Uncovering racism in our local history

By Ian McKechnie

In 1919, the vandals’ victims included not only the Chuong Sun Laundry, but other local businesses operated by the local Chinese community.

SMASH! A chunk of ice sails through the glass of the Chuong Sun Laundry in downtown Lindsay as belligerent, racial slurs echo from one side of the street to the other.

CRASH! A young man armed with a brick obliterates another window as the crowd about him thunders with approval. More vituperative, racist rumblings erupt into a roar of hate as whatever projectiles rioters can gather from the street are lobbed into the aforesaid laundry, above which laundryman Lee Ten Yun hides.

By the wee small hours of February 1, 1919, the vandals’ victims included not only the Chuong Sun Laundry, but also a restaurant and another business operated by members of Lindsay’s Chinese community.

According to the local rumour mill, Lee Ten Yun had been mistreating his wife, Lin Tee, whom local physician Dr. Olive Ray believed was suffering from mental illness. Lin was arrested on the charge of insanity, brought about by a criminal justice system that wished to keep an individual from harming themselves or someone else through no fault of their own.

But those wreaking havoc in downtown Lindsay that winter night 101 years ago believed that it was her husband who ought to have been placed in custody. Widespread popular opinion in Canada at the time held fast to ideas that Chinese men were dangerous, psychopathic sexual predators. (As historian Joan Sangster points out, these suspicions against Chinese men often “ … centred on their supposed roles as pimps and drug pushers”). It was against this backdrop that Lindsay’s infamous race riot played out.

A more detailed analysis of the story can be found in Lisa R. Mar’s essay “The Tale of Lin Tee: Madness, Family Violence, and Lindsay’s Anti-Chinese Riot of 1919” in the anthology Sisters Or Strangers: Immigrant, Ethnic and Racialized Women in Canadian History, but the story is all but absent from the “authorized versions” of local history.

Dr. Watson Kirkconnell’s 1967 County of Victoria Centennial History makes no mention of it, nor does the building once home to the Chuong Sun Laundry appear in Bless These Walls, a pictorial account of Lindsay’s built heritage first published in 1982 and revised in 2000.

More’s the pity. When discussing the difficult topic of cultural and racial discrimination in Kawartha Lakes and its predecessor Victoria County, the authorized versions of local history — books published under the auspices of municipal governments and related bodies — leave a great deal to be desired. In fact, they have often perpetuated stereotypes in their retelling of history.

Consider, for instance, Dr. Kirkconnell’s Centennial History, with its problematically titled eighth chapter: “Annals Of The Red Man.” Kirkconnell devotes 17 pages to Indigenous history halfway through the book, and his choice of language tends to portray First Peoples as little more than historical curiosities.

Commenting on archaeological findings, Kirkconnell observes with colonial overtones that “a few of these traces belong to a people whose diminished descendants still linger on in fenced-off corners of our land.” He goes on to describe the scene in a Huron longhouse as “a welter of noisy lawlessness,” among other adjectives, depicting the Huron in culturally demeaning terms.

Such attitudes predated Kirkconnell by more than a few generations. Howard Pammett’s Lilies and Shamrocks: A History of Emily Township County of Victoria, 1818-1973 relates the story of one settler who called Indigenous peoples “strange wild forest savages [with] long black hair hanging loose and matted.”

A few years before Pammett’s history was published, Islay Lambert was completing her book, Call Them Blessed: A History of Cannington, 1817-1971, in which she tells readers that “Indians were strange creatures, therefore to be feared almost as much as the wild animals that lurked in the surrounding forest.” It is hard to tell the extent to which these authorized histories informed public perceptions of Indigenous heritage, but there they remain — unedited or updated in the half century since they were first published.

Another story which rarely makes it into the pages of local history is that of the minstrel shows in Lindsay’s Academy Theatre. As was the case in many small towns, local residents flocked to the theatre to watch their fellow citizens don blackface and entertain patrons through song and dance.

Popular throughout the first half of the 20th century, minstrel shows in Lindsay were often preceded by parades of costumed actors up Kent Street. As recently as 1970, the Academy Theatre was playing host to this type of entertainment, which local reporter Ford Moynes dubiously claimed to have its origins in African-American culture. (The reality, of course, was more complicated than that: Black troupes did emerge in the 1850s, but minstrel shows traced their origin to the pre-abolition era, and played on the grossest of stereotypes.)

The parks and public squares in Kawartha Lakes may be devoid of the statues which in other communities are sparking conversations about race and colonialism, but we are not free from historical reckoning.

Local histories have been strangely silent on questions of racism, and while it is tempting to say that their authors were simply products of their time, more can be done to raise awareness of the history they ignored or played down.

Acknowledging the omissions in those authorized histories is one step; expanding and updating them is another, inviting Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour to contribute their own stories and traditions to the rich historical record of our community.

1 Comment

  1. Wayne says:

    Yeah white people are the only race that has ever done these things—keep pushing the BLM ideology that whites are evil and every other race is righteous. What we really need are groups of masked looters running around destroying businesses and homes , pretending to be protesting ‘racism’ and ‘injustice’.

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