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Stranger Intimacy Contesting Race, Sexuality and the Law in the North American West

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Chapter 1

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 s