and anti-imperial crusaders arrived to speak at gatherings in Boston, New York, and Chicago, the most famous being Swami Vivekananda, who addressed the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. On the cusp of a new century, turbaned Sikh royal artillerymen traveled across Canada by train from Montreal to Vancouver after participating in Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in London in 1897. They encouraged other Punjabi soldiers in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore to seek labor and business opportunities in North America. In 1899, four Sikhs disembarked at San Francisco's Pacific Mail Docks, catching the attention of onlookers and a reporter, who appraised them as the "most picturesque group" of "fine-looking men." Bakkshlled (sic) Singh, who spoke English fluently, was singled out as "a marvel of physical beauty. He stands 6 foot 2 and is built in proportion." The four men planned to seek their fortunes in California before returning to their homes in Lahore.1
Such worldly, cosmopolitan, adaptable South Asian travelers thrived in settings across the globe. They were seen as dashing, resourceful, and hard-working. The military self-discipline and masculine prowess of Punjabi men was widely praised. Their demeanor, dress, beliefs, and habits were depicted as exotic and curious, but rarely as threatening.
These appealing romantic perceptions of cosmopolitan men shifted rapidly in the first decade of the twentieth century, when more than 9,000 South Asian migrants arrived in Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia. Many crossed over the border to Washington and Oregon and later migrated directly to Seattle and San Francisco. Orchards and farms, railroad and road construction, and timber mills and salmon canneries employed South Asian male laborers for weeks, months, and even years at a time. Beginning in 1904, first several hundred and later a thousand or more South Asian men arrived annually on the docks in Vancouver, Seattle, and San Francisco. The newcomers faced concerns and fears similar to those generated in previous decades by the steady arrival of Chinese and Japanese laborers. In nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Canada and the United States, political debate and cultural narratives characterized migration from Asia as an "invasion," "subversion," and unwelcome "amalgamation" that threatened the establishment of European "civilization" in the Western territories and states. White Americans and Canadians feared labor competition, interracial marriage and sexual seduction, and disease and immorality believed to be introduced by Asian male workers.2 Fears of Chinese men kidnapping white women and addicting them to opium and of Japanese and Filipino men courting and seducing naïve European immigrant and other white women had simmered in political debates, fiction, and newspaper reports in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The discursive frenzy around the need to protect white women and girls from various ethnic Asian men prompted miscegenation legislation throughout the West.3 From 1907 to 1913, the inclusion of the formerly exoticized and attractive South Asian men in this frenzy became evident as mobs drove South Asian workers out of numerous towns and cities in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California. Alongside accusations of unfair labor competition with white workers, politicians and newspapers circulated stories about women and children who had been indecently harassed. The claim of defending honor dovetailed with broader assertions that the presence of South Asian men demoralized white working families.
Two encounters of interracial association graphically illustrate the tension between attraction and fear that percolated in rumors that were used to justify driving-out campaigns and riots in Pacific Northwest and Northern California towns. Darrah Singh was shot dead on the stairway of the Spokane Rooming House in Vancouver on October 22, 1907. Police arrested his drinking partner, English-immigrant Edward Bowen, running down Cordova Street minutes after shots rang out. Six years later, on October 4, 1913, on the shoreline south of Richmond, California, dockworkers found Rosa Domingo's battered nude body anchored by weights at the end of a long wharf. Her Portuguese immigrant family accused Said Ali Khan, who lived nearby and had courted Rosa, of her murder. His disappearance set off a statewide manhunt.
Based on newspaper accounts, the murders of Darrah Singh and Rosa Domingo were interpreted as crimes of passion. They book-ended a volatile seven-year period of driving-out campaigns and rising political agitation for immigration restriction and the removal of South Asians in western North America. These specific and sensational cases served as morality tales distributed to white audiences of the perils of stranger intimacy and interracial contact that incited passion and deadly violence. Both the possibility and the fear of interracial associations became freighted with dangerous and harmful consequences, also articulated in labor polemics, political oratory, and legal appeals. The presence of South Asian migrant men and their contact with white Americans and European immigrants elicited fascination, attraction, interest, and anxiety. Indexing both personal harm and social danger, the murders seemed to presage the potential disintegration of society.
Mob violence targeted South Asian workers. The breakdown in law and social order unleashed monstrous behavior. White men destroyed bunkhouses, stole possessions, beat South Asian men, and drove them out of town. The mob's extremes of cruelty and humiliation could not readily be rationalized and required allegations of depravity that blamed victims and absolved the rioters. Mob violence was not judged on the basis of individual crimes even when there were arrests for disorderly conduct. These arrests were rarely prosecuted, and the prosecutorial and policing system, so disturbed by the breakdown of law and order, readily forgave and forgot the violent transgressions. Vigilantes slipped into a convenient anonymity, and the victims of violent attacks were forced to flee, confronted with an indifferent state. Finally, they were forgotten.
The political forces seeking to establish a political narrative that vigilante mob violence was infrequent, aberrant, and justified were formidable. By forgetting the wider conditions for violence, any economic and political critique that might implicate powerful economic interests narrowed considerably. Instead, a racialized and sexualized threat was identified. The restoration of the social order stoked a belief that passions could be curbed, and that the perpetrators of mob violence must be absolved and allowed to return to their everyday lives. Public fear, horror, and incomprehension were redirected at the alleged actions that incited violence and thereby justified the vengeance claims and the guiding system of gendered honor and racial subordination.4
Fear of South Asian Strangers in Canada
Although the number of South Asian men migrating first to Canada and then to the United States was small, they attracted extraordinary interest and concern. The immigration of South Asian men to British Columbia averaged only a few dozen annually in the first years of the twentieth century and then grew to 2,124 in 1907 and 2,623 in 1908. The numbers are negligible compared both to average immigration annual numbers and the overall population of British Columbia. The Province's population doubled in the first decade of the twentieth century, from 178,657 in the 1901 census to 392,480 in 1911.Vancouver's population grew from 27,000 to over 100,000 in a decade.
Chinese and Japanese immigrants' numbers increased much more slowly, however, than those of Canadian settlers and American, British, Scandinavian, and Italian immigrants. Chinese immigrants numbered 14,885 in 1901 and increased by 40 percent to 19,568 in 1911. The number of Japanese immigrants nearly doubled, from 4,597 to 8,587, in the same period. In 1901, East Asians accounted for 10.9 percent of the overall population of British Columbia, but the proportion declined to around 7 percent in subsequent decades. The South Asian population was a much smaller share. The 1911 Canadian Census reported a population of 2,292 South Asians, which was 9.5 percent of the Asian population and little more than 0.5 percent of the overall population. The popular and ubiquitous nineteenth-century vision of British Columbia as a "white settler" society developed in advance of when the population of white Canadians and European immigrants surpassed the indigenous and Asian population in the 1891 census. In subsequent decades, the Canadian-, British-, and American-origin population rose exponentially and bolstered the championing of the notion of an exclusively "white settler" society, which would hold sway until the Asian immigrant population boomed at the end of the twentieth century.5
Small overall and proportional numbers did not dampen the intensity of curiosity, concern, and fear in Vancouver and Victoria newspapers' depictions of South Asian immigrants. In 1906, labor unions and labor councils in western Canada voted on resolutions urging the federal government to curtail immigration from India. Edward Stevenson of the Saskatchewan Executive Committee of the Trades and Labor Council of Canada warned that the onslaught of "large numbers of Hindoos" precipitated a "moral and industrial menace in a predominating Anglo-Saxon community" and that South Asian labor competition would jeopardize the precarious improvement of Canadian "white working men['s]" living standards.6 White labor unions' political vision of managed labor competition and social entitlements for white workers repeatedly clashed with white elite capitalist strategies of labor recruitment and exploitation.7
Transpacific shipping companies needed large numbers of passengers to sustain their routes, and they coordinated recruitment efforts with monopoly railroad companies and timber companies, as well as with industrial fisheries and canneries that required pools of temporary unskilled laborers for boom cycles. Over the decades, they had readily recruited Chinese, Japanese, and European immigrants. The corporations sought to minimize commitments to Asian workers. They hired temporary workers and expected that these workers would readily disperse when employment dwindled. By contrast, European immigrants and white workers from other parts of North America demanded to be treated as settlers and political stakeholders, insisting on improved working conditions, wages, and a voice in local governance and municipal investments. Since the 1860s, white workers and white businessmen had exploited the vulnerability of Chinese and Japanese workers, and in the twentieth century, South Asian workers were likewise exploited.
Labor leaders in the Victoria Trades and Labor Council condemned South Asians' "peculiar religious convictions, loathsome habits and obnoxious manner of living" as insurmountable obstacles for South Asian migrants to "assimilate with white people or perform duties of desirable citizens" of Canada, and therefore justified their expulsion from Canada.8 Edward Stevenson, a member of the Canadian Parliament, and George Grey, president of the Victoria Labor Congress, spread rumors of suspected sodomy between male South Asian passengers and of "the worst forms" of venereal disease having been diagnosed by Canadian immigration public health inspectors. These allegations echoed concerns about the sexual immorality and disease spread by Chinese men and proliferating in labor camps and bunkhouses in Canada, South Africa, and Australia. Despite their warnings of white aversion to Asians, labor leaders feared that these despised immigrants would associate with white residents and European immigrants and blend into the economic and social fabric. Canadian labor and political leaders particularly feared the growing presence South Asians, who as British imperial citizens could demand broader forms of social and political recognition than Chinese and Japanese immigrants.9
Canadian labor leaders argued that halting future South Asian immigration would deter "imminent" and explosive protests and violence from the white Canadian "proletariat."10 Their warnings recalled campaigns against Chinese immigrants in 1880s and 1890s in western Canada and the United States and the immigration exclusions enacted in North America and in the white settler British colonies of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.11 By 1906, Canadian and U.S. labor leaders and anti-Asian politicians added the "hated Hindu" immigrant to the rhetoric of the inassimilable and dangerous "Asian." Their warnings presciently predicted the cascade of urban violence and vicious harassment that began with "anti-Hindu" riots in Bellingham, Washington, in September 1907 and subsequently spread throughout Pacific Northwest.
Male Transients, Sexual Threats, and Mob Violence
Bellingham, a Washington boom town on the Northern Pacific rail line between Vancouver and Seattle, had a thriving lumber-processing industry, which drew laborers across the border from Canada and from throughout the United States. In the first decade of the twentieth century, many of the cities and small towns in coastal Washington and Oregon doubled, if not tripled, in size. Bellingham grew 220 percent, and, typical of these booming resource-extraction and processing towns, much of the workforce in the Pacific Northwest consisted of young single males. The local economy was at the mercy of commodity prices and demand in distant markets that could absorb the massive outpouring of processed raw materials. At the turn of the century, construction on the Midwestern prairie and the spectacular building boom in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire fueled demand for lumber boards and shingles manufactured in Bellingham. The sudden boom only reinforced anxieties about the precariousness of demand, the visible increase in worker competition, and the possibility of unemployment.12
On September 4, 1907, two nights after a Labor Day parade where fiery orators railed against South Asian workers taking jobs and working for lower wages during the spring and summer in Bellingham lumber mills, a gang of white men ambushed two South Asian men and chased them to the tidal flats of Bellingham Bay. One of the South Asian men escaped the crowd by leaping onto a passing streetcar. The mob captured the other man, beat him, stripped him of his turban and clothing and chased him into the water. When the police arrived, they found the naked and shivering South Asian man standing knee-deep in water, dodging rocks being thrown at him by two white "youths." Later that night the mob regrouped and stormed boardinghouses where South Asian workers lived. They broke down doors, pulled occupants from their beds, forced half-dressed men into the street, and set their possessions on fire. The mob, which eventually numbered 500, chased some of the South Asian men out of town. Newspaper accounts characterized the unanimity of the crowd and members of the police force, who "recognized the universal demand of the whites that the brown men be expelled." The police ended up "herding hundreds" of terrorized South Asians into the police station basement, where they were locked up, ostensibly for their own protection.13
Although the Bellingham city council "deplored" the lawless behavior of the white and European immigrant mob "in molesting innocent people," they defended the mob for their restraint, explaining that they were motivated by a "spirit of self preservation" over "personal hate or religious intolerance."14 The violence was interpreted as a battle of white employers versus American and European immigrant white workers. Bellingham's businessmen saw the barely concealed hand of labor unions behind the riot and the driving out of 400 South Asian men. Even if carried out by "boys," the violent attacks had the "full approval" of "every branch of organized labor." Company agents and out-of-state investors interpreted the show of force and the scapegoating of Asian workers as "in all probability the first step in unionizing the mills," something that had been vigorously rebuffed for years.15
Notice of the class chasm was swiftly recast, however, as a salvo to protect white families from disreputable single men. The Bellingham city council investigation and report blamed the "Hindu manner of living" for being "demoralizing to family ties" and lowering the economic and "moral standard of white workman" and charged that in spite of their "peaceful and quiet manner," the "Hindu population" in Bellingham was "a menace to the citizenship and moral standing of this community."16 This precipitated economic and moral catastrophe, because white workmen and their families had been rehearsed for decades in the labor and political debate against Chinese and Japanese immigrants.17
A Bellingham newspaper, American Reveille, reported that on the Sunday afternoon prior to the violence, "dark-skinned men [had] congregated on the street corners, crowding women off the sidewalks," and that women and girls had allegedly been "insulted on street cars."18 This justification for the violence was circulated widely in the international press. The Montreal Daily Herald and San Francisco Chronicle published the same correspondent's dispatch that combined economic competition with gender defamation in its pithy analysis of the racial crisis: "Every day, whites are being replaced in the mills by the Asiatic. The invaders have become bold and insolent, [with] many instances of women being pushed into the gutter, insulted on street cars."19 The headlines revealed striking editorial differences, however, with the Montreal Herald sympathizing with the victims as "British subjects" and the San Francisco Chronicle vilifying the "Hated Hindoo."20 The London Times expressed suspicions of the charges of insulting white women in the U.S. context, because the ubiquity of the sexualized insult had been deployed against black men to justify lynching in the American South. In London, the editors of The Times were well acquainted with the anti-lynching campaigns led by Ida B. Wells in the 1890s, when U.S. newspapers had racialized the victims of the mob to excuse the violence.21
News reports underlined fears of male strangers and the threat they posed to the public good-in particular, the worry that coarse, amoral "roving men" unattached to wives and children were a sexualized menace to working-class men, women, and children. Public thoroughfares were perceived as unsafe for women and children, and there were considerable efforts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Canada and the U.S. West to sanitize these places of public circulation. The presence of South Asian men in public exacerbated fears of sexual contact, however, which were reframed as threats to women and as justification for the race riots in Bellingham, Washington, in 1907. The violence aimed at South Asians spread throughout the Pacific Northwest, with anti-Asian political meetings, clashes, and campaigns in Vancouver, Everett, Anacortes, Aberdeen, Grays Harbor, and Seattle. On September 8, 1907, fighting between South Asian and white workers broke out in an Aberdeen mill. A week later, on September 13 and 16, there were riots against South Asians on an Alaska-bound steamer and a raucous saloon fight between Swedes and South Asians. On Halloween night in Boring, Oregon, gunmen attacked a "Hindu" bunkhouse and Bhingwan Singh died of gunshot wounds. On November 2, 1907, white American and European workers in Everett, Washington, made good on labor leaders warnings with a "demonstration" march to "scare the Hindus" that turned into a driving-out campaign.22
South Asian workers fled Bellingham and crossed the border to find safety and work in Vancouver, where the presence of Asians on the downtown streets and in the workforce was significant. After the anti-Chinese riots in February 1887 in Vancouver, the Chinese population continued to grow, reaching nearly 7 percent of the population overall in 1901. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the Japanese population grew rapidly, and by 1907, Asians made up 10 percent of the total population of Vancouver. Although timber harvesting was largely the preserve of European immigrant and native white workers, lumber mills in the region hired Asians for rough, unskilled, and seasonal work. By 1901, Japanese formed 25 percent and Chinese 12 percent of workforce in lumber mills. South Asian workers joined Japanese workers in the sawmills, while Chinese workers were concentrated in shingle mills, which heightened anxieties that "whites" had been "driven out" of all timber-processing jobs.23 White unemployment fears were exacerbated by the large influx of European immigrants from eastern Canada, Britain, and the United States in the second half of the decade.
Imperial ambitions, capitalist interests in mobilizing resources, finance, and labor flows were in dynamic tension with political society intent on circumscribing the membership rights and privileges of national citizenship. The riots, protests, and driving-out campaigns in the boom-and-bust mill towns of the Pacific Northwest were intensely local disturbances connected by shared perceptions of racial threat and illustrated how Swedes, Greeks, and other immigrants registered their membership in a political constituency that named itself white. The British and American empires had every interest in enabling the flow of workers and capital to energize trade and intensify production and consumption. The free-trade empires sponsored, protected, subsidized, and cultivated national wealth and production through tariff systems, plantation systems, and colonization, but channeled capital to maximize the profit of investors and limit competition. They desired the rapid deployment of capital and the recruiting of new groups of mobile labor that could follow the labor-intensive and demanding industries that the capitalists had invested in. 24
In Canada, particularly in British Columbia, the shared identity that emerged among settlers from Scotland, England, Ireland, Canada, and the United States coalesced around British origin.25 A counterforce to the state support of capital development, populist democratic groups marshaled cartels and subsidies to circumscribe national membership. Their demands for controlling and constraining the influx of some racialized workers was a response to stabilizing economic dislocation, mitigating material depravation, scarcity, and the distributions of wealth and property. The formation of white racial identity enforcing the boundaries of national membership was expressed in localities with a rapidly growing population of migrants converging not only from Canada and United States but internationally. The significance of rallying around a national and racial identity demonstrated both the anxiety and the persuasiveness of enforcing national membership. The extralegal violence sharply blocked the mobility of South Asian laborers and limited their opportunities, because the threat of violent attacks made employers cower. However, it did little to broaden ownership and opportunities for most white workers, even when it did enable them to lay claim to being deserving of government assistance and employment.
In 1907, a sharp economic contraction, bank panic, and falling stock market resulted in significant economic disruption. Industrial production dropped sharply by 11 percent nationwide in the United States, imports dropped by 26 percent, and unemployment nearly tripled to 8 percent.26 The 1907 depression caused a sharp decline in the demand for timber products in the Canadian Prairie provinces, and Vancouver workers faced the crush of insecurity, with large-scale layoffs in both the immediate area and the wider region. The recession in the region drew more transient and unemployed workers into the city, waiting to learn of opportunities elsewhere. Three days after the Bellingham Riot, a crowd of 10,000 people gathered for an anti-Asian parade organized by Vancouver's newly established chapter of the Asiatic Exclusion League (AEL). The San Francisco-based white labor political organization had established chapters in Seattle, Bellingham, and Vancouver during the summer. Arthur Fowler of the AEL's Seattle chapter traveled to Bellingham on September 6, 1907, to assess the impact of the riots and traveled onward to Vancouver to participate in the parade. At the parade, he delivered a rousing speech and urged Vancouver residents to follow the example of the Bellingham driving-out campaign as a solution to Vancouver's Asian problem. He urged the crowd to march on Chinatown, and that night, a mob did so and destroyed the businesses and lodging houses of hundreds of Chinese and Japanese residents.27
Defending Male Honor
In October 1907, a month after the Vancouver Riots, Edward Bowen, a twenty-one-year-old English laborer, who had arrived in British Columbia in June of that same year to work on the railroad, was arrested for the murder of Darrah Singh. The day after being fired from his job as a night watchman for the general hospital, Bowen had met Singh in downtown Vancouver. That day, Bowen spent the proceeds of his last paycheck. He bought a hat and a pistol, which he showed off to fellow beer drinkers in the saloon at the New Fountain Hotel downtown. His friend Russ told Bowen that "it was a foolish thing to carry a weapon like that under the British flag." Bowen had paid up his room at the City Rooming House and had purchased a couple of meal tickets, but he was running out of money.28 He was a bevy of contradictions. His claim of a physician father and "fairly well educated" speech were betrayed by a "cockney accent" and his Vancouver work as an unskilled laborer. Sociable and garrulous, Bowen met two turbaned South Asian men at the Fountain Saloon and invited them to "drink and to talk" about their lives in India and China.29 They left for the Alexandra Hotel, where a bartender named McDonald recalled the two turbaned South Asian men as unusually tall, "towering head and shoulders over the rest of us." He also noticed Bowen's enthusiasm for the men, who had served in the "King's Army in India." McDonald remarked that they were "two fine looking men" and that the three were "evidently" on good terms. The bartender noted that Darrah Singh, wearing a yellow turban and suit, had carefully inspected his money before paying the tab.30
Meeting in saloons was fairly typical for transient workingmen. The saloons, hotels, and boardinghouses on East Cordova Street were a borderlands zone, between the wharves, Chinatown, and the downtown business and retail district, where workers, transients, and respectable men passed through. As the historian Robert McDonald has described, transient and seasonal workers flooded the downtown streets for recreation and for practical exchanges as part of their daily lives, becoming part of "Vancouver's floating population." The lack of public squares and parks and the proximity to boardinghouses and saloons in the zone between the waterfront and Chinatown made it a hub for congregating and crowds. Downtown was especially busy in the evenings, with "thousands of people wandering about" in front of department stores "on Sunday nights with nowhere to go," because blue laws shut down the saloons and pool halls. The respectable classes and city officials, who lived their intimate lives in the privacy of spacious homes with gated yards in suburban residential areas, projected a vision of city streets as "neutral places where people filled time and occasionally did business." Vancouver's floating population made "public streets an integral part of their daily lives," however, and their presence made it "contested terrain."31
At one corner of a crowded saloon, Darrah Singh and his companion shared anecdotes about their time in the military in India and China with Edward Bowen, who spoke about his life in London and his journey across Canada. Their conversations inevitably turned to current prospects; Bowen perhaps explained his discouraging prospects with summer stints in railroad construction and a night watchman's job. Darrah Singh who had been working in the region for two years probably shared his dissatisfaction with sawmill opportunities in British Columbia and his plans to immigrate across the border to Washington. Perhaps they shared stories of their homes in Punjab and in London; or traded impressions of saloons and boardinghouses, the uncertainty of work, the frequency of layoffs, and the caprice of employers. Maybe they had opinions about the recent riots and clashes between white workers and Japanese and Chinese workers, about the wariness of the merchants and saloonkeepers, and the heightened police presence downtown.
Their friendly conversation and generosity in buying drinks among strangers took a turn after Darrah Singh invited Bowen to return to his room in the Spokane Rooming House, where Bowen expected to share a bottle with Singh and his companion. Bowen recalled that once there, Darrah Singh began to unwind his turban and take off his trousers and vest. Bowen sat on the bed, and the other man left the room, switching off the light. Thinking this was a joke, Bowen got up, switched the light back on, and sat back down on the bed. When he explained that he was planning on leaving, Darrah "put his arm around my back." Singh "was laughing," Bowen claimed. He placed one hand on Bowen's "privates" and stroked the back of Bowen's hand with the other. Bowen rose to leave, but Singh "caught hold" of his shoulder and "forced" him onto the bed. Incredulous and horrified, Bowen, then "realized what he was going to do" and "shot him."32
Darrah Singh had been a familiar and frequent guest for two years at the Spokane Rooming House on the corner of Cordova and Carroll Streets. The innkeeper, a man named Gilbert, described Singh as "very much of a gentleman in his ways and dress ... better than the ordinary Hindoo." When Gilbert found Darrah Singh shot on the stairwell, he testified that Singh was wearing "shirt and trousers, or pajamas" and was "tidily dressed." He appeared to have his turban on, but Gilbert could not remember "whether it was a whole turban or not." His daughter Agnes Gilbert recalled that Darrah Singh's yellow turban had "untangled a little in the hallway when the body was moved."33
In the wake of the anti-Asian riots the month before, the district was heavily policed, and three officers came rapidly to the scene. Police Constable McCuish was the first to respond to the shooting. McCuish found the Gilberts with the body. He turned the body over and "opened his vest" to "find the bullet wound in his chest ... and blood oozing out." Five minutes later, Officer Gillis came up the stairs and they took the body into the room. Gillis recalled that Singh's "yellow turban was loose and fell off." Detective McLeod was walking down Cordova Street when five men told him about "some trouble"; "this boy had shot a Hindoo" who had accosted him. When McLeod arrested Bowen near the corner of Abbot and Cordova Streets, Bowen exclaimed that he had "shot the Hindoo because he tried to bugger" him.34
The identity of the man who had accompanied Darrah Singh to the saloon and boardinghouse remained unknown. However, another friend, Natha Singh of Seattle, testified at the trial and revealed Darrah Singh's plans to migrate to the United States. Natha Singh crisscrossed the Canadian and U.S. border frequently for work, and in 1906, he had befriended Darrah Singh when they worked together at a sawmill in Port Moody, the former Canadian Rail terminus and timber-processing town on the outskirts of Vancouver. A few days before the shooting, they had met again in Port Moody, and Natha had encouraged Darrah to move and work in Seattle, despite the recent driving-out campaigns and clashes in Bellingham and other Washington towns. Natha advised him of immigration procedures, including a mandatory health inspection, and had accompanied him to the U.S. immigration office in Vancouver earlier on the morning of his murder.
Natha Singh's testimony offered an alternative motive for Bowen's murder of Darrah Singh-robbery. At the U.S. immigration office, Darrah Singh had presented the U.S. authorities with $200 in cash to prove his financial worth. Darrah's wallet and the $200 could not be found after the murder. The deputy attorney general of British Columbia, Hugh Archibald Maclean, seized on the missing "Hindu purse" and argued that Bowen's motive in visiting Singh's rooming house had been armed robbery, which had turned fatal. Bowen's unemployment, drunkenness, and possession of a loaded gun motivated his greed when he spied the contents of Singh's wallet at the Alexandra Hotel. Since neither the "Hindu's purse" nor the cash was found after the murder, Maclean speculated that Bowen had "probably thrown away the purse" in the attempt to flee. Without the motive of greed, Maclean was at a loss to understand Bowen's enthusiasm for socializing with Singh in the bars and returning to his room with him.35
Bowen's defense attorneys argued that the murder was not the result of "old time malice" or a "tipsy quarrel." They argued that Bowen had been forced into a vulnerable position with two physically larger and stronger men and insisted that a "man had the same right as a woman and was justified in taking life to protect his honor."36 Bowen had expressed shock and claimed that he was "overcome with horror." Acting on impulse, Bowen's revulsion and fear had overcome his rationality, and he had resorted to deadly violence with the newly purchased pistol in his pocket.
The meeting in all-male saloons, which excluded women to prevent prostitution, and visiting at the boardinghouse demonstrated how readily associations across race and ethnic differences could develop and the extent of male camaraderie of meeting, drinking, and sharing stories and woes. These activities created the potential for homosocial alliances that could shore up male solidarities and trust. This homosocial environment satisfied social needs, but physical closeness and signs of sexual desire provoked vigilant anxiety. Attempts to thwart physical intimacy disrupted male camaraderie and redirected its expression as a potential threat to male honor. Racial difference amplified the threat and reinforced the distress of promiscuous association. Conventionally, male honor was invoked to undergird the protection of women in kinship relations-wife, sister, and daughter-who were threatened with unsolicited and unwelcome male attention and sexual interest. Male honor was invested in the protection of vulnerable female dependents from male competition. Bowen's defense hinged on the persuasiveness of the analogy of his vulnerability to that of a woman.
In their coverage of the case, local newspapers picked up on Bowen's defense of male honor under threat and vulnerability to immoral foreign men. The Vancouver World empathized with Bowen's youth and "inexperience" in confronting the "horrid situation" of assault by a "a huge Hindoo, a man described by all as a very fine specimen," and described his use of deadly force as "common sense" and justified.37 The historian Angus McLaren, who analyzed the case, speculates that Bowen and his counsel sought to use the "community's revulsion against homosexuality" as a ploy to justify robbery and murder. The prosecutors deftly dismissed evidence of the alleged sexual attack by underlining how honorable, circumspect, and respectable Darrah Singh's behavior had been at the bar, and his personal history at the boardinghouse. The jury agreed with the prosecution that a "man in protecting his honor was not justified in taking a life" and returned a verdict of manslaughter. Bowen was sentenced to ten years in prison.38
Despite Bowen's conviction, sexual suspicion of South Asian laborers persisted. It shifted the location of the perceived threat from white female victims to white male victims and crystallized how adult men could experience feminized vulnerability. Although the jury refused to condone murder, even in defense of a man's honor, the public culture recognized the dangerous moral and sexual affront, underscoring suspicions of interracial socializing.
Male Honor, Female Peril
The defense of white honor became an umbrella justification for anti-South Asian violence in the Bellingham riots and in many subsequent driving-out campaigns in Oregon and California as South Asians continued to immigrate to the United States. In three events, white male mobs justified their violence with allegations of South Asian men behaving indecently and harassing white women and girls. In 1909, in the Northern California farming community of Live Oak in Sutter County, white residents formed a lynch mob and drove "Hindu" workers out of town after allegations of Hindus' "indecent exposure in the presence of women and children." District Attorney Lawrence Schillig called for an investigation into the riots, the driving-out campaign, and the victims' allegations of robbery. Although two white men were arrested, neither was charged with a crime, for "lack of evidence." At the conclusion of the investigation, Schillig reported to California's governor that the "Hindus" had promised to "obey the laws of decency," and the state would enforce prevailing landlords' regulations on crowding in workers' houses.39
In 1911, in Fair Oaks, eighteen miles east of Sacramento, three young white men, the sons of local farmers and fruit growers, led a raiding party on a "Hindu camp" of workers employed by the Fair Oaks Fruit Packing Company. The white men drove eleven South Asian men from the camp and later defended their actions as a necessary retaliation against the men, who had allegedly been annoying and harassing young girls in the surrounding neighborhood. The San Francisco Examiner reported that local citizens defended the young men, who were arrested and imprisoned in Sacramento awaiting trail. The following night, fourteen "young men of the neighborhood armed with guns and pistols, wagon spokes and other weapons" marched onto an old house that South Asian workers were renting and "drove" another group of "Hindus into the country." Their behavior chillingly mirrored that of a lynch mob, with the same strategies of violent, extralegal punishment for alleged harassment of white girls. South Asian men escaped lynching or torture but were warned of fatal consequences if they returned for work.40 As the historian John Pettigrew has argued, the "lynch mob best illustrates homosocial power. In killing thousands of African American men for rumored sexual transgressions," lynch mobs asserted "white masculine authority" and simultaneously policed "access to women" and demolished attempts by African Americans to assert "economic and social power."41
To be sure there was a difference between lynch mobs and driving-out mobs in the outcome of their rage. In the Pacific Northwest, South Asians, like the Chinese before them, were numerous enough to be perceived as a threat, but not a sufficiently widespread presence to nullify the belief that they could be expelled and erased. Their presence was fleeting, a temporary nuisance that could be permanently eradicated, and the driving-out mobs underlined the transience. White mobs beat South Asian men, destroyed their possessions, and robbed them of cash and valuables, but did not feel the need to send symbolic messages in the shape of corpses. The driving-out mobs asserted male authority and policed contact, but they were seeking to eradicate their targets, not to impose deference and servitude by force. Unlike in the case of the Native Americans whose land, resources, and claim to place white settlers had usurped, the desire to humiliate and deter any return outstripped the desire to kill. A successful campaign to drive them out would, it was hoped, result in all of the targets' departure. The aim was to rally a broader white public to deport them from the nation and deliver a stern warning to any other Asian arrivals of fatal outcomes. The removal of the Asians was intended to punish and instruct landlords and business owners and curb their power to hire and lease to a denigrated racialized group. Once the suspect laborers were gone, the message tempered landowners' and businessmen's cavalier demonstrations of liberty to employ and serve anyone. The driving-out mob created boundaries of presence through rituals of propriety and punishment that defined the sense of control over place for white workingmen. Their disruptive power curbed the dominance of white businessmen, the white middle class, and local government.
The government's ritual of absolving and forgetting the lynch mob's unlawful violence underlined the fact that the social, economic, and political order had been shaken but not usurped. The spectacle of a brutalized body hanging from a tree served as warning to those who could not be eradicated and erased. Lynching's value within an arsenal of terror was most effective in subjugating populations of African Americans and Chicanos, whose political subordination and economic exploitation was necessary for the preservation of the social order.42 The campaigns to drive out South Asians simultaneously addressed moral disorder and labor competition, both of which "demoralized" white family life and particularly white male breadwinners' ability to protect and sustain their dependents. Chasing South Asians out of the vicinity of towns and work camps was intended to erase their presence and their employment. Fears of the demoralization of public life became crystallized in accusations that South Asian men verbally harassed white women and girls. The white mob reinforced the representation of helpless, frightened women requiring white male protection to survive outside of domestic society, as well as the dangers and impossibility of women and girls negotiating independence in a male-dominated public world without chaperones and protections.
In March 1910, in St. Johns, a sawmill suburb of Portland, Oregon, a squabble between a white man and South Asian men in a saloon erupted into riots. The labor newspapers attributed the "cause of the saloon fight" to allegations that the "Hindu had made an insulting and suggestive gesture to a young white woman, and he had actually put his hands on her and frightened her into a hysterical condition."43 Labor newspapers characterized the population of 300 to 400 "Hindus ... who form half the visible population at all times" as particularly prone to sexually suggestive commentary. In the commentary of the notoriously anti-Asian magazine The White Man, South Asian men allegedly crowded sidewalks and the "entrances of stores and would stare at and frighten the women and children and pass insulting remarks in pigeon [sic] English at the young women. The Hindus are accustomed in their country to use any language they see fit to women, and they keep up the practice in the United States."44
The trial, however, also revealed an emerging white male practice of harassment and humiliation that targeted South Asian men and punished them for their insolent conduct. In the grand jury trial, a foreman of the Williamette Pulp and Paper Company, Gordon Dickey, testified that walking between saloons, he had encountered "three or four men bringing a Hindu from the waterfront. One of them he said was a cook at a St. Johns hotel [and] knocked the Hindu down." Dickey pretended to protect the "Hindu's welfare," picked up the "end of his turban" and continued to unwind it. Police found the man stripped of his turban and badly beaten. Based on incriminating testimony about Dickey holding a revolver to the head of a South Asian man while another robbed him, a grand jury convicted Dickey of leading the riot that had led to the assault, robbery, and driving out of forty-nine South Asian.45
The perceived threat of South Asian men insolently addressing and insulting white women in public connected with the practice and texture of the terrorist violence against these South Asian men. The turban became a focal point of abuse and harassment. The turban was both a sartorial distinction and a cultural difference that was so identified with "Hindus" that it became a corporeal difference, an appendage. The pagri, or turban, referred to a long plain cloth that is manually tied and worn as a head-covering by men across India. The cloth's color, fabric, and the style in which it is tied indicate region, caste, and economic status, but throughout India, it symbolized honor and respect within and between communities. For Sikh adult men, wearing a specific pagri, referred to as the dastar, had by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries become the accepted uniform, publicly declaring piety and observance of Sikh faith by retaining their uncut hair and keeping it orderly. British colonial rule and particularly the British Army reinforced the dastar as a standard marker of Sikh identity, and in the late nineteenth century, Sikh reformers intent on maintaining exclusive rituals and social markers bolstered the dastar's symbolic significance for Sikh males' distinctive identity.46 The turban is a demonstration of piety and public declaration of devotion in Sikhism.
In public space, white Americans identified the turban as a racial and sexual difference that could became a focal point of abuse and harassment. The act of forcibly unwinding the turban or removing it from the head of a Sikh man became an act of ritualistic violence that was intended to humiliate, shame, and terrorize the man. The exposure of unshorn hair assailed the spiritual values and dignity of Sikh men, redoubling the humiliation. The stripping of turbans was a tactic developed in the field of intra-masculine homosocial competition. The assault tactic played up the fear of "public emasculation," provoking anxiety and the avoidance of shame before other men. Even as homosocial competition empowered men as a social group over women, it also ensured "a seemingly constant specter of failure and humiliation among individual men."47 White male workers and elites justified the violent humiliation of South Asian men in this way with intertwined allegations of wage competition, public depravity, and the demoralizing of white American "family ties." The harassment was intended to curb South Asian males' presence in public space and to punish them for their insolence in making any claim to equality. This strategy of racial subordination bolstered by the threat of humiliation became a key white ritual of maintaining racial hierarchy in a male world.
This training in white male privilege and the strategies of abuse were transmitted to male youth in California's Central Valley. Three decades later in the 1940s, Allan Miller, a white anthropology graduate student from the University of California at Berkeley conducted research in Yuba and Sutter Counties and reported how effective and ritualized racial harassment had become as an everyday practice: "Sikhs stay in foreign quarters of Marysville because they are ridiculed if they frequent regular bars, theaters, and restaurants. Gangs of high school boys harass [them] and grab turbans."48 White male homosocial solidarity consolidated around the ridicule of the turbaned South Asian man. This racial subordination through ridicule and humiliation confined South Asian men to a tightly circumscribed world and heightened their wariness of interactions with the white public.
White Americans and Canadians pejoratively called South Asian men "ragheads" and described turbans as dirty, uncivilized, outside of sartorial conventions of modernity. The turban was also coded as carrying filth, a marker of the unsanitary and the disordered as well as the exotic alien. On the other hand, Sikh men considered their dastars as the ideal means of keeping their unshorn hair clean and orderly and maintaining a dignified appearance. The colors of their turbans carried spiritual and social status significance, but in North America, the white and yellow-colored turbans were often described as "soiled" and "dirty" because they collected and made visible the blowing dirt and sand common to the Imperial and San Joaquin Valleys. Even sympathetic white men commented on how the "soiled" appearance of the turbans contributed to justifications of physical separation and the frequent rationale for why South Asians were "unwelcome" in public accommodations such as "the better class of restaurants, picture shows and soda fountains."49 In photographs, the juxtaposition of the turban with the wrinkled suit produced a particularly jarring and vivid contradiction in social assimilation. The willingness to adapt to a Western suit but to retain the turban marked the turban as an icon of spiritual difference manifested physically, like the sari and the veil. The turban became a sign of immutable cultural difference and was interpreted as an unwillingness to assimilate to white Christian norms.50
The turban also betrayed anxieties about the gender identities of South Asian migrants. Concerns about the long, unshorn black hair that was wound and sealed from public view by the turban stimulated rumors of gender masquerade. An anti-Asian labor magazine circulated rumors that "many Hindu women are brought to this country disguised as men and are employed [in the railroad construction camps] as manual labor along with Hindu men."51 The historian Gerald Halberg, in an appraisal of the Bellingham Riots, claims that the few women in the "Hindu colony" were indistinguishable because they "dressed like men in trousers and coats" and "slept in the same crowded apartments with men."52 These accusations of South Asian women dressing like, working alongside, and sleeping in the same apartments with South Asian men betrayed anxieties that distinct gender roles and behavior were eroding and being undermined by South Asian migrant workers. In another story reported by a local labor newspaper in Sacramento, a number of "Hindus" were shopping in a department store when one of them was taken ill. When a physician examined "the Hindu" and diagnosed appendicitis, the "Hindu" was discovered to be a "woman" disguised as a man.53 Although it is highly unlikely that women lived among the men, these anecdotal examples all underlined the gender masquerade and social duplicity of South Asians, as well as suggesting an inability to distinguish between working-class South Asian men and women by dress and comportment.
The masculine dress, comportment, and role of suspected South Asian women heightened anxieties about men's and women's equality and indistinct gender roles and behavior emerging in the United States during women's campaigns for suffrage.54 It threatened the naturalness of gender differentiation that justified gender inequality (feminine subordination to masculinity) and the organization of separate spheres of work and life. Gender-normative womanhood and manhood were fashioned and anxiously stabilized in reaction to widespread transient and international mobility, the racial stratification of society, and nationalist defense of privileged membership.
Drawing racial and civilizational distinctions of dress, behavior, recreation, and livelihood shored up white supremacy and nationalism. At the same time, it naturalized subordination of racialized migrants' presumed incapacity for maintaining the "natural" gender binary and inequality. In the transient migrant world populated by masculine adult males, gender ambiguity and the diminishment of gender distinctions in dress, labor, and recreation underscored a world turned upside down. Loose-fitting shirts over trousers, bulky winter coats, and turbaned long hair were the uniform of South Asian workers. For white male observers, the contradictory dress strategies transposed verities of masculinity onto female bodies and femininity onto male bodies. As Clare Sears has vividly illustrated, the feminization of Chinese miners because of their robes and their long hair braided in queues in Gold Rush California troubled gendered norms and accelerated the terms of racial subordination in anti-Chinese politics. The threat of gender ambiguity in the feminization of South Asian men or masculinization of South Asian women was expressed in taunts and mockery of their dress and long hair bound under a turban. The practice of racial mockery was a strategy to assert heteronormative white masculinity, repudiate gender atypical comportment, and corral gender trouble in a racialized body. It drew attention away from dress reform, public behavior, and political challenges issued by white women. Gender and sexual transgression was policed and produced racialized borders, but it also redoubled the moral crisis and required the shoring up of dominant gender norms and distinctions.55
As reports of South Asian female masculinity multiplied, the racialization of gender reversal animated curiosity, anxiety, and eroticism in the slide between unbearded male youth and masculine women. What was the consequence if there were women among the men? What would it reveal or defy? The stakes of legible and differentiated gender were tremendous. An undifferentiated mass of male-dressed laborers defied the social prescriptions that purportedly removed women from manual labor outside the household. However, this ideal harbored an implicit racial contrast that championed white women's release from manual labor in contrast with nonwhite women's servitude. It fed the concern for unattached, unmarried women living in honor-compromised and immoral sexual relations with men. On the one hand, the fear of widespread and morally indifferent sexual impropriety and male loss of control over "loose women" continued to presume heterosexual alliance. On the other hand, there could be gendered camaraderie among masculinities and asexual and homosocial alliance. The possibility of masculinities that did not require a specific male embodiment made the idea of a gendered alliance between male-bodied persons and female-bodied persons disquieting and the purported naturalness of the gender divide illegible.56
But the victimization of South Asian women also fed a racializing caricature. The rumors of unmarried women living among men fostered an image of sexual immorality and a wholesale absence of respectable domestic culture, making it impossible to distinguish between the bunkhouse and the brothel in the South Asian migrant community. The policed urban vice district was not the sole playground of transient men but merged with their bunkhouses, rented lodgings, and work camps. It also fed accusations that South Asian men had coerced women to sexual servitude.
But it also revealed a more fundamental and distressing anxiety that there was no natural, self-evident differentiation of gender roles and capabilities. This concern resonated more widely than the peculiar customs of South Asian migrants and resonated with the anxieties of many men who saw the weakening of cultural distinctions of gender roles and capabilities that spearheaded the entry of women into higher education, professions, and the campaign for women's political equality at the ballot box and in serving in public office. If bodily gender difference was not the fundamental justification of political, social, and economic inequality, then little could curb the demands for gender equity. Rather than capture the full freight of commonsense-defying implications, the suspicions of women disguised as men in South Asian work camps, and the attendant implications of prostitution, promiscuity, and immorality, provided one more avenue to contain gender trouble in a racial problem and, fleetingly, displaced it from the struggle over gender equity in the rapidly changing white social order in North America.
In both the United States and Canada, the period from 1910 to 1914 witnessed heightened political tensions and surging controversy over the entry, political status, and economic privileges of Asian immigrants. Politicians, newspaper editors, and labor leaders alleged that Immigration Service employees on the Pacific Coast were bribed, exhibited favoritism, and freely allowed the entry of South Asian laborers, Japanese "picture brides," and Chinese merchant wives and children. Despite the zeal of immigration inspectors to create new restrictive criteria, intensive interrogations, interminable detention, and institutionalized deportation of Asian male laborers and Asian women, the fact that any Asian immigrants managed to enter the United States despite intensive scrutiny, rather than an absolute exclusion, angered the most vitriolic and vocal opponents of Asian immigration. Popular newspapers and anti-Asian labor organizations featured worries about the arrival of South Asians across the border with Canada and through the U.S. possession of the Philippines. Fears of high birthrates among Japanese picture brides and of Japanese immigrant families populating and dominating agriculture in California and Washington were featured in the campaigns for the passage of the Alien Land Law by the California Legislature in 1913 and similar laws in Washington, Arizona, and other western states.57 At stake were the reproduction of Asian immigrant communities and the populating of the western United States with new migrants who were marked as undesirable, like the previously excluded Chinese immigrants. The "Asianization" of undesirable immigrants was a strategy of denying the entry of entire groups. However, in practice immigration regulations assiduously managed the entry of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and South Asian immigrants by class and gender.
In Congress, California Representative Denver S. Church, who had been Fresno County district attorney from 1907 to 1913, led a vitriolic campaign for exclusion of the new Asian threat from India. A Democratic Party stalwart elected with the backing of the Asiatic Exclusion League, Church served in Congress from 1913 to 1919. Along with Congressman Ellison Smith of South Carolina, he introduced hearings and legislation to exclude South Asian Laborers, labeled "Hindu." Congressman Church testified about the clannish, dishonest, and immoral behavior of Hindu laborers in Fresno as an illustration of their unsuitability for permanent settlement and assimilation to American society.58 Successive bills in each house of Congress eventually resulted in the 1917 Immigration Act's "Asiatic Barred Zone" that extended the exclusion imposed on Chinese laborers to the entire continent of Asia and its adjacent islands.59
In 1913, amid legislative campaigns to restrict immigration and political pressure on federal immigration authorities, the uproar over South Asian immigration provoked labor councils in California to pass resolutions for total exclusion. In labor and popular cultural representation, "Hindus" were being painted even more vociferously as a vicious and immoral race. South Asians were caricatured as "rankly incompetent and have detestable personal habits." The South Asian was accused of "inferior workmanship" and called the "unbuilder of any community in which he may live."60 Charging that the "presence of Hindus who flock on the streets and [in] the parks" degraded and debased "white families" who had to contend with their "obnoxious habits and ill smelling bodies," and that these South Asians were "single, [have a] roving disposition, do not make homes, [and] live [a] dog's life," the Stockton Labor Council advised the Immigration Service that their expulsion was the only remedy.61 The labor magazine The White Man elaborated upon extreme representations of the sexual peril of South Asian migrants: "Both Mohammedans and Hindus are notoriously addicted to unspeakable vices that take hold of degenerate and decadent peoples," and they held "weird orgies" in their "settlements throughout the state."62 This vitriolic and sensational commentary underlined the moral hazard and unsavory reputation of South Asian laborers.
Passion and Murder of Rosa Domingo
The dire consequences of socializing between South Asian men and white women were telegraphed in the newspaper coverage of the sensational murder of Rosa Domingo, daughter of Manual Domingo, a Portuguese resident of the small community of Stege in Contra Costa County on the eastern shores of San Francisco Bay. The newspaper coverage quickly focused on Said Ali Khan as the leading suspect in the case, and on his tempestuous courtship of Rosa Domingo for many months before the murder. Four days after Rosa Domingo went missing, her brother identified Said Ali Khan as an "ardent" suitor who was "very much in love with her" and had since March beseeched her to accept his proposal of marriage.63 In the 1910s, Said Ali Khan, along with about eighty-five other South Asian men working for the California Cap Works and Metropolitan Match, found board in buildings among the factories in Stege. The town was connected by rail and road with Richmond and Oakland. Louis Navellier, a longtime resident, recalled South Asian workers climbing up the hill in a long line, coming back from work, with turbans wrapped around their heads, and that neighborhood children would run away in fright when they saw the men.64 Said Ali Khan lived in a shack in Stege a half mile from the place where Domingo's body was found. Letters found in her South of Market room in San Francisco confirmed that she and Khan had been dating for months.65
Domingo and Khan were bound together in an urban commercial social world where unmarried men and women met and mingled. Unmarried young women worked in retail, manufacturing, and service positions, lived outside their homes in rooming and boardinghouses and engaged in contemporary rituals of dating and courtship. A consumer shift in the terms of courtship involved how men would "treat" women in the offering of gifts and paying for new urban amusements such as cinema, amusement parks, and arcades. Young women negotiated the exchange of entertainment and physical intimacy with men and developed moral and social distinctions to distinguish their sexual barter from the commerce of prostitution. Young women like Rosa Domingo could find work in pool halls, as waitresses in cafes, and in retail establishments.66 She left her home and crossed San Francisco Bay and lived in a boardinghouse in the South of Market district. She and other young women were able to sustain new "patterns of living" because "capitalism allowed individuals to survive beyond the confines of family." While Rosa had frequent contact with her family and traveled back and forth regularly on the ferry, she developed an autonomous social and economic life and was able to join her wage-earning peers in manipulating social spaces to "invent new ways of meeting and sustaining group life."67
The urban entertainment venues of commercial culture were viewed by the elite, educated men who edited South Asian immigrant newspapers as traps to ensnare and challenge the moral principles of naïve single migrant laborers who had sprung from the ranks of farmers and soldiers. The elite South Asian writers criticized the commonplace socializing of migrant workers in North America as "Western Civilization curses," a combination of vicious urban commercial vice associated with saloons and "drink bills" that preyed upon the loneliness, isolation, and desperation of transient men with no social or domestic contact with women. The white American and European immigrant women who worked at and frequented coffeehouses, cafes, and pool halls tempted these men with the promise of attention and affection. The urban entertainment locations drew transient men's time and money, since they were far more hospitable spaces than the scarce shelter and deplorable accommodations in makeshift shacks and "lousy camp-bunk-houses" that they were forced to endure.68 Elite South Asian men criticized the culture of North American courtship that Said Ali Khan navigated, where "love sick swains" made "certain swell cafes their rendezvous and commercialized love and musing," which they nostalgically and disingenuously contrasted with the alleged absence of red light districts in Asia and traditional customary rituals of marriage partnership and "strict social customs of monogamy."69
The letters between Khan and Domingo were publicized in newspaper reports that attempted to make sense of the mystery of the murder, emphasizing the commercial context of their courtship and how money had catalyzed the drama of their relationship. The availability of money, its promise, and its conversion into gifts demonstrated Said Ali Khan's financial capacity, trustworthiness, and ardent devotion. The promise and absence of money and gifts fueled Rosa Domingo's interest and her dissatisfaction with Khan. Khan's letters promised gifts and money as entreaties to seek forgiveness for quarrels. The police released a letter to the press where Khan begged her to see him. Khan wrote: " I must see you. I have $180 and my friend, I promise to see you, so don't disappoint me. You must come. Dress yourself up. I like to see you well dressed." Their meeting earlier in the morning had gone awry when he teased her by pretending that he had only a dollar. Khan explained: "I fooled you. I had $20. I bought a ring in Oakland for you.... Trust me and I will trust you." The price of the gifts and sharing Khan's wealth meant that Khan expected her to pledge fidelity to him. The honor and respect Khan expected from her and from his peers hinged on his reparations to win her forgiveness. He closed his letter with the assertion that he was "rich now. Good night honey bug."70 Another letter that the police released was dated two weeks earlier and was riddled with hints of frequent quarrels. Said Ali Khan had unsuccessfully attempted to meet Rosa at her San Francisco home after a quarrel. Khan apologized for being drunk and quarrelsome, promising to "never fight you again." As a measure of his promise, he offered to buy " ten yards of silk for a dress" for her forgiveness and entreated her to come visit him at his home.71 An Oakland Tribune reporter interviewed South Asian students at the University of California in Berkeley, who were astonished by the letters, which were expressive in idioms of romance and colloquial expressions, full of entreaties for forgiveness and casual offerings of money and gifts. The students unanimously doubted that a Muslim laborer from northern India would be capable of authoring these letters and believed that an American had ghostwritten them.72
In many ways Khan and Domingo's relationship was sustained by the interventions of their mutual friend Charles Riley, who confirmed their turbulent sexual relationship in his interview with the police, and much later admitted that he had indeed ghostwritten Khan's letters. Riley recalled that the couple had attended the Native Sons parade and celebrations in Oakland. After midnight, the couple arrived at Riley's home unexpectedly and asked to stay the night. Riley permitted them to sleep in the kitchen, but the next morning, as Riley was hitching his horse, Rosa stormed out of the house after a quarrel. She railed against Khan for departing and made him take back $17 that he had given her the night before.73
Khan's romantic history with Domingo and his disappearance made him the leading suspect in the crime, and police posted a $175 reward for his capture. Thousands of circulars were broadcast across the state and in Nevada, Oregon, and Arizona. The photograph and description emphasized that he was a sporting man wearing a double-breasted, square-cut, striped brown suit and "cheap tan shoes." He had a ""smooth shaven, swarthy complexion, dark eyes," and occasionally wore a moustache. He "was 30 years old, 145 lbs and 5 foot 7 inches tall."74 As the morality tale developed in the newspapers, the coverage highlighted the dangers of interracial courtship, with perilous implications for both new migrants and North American natives.
The South Asian male's assimilation to social and cultural norms provoked different levels of anxiety for observers and commentators in both the Vancouver case in 1907 and the Stege Case in 1913, and mirrored the anxiety expressed in the 1909 New York City case in which a Chinese dandy allegedly murdered a white society woman, as detailed by the historian Mary Lui.75 Said Ali Khan was characterized as a dandy or sporting man, sharply dressed in urban American fashion, heightening the danger of partially assimilated, appealing South Asian men to white Americans. The white bartenders and boardinghouse keeper had also described Darrah Singh as well dressed, respectable, and a "fine specimen of a man." Yet Darrah Singh' s distinctive clothing, turban, and beard set him apart. Said Ali Khan, on the other hand, was clean-shaven and wore a double-breasted suit and no headgear.
Khan's sporty fashionable attire was relatively new; he had arrived in the United States three years previously, after working as a police officer in Hong Kong. After disembarking in Seattle, he and his friend Zemair Khan, a "Mohemmadan" priest, whom the police questioned, had worked together in the Sacramento Delta as laborers on the Jersey Tract and Roberts Island. In early 1913, Said Ali Khan left agriculture and found work with other South Asian workers in a match factory in Stege. During the police interrogation, Zemair Khan expressed surprise at the transformation of Said Ali's dress, demeanor, and life, particularly at his double-breasted suit and clean-shaven visage in a photograph taken in a studio on the edge of Oakland's Chinatown.76 Harwick, who had photographed Said Ali Khan and Rosa Domingo in September, recalled having seen Khan gazing for a half an hour, the day before Domingo's disappearance, at the poolroom across the street where she had previously worked.77
The urgency of locating Khan increased when a Richmond police detective, Charles Walker, discovered "coat buttons, [a] belt buckle," and other debris from her clothing in the stove ash box in Said Ali Khan's cabin. Following the discovery, police arrested his housemate Musa Khan, who denied, "ever seeing the girl" and knew "nothing of the crime" or the burned clothes. While holding Musa Khan in the Richmond jail as an accomplice, the police intercepted a letter addressed to Musa Khan from Said Ali Khan and publicized a translation of it in the press. In the letter, Said Ali revealed that he had no regrets about killing her, saying that his "heart was burning" from the money and gifts she took from him, and yet she had rebuffed his proposal of marriage.78
Said Ali Khan's movements by train followed a pattern of South Asian labor migration to intensive agriculture zones downstate. From northern California, he had fled to friends in Oxnard in Santa Barbara County, and from there barely escaped on a train to Yuma and then to Calexico on the U.S.-Mexico border. His resources were depleted, and it was impossible to find work in the Imperial Valley. After intercepting the letter, Contra Costa County Sheriff Richard Veale and Detective Ruiz boarded a train for Calexico and organized a manhunt for Said Ali Khan on the border. Police officers in the region were pressed into dozens of posses scouring the "Hindu camps in the hills" on the U.S. side of the border. Sheriff Veale put a decoy letter at the post office in Calexico to lure Said Ali across the border, because they suspected he was hiding in the hills around Mexicali. At noon on Wednesday, October 15, Detective Ruiz arrested Said Ali as he tried to board a train in Calexico.79
In the aftermath of the arrest and before the journey north, Said Ali Khan at first confessed to Ruiz and Veale, claiming, "She would not go away with me after I had spent $250 on her... . This Rosa Domingo Riley fired my heart with love and revenge. She came to the cabin near midnight October 2nd. We talked a long time. She laughed at me. I got very mad and grabbed and threw her on the bed and floor. I put a knee on her throat and strangle[d] her." When she stopped breathing, he had wrapped her body in a blanket and thrown it off a wharf.80 En route, he repudiated this confession made in the jail in El Centro. He insinuated that Charles Riley, a teamster and intermediary between him and "Rosa Domingo Riley," had written letters to Rosa, given him money to flee town, and accused him of murdering Rosa in a jealous rage. His letter also insinuated that perhaps Riley had married Rosa Domingo and was estranged from her. Despite the confusion, Sheriff Veale ordered Riley's arrest and held him for questioning.81
When they reached Richmond, the police dramatically took Khan for a view of Rosa's body in the morgue before her funeral, and then to her family's house, where her inconsolable father raged against Khan, "Let me at him. He killed my daughter, you beast." He attempted to spring upon Khan but was restrained by police officers. At the jail, his housemate Musa Khan was brought out of solitary confinement and sat with Said Ali Khan during his interrogation before District Attorney McKenzie and Sheriff Veale. After a conversation with Musa Khan, Said Ali confessed all the details of the murder, emphasizing that the night Domingo had come to stay with him, they had quarreled over money, and while she slept, he "quickly threw ... a long necktie" around her neck, pulled [it] tight and suffocated her to death." The next night, he had dragged her body to the pier and thrown it into the water. The next morning, he fled to Oxnard and eventually to Calexico. Khan explained that he had worked alone, and that Musa Khan had had no knowledge of the murder. His motivation was anger: "I killed her because she fooled me. She always wanted money, money, money and I have given her much."82 With Singh's capture and publicity of his confession, the press intensified the racialization of the "crime of passion." The Martinez Gazette reported that the confession "required three hours for the clever young Mohammedan to give every detail of the story and it was a narrative that told of the philosophy of the east, his unholy love of the girl and his insatiable thirst for revenge when he found that he was a mere plaything in the hands of the wily young woman of whom he had become enamored."83 His methods of murder and ability to evade the police were credited to his service as a member of the Hong Kong police force and eventually assistant warden of the Victoria jail. Just as surprising, he admitted to being a married man who supported his aging mother in India. The Martinez Gazette reporter characterized Khan as "remorseless," with surprisingly a "bright and cheerful disposition, joking with the other prisoners and jailers."84
The manhunt and confession had already played out in the local newspapers, so the developments at the trial two months later were of little surprise. The coverage set the scene and featured key arguments. At the trial, Said Ali Khan wore the same brown-and-white-striped suit that he had worn in the photograph taken with Rosa Domingo that had been broadcast statewide. Although other members of her family were likely present, the newspapers featured the anguish of her father, Manuel Domingo, who sat in the front row in the courtroom frequently sobbing and on one of two occasions arising and leaving the courtroom. Neither Charles Riley, who had ghostwritten letters for Said Ali Khan, nor Musa Khan was implicated as an accomplice.85 District Attorney Taylor argued that Said Ali Khan had "killed Rosa Domingo because she took his money and refused to live with him," and that her murder had been "brutal, premeditated and remorseless."86 The jury returned a verdict of first-degree murder, and Judge Lattice sentenced Said Ali Khan to life imprisonment in San Quentin.
When the jury returned the verdict, the Martinez Daily Gazette reported, "the Punjabi" was "calmly smoking a cigarette displaying no more emotion or concern than he had displayed during the progress of the trail." Before the jury rendered its verdict, Said Ali, "who speaks good English," said, "I loved the girl and I grew crazy in the head when she wanted all my money, I spent over $750 on her. I do not care what they do to me," though he feared death by hanging. The closing address to the jury by Assistant District Attorney Ormsby, the newspaper said, was a "masterful effort" in prosecuting the "crime of the century," emphasizing that the "fiendish act" had in the first place been "degrading the young girl"; the harm had already been done by interracial seduction and romance before his brutal "murdering of her in cold blood."87
Violence recoded interracial intimate social interactions with South Asian men as brutal, perilous, and irrational. The intimate publics populated by South Asian migrant workers were represented in the press as shot through with menace, sexual threat, and fatal ends. Fears of South Asian male predators and allegations of unwanted sexual contact justified white males' turban-stripping, beating, robbing, and physically driving them out of their homes, workplaces, and towns, harassment that was a variation on the threat of lynching. The coverage of the violent death of Rosa Domingo and her father's anguish also allowed authorities officially to "remember" her as white, when in life as the daughter of a Portuguese immigrant, she was part of a multiracial lower class of questionable racial composition, considered at best "off-white" socially and legally.88 In her tragic death, she became more useful as a "white" woman undone by her weakness for a suave "Asiatic" man.
These episodes of violence emphasized the vulnerability not only of white women but of white males as well, and the violent consequences of interracial interaction. They also focused concerns about the necessity of upholding male honor. Narrating the circumstances and the results of the riots and driving-out campaigns followed a narrative arc where male honor was challenged, threatened, consolidated, and finally restored. The terms of sex and sexual partnership were emblematic of the threat to male honor, which was based on the negotiations between men over their possessions and dependents. The public display of intimate family life, the possession of wife and children, situated adult males' status among one another and informed the possibility of egalitarian relationships between men. The partnership of heterosexual marriage and the relationships between mother, father, and children were rendered as the elemental form of human association, the sole model of intergender relations, and the indivisible basis of all community. Yet despite the substantial institutional support for this, in actuality there existed a more complex array of sexual and social organization within society.
These interactions in equal parts stimulated fear but also fed the fascination with the exotic difference of South Asian masculinities. That fascination, exoticism, and dread may have circulated in a variety of different directions. There were persistent examples of interethnic attraction and desire in Edward Bowen's and the bartender's appraisal of South Asian men, in the desire of those men to interact and communicate with young men like Bowen, and in the kinds of comments and interest demonstrated between South Asian men and European immigrant and white American women. Rosa Domingo and Said Ali Khan's attraction, their tempestuous courtship, and occasional cohabitation were intelligible and cause for alarm retrospectively by neighbors, friends, Rosa's siblings, and local businessmen.
Who killed whom could be the vital difference. Comparing Bowen's murder of Darrah Singh with Khan's murder of Rosa Domingo seems improbable at first. In both sensational murders, the legal system maintained its authority as an arbiter of justice. In both instances, irrespective of race, the culprits were investigated, discovered, and brought to trial. Juries convicted and judges sentenced them. However, the trials illuminated a more capacious reality of the vibrant social dynamics of interracial relations in urban cultural environments and the widespread cultural and political anxiety about sexual immorality that attached to South Asian men in the wake of these murder trails.
The South Asians were characterized as appealing and attractive cosmopolitan men. In Vancouver, the prosecutors marshaled Darrah Singh's military service, courtly demeanor, his enviable physique, and his neat and tidy dress as counterpoint to the dishonorable behavior and conduct of Bowen. On the other hand, Bowen's defense and the press, which narrated the story, pursued implications that Singh was unable to control his passions and had grievously misinterpreted buying Bowen drinks and following him to his room as an invitation to physical intimacy. The homosocial communion of drinking together was built on trust that had boundaries and limits on physical contact. The key for Bowen's defense was interpreting the intentions of strategic forms of touch into the logic of sexual advance and the fear of forcible assault.
Male honor was more tangled in the murder trail of Said Ali Khan. Much to the astonishment of some of his friends, Khan had become adept in exercising the commercial qualities of courtship in U.S. society. He bought clothes and shoes and groomed himself in ways that fitted the image of the urban sporting man, and he expressed his masculine capacity through the variety of gifts, money, and promises in the commodified economy of gifting that had evolved. The value, size, and frequency of the gifts were a constant source of tension and fights, but also the avenue of reconciliation in their relationship. Rosa Domingo's conduct, revealed by his letters and eyewitness testimony, was depicted in local newspapers as that of an imprudent single woman whose loose sexual behavior and acquisitive materialism had landed her deep in a dangerous relationship. Rosa Domingo was also an independent woman who worked in the commercial culture and lived independently of her family, able to travel alone late at night and unconcerned about the image of her chastity. She freely and passionately expressed and pursued her romantic desires. She expected Khan, her father, and male friends to respect her judgment, wishes, and autonomy, until her death demonstrated the fatal consequences of female autonomy.
Khan's unbridled anger at his perceived humiliation by Rosa Domingo's acceptance of his gifts but refusal of his proposal for marriage outweighed any appreciation of her choices in relations and life. He interpreted her broad sexual latitude and social autonomy as license throughout their courtship and treated her as a person with whom he had to negotiate, persuade, and prove his ability and capacity to be an ardent paramour and a generous and attentive husband. Yet, in the end, her independence fueled the ferocity with which he flaunted any social curbs on his own behavior, from his reluctance to ask her father's permission to marry her to his own suppression of the fact of his concurrent marriage to a woman in India. Yet the consequences of Rosa Domingo's relationship with Said Ali Khan were not routed in the press, public eye, or courts through an appraisal of her conduct, but rather through an account of the brutality of her victimization, expressed most stingingly in the father's loss of his daughter, heard in his vengeful cry when he saw Said Ali Khan. The father's honor had been defied and denigrated, first in the absence of his approval of the romantic relationship with his daughter, but foremost in the brutal taking of her life and disposing of her body at the wharf.
Within the arenas of commercial leisure, interracial encounters thrived. These two murder cases detail the breakdown of rationality and self-control unleashed by passions and ending in murder. The defense of male honor, though providing an intelligible rationale, neither excuses nor fully explains the murders. The defense of white honor, which was used to justify white male vigilante protection of white women and children and the white vigilante violence of campaigns to drive out South Asian workers, curbed the autonomy of movement and association for all. The specter of dangerous foreign men required white male oversight. Their honor in defending white women and children became a communal and racial property that trumped actual property damage and physical violence. Beating, stripping, and destroying the possessions of South Asian men was understood as effectively securing the integrity of white families, their livelihood, and their community as against the liberty and security of nonwhite men, their landlords, and their employers. Thus the idea of male honor buttressed by the racialization of dangerous sexual threats legitimated what would ordinarily be considered theft, assault, and wanton public disorder in popular representations, and often in the court records as well.
Add source code 14W0162 to get your discount at checkout.
Cannot be combined with any other offers.
Members receive 20-40% discounts on book purchases. Find out more