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Returning to the Scene of the Crime — Again and again: Vancouver’s unresolved legacy of anti-Sikh entrapments & trials for supposed ‘gross indecency’

A copy of this posting is available in a PDF file: returning-to-the-scene-of-the-crime-again-again-designs-for-the-terminal-city-21-august-2008

The following is  compilation of my notes for and contributions to the 39 minute video made in 2008, Rex vs. Singh[1] that was first screened this week in Vancouver as part of the Out on Screen, Vancouver Queer Film Festival.

The convergence of the early Vancouver neighbourhoods of Chinatown, Gastown, and Japantown (Nihonmachi) once referred to as ‘Celestialland’.

Last night’s screening of the 39 minute film, Rex vs. Singh[2], was a landmark in contemporary conversations racism on the West Coast – revisiting Vancouver’s 1907 – 1928 anti-Sikh Gross Indecency trials where the City of Vancouver Police were exceptionally active in entrapping adult males for consensual sex with other men. It was gratifying to contribute to Rex vs. Singh and to see the three directors use some of the research and further explore the implications of my 2003 essay, “Returning to the scene of the crime: Uses of trial narratives of consensual male homosexuality for urban research, with examples from Twentieth-Century British Columbia.”[3]

At the screening, I half-enjoyed seeing the five minutes of their interviews with me but I also felt sad that few local others scholars (and activists) had taken the time to delve into the archived dossiers of those exceptionally racist and vicious trials. In the panel after the screening, I did not have time to thank Indiana Matters who, while working in the British Columbia Archives in the early 1980s, first explored one of the dossiers in terms of British Columbia’s ‘Lavender history’[4]. Over a decade ago and already a decade after her 1985 essay, I visited Matters in her office at the British Columbia Gaming Commission in Victoria to ask about her reference to that trial dossier and we discussed the possibility that there might have been more than one trial and perhaps even an organized campaign against Indo-Canadian males. And in that panel after the screening of Rex vs. Singh, I did not have time to talk about, and perhaps it does not matter now, the shock that I experienced in the BC Archives to realize the extraordinary extent to which both the City of Vancouver Police and the local courts hounded these men through scores of trials over two decades.

The screening left me a bit exhausted. With only 39 minutes, and alluding to as much rich cultural history and sexual politics as such detailed portrayals from the Twentieth Century as Brideshead Revisited, Rex vs. Singh barely had time to construct a space for viewers to glimpse the despair and terror that these young men jailed as sex criminals, and so recently in Canada and away from their communities in India, must have experienced. The party after the screening said it all to me: the local Indo-Canadian men and the mixed group of ‘queer historians’ barely mixed. On one level the racist social project embodied in those prosecutions was a failure. But barriers remain that are exacerbated today by so little historical understanding of the damage wrought by homophobic Canada state in the first three quarters of the Twentieth Century.

This little film could best be used to attract the funding for a ten hour historical drama spanning those two decades and that number of trials (or more) but the current Conservative federal government has been specifically cutting contentious explorations such as this. The follow-up questions posed by Matthew Hays for his discussion of Rex vs. Singh[5] are also important for more careful and comprehensive chronicles of resistance to the further institutionalization of the colonial inequities of race, culture and sexuality that for over a century stained and effectively impoverished this neighbourhood of Downtown Vancouver.

Ali Kazimi at Mainland Transfer Company’s Stables, 112 East Pender Street, Vancouver, 6 April 2008, photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram

***

Returning to the Scene of the Crime (Again)

7 April, 2008 Nihonmachi, Vancouver

Oh the April rains! I have spent the last two afternoons with Toronto-based filmmaker Ali Kazimi returning to the scene of the crime again and again[6]. Ali recently directed a video that was an important contribution to the history of the 1914 Komagata Maru incident. In one of the first operations of the Canadian Navy, hundreds of Punjabi immigrants, many of whom were British subjects, were denied the right to come ashore in Vancouver – with their ship languishing horribly over a tense summer. Ali’s 2004 Continuous Journey[7] cast new light on the terrible affair and situated it more clearly in terms of the broader Indian freedom struggle.

Now Ali is back in Vancouver to investigate the anti-Sikh sodomy arrests that took place in the years immediately before and after the Komagata Maru incident. We walked the streets of what today is often called the Downtown Eastside. But a century ago this was the central precinct of Vancouver that saw racialized contests over urban space with overlapping neighbourhood names such as Chinatown, Gastown to the west(primarily north-western European), and Celestialland (entertainment establishments that included, saloons, opium deans, heterosexual brothels until 1917 and various forms of spontaneous, situational and more purposeful homosexuality).

In the wake of the Oscar Wilde trials (which influenced law in British Columbia) and the codification of the federal Canadian laws against ‘gross indecency’, many of the first arrests for consensual sex between adult males in British Columbia involved one or more individuals who were Sikh and South Asian and to whom Vancouver courts often referred as `Hindoos’. These arrests for consensual homosexuality were nearly always in urban areas of Victoria and Vancouver and by municipal police. In contrast, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were often focused on rural areas and were involved in few arrests for consensual homosexuality between adults. In terms of arrests for gross indecency, the RCMP were more concerned about sex with animals (along with rape) to the extent of organizing complicated barnyard stake-outs.

So in British Columbia, the first legal battles and initial case law around arrests for consensual homosexuality between adult males were in so-called ‘oriental cases’ where Sikh males were followed, hounded, and often entrapped in particularly ‘hands-on’ ways. And along with the legacy of the racism was another of a kind of perverse state interest in South Asian, and in particular Punjabi, male bodies. In addition was the legacy of particularly aggressive entrapment of gay males by City of Vancouver Police that continued well into the nineteen seventies.

On these rainy spring days in a very different era, Ali and I walked the streets of Celestialland beginning to reconstruct of the urban space of two dossiers (with all of their competing fictions). One of the earliest arrests for consensual homosexuality between adult males, and one of the earliest police entrapments of gay men(perhaps for all of Canada), was in Rex versus Nar Singh in 1909.[8] Ali and I ruminated on some the supposed details of Nar Singh’s ill-fated passage in December 1908 in search of a place for sex – as described in the dossier for his arraignment.

“At the said City of Vancouver, on the 12th day of December A.D. 1908, Nar Singh did unlawfully in private attempt to procure the commission by a male person of an act of gross indecency with another male person.”

“Q. You are a detective in the city of Vancouver? - A. I am…

Q. Do you recognise the accused? - A. I do.

Q. Did you see him on or about the 12th December last.

A. Yes on the morning of the 12th.

Q. What time?- A. On or about 2 O’clock.

Q. Where?- A. At the corner of Pender Street East and Columbia Avenue…

A. I was in company of Detective Scott. We were standing on the North West Corner of Pender St. and Columbia Ave. and he was right opposite to us on the other side of the street.

Q. Mr. Kennedy: - I want you to relate to the Court what occurred

In the first place where you?- A. I was in the company of Detective Scott. We were standing on the North West Corner of Pender St. and Columbia Ave. and he was right opposite to us on the other side of the street.

Q. COURT:- That is he was on the South East Corner?-

A. Yes Your Worship. We had seen him there three or four nights previous to that. That is what drew our attention to him this night in particular. I went over across the street to where he was…I asked him what he was doing. He made a motion with his hand and told me to come along with him.”

“Q. Court:- Does he speak English?- A. Yes.”

“I hesitated for a little while. He says come on and caught my by the sleeve of the coat. I followed him. We waded across a vacant lot, a building that has been torn down. He went in behind the Chinese Hospital down a stair way and into a little alley way between two buildings. He took me over to the back of the hospital and across the alley way between False Creek and Pender Street…The Chinese Hospital is back of the Mainland Transfer Company’s Stables…He took me in the stoop of the stables where the Transfer Company keep their horses. He took me in behind a dray. Took off his coat and west and put it on the back of the dray.”

“Then he started to open my clothes. I kind of stopped him a little from opening my clothes. He took down his braces and his pants and went down on his knees on the floor…I was right behind him. We went on his knwees in front of me. Then he tried to reach back with his hands to catch hold of my pants.

Q COURT:- You say he went down on this hands and knees?-

A. Yes. Then he turned around got up off his hands and knees got up on his feet again.”

“He asked me what was the matter. Then he started to try and open my pants again, then he went down on his hand and knees again facing me and he had hold of the edge of my pants, right here.”

“Q. MR. KENNEDY:- That would be the top of the fly?-

A Yes in fact he had two buttons open. I put my hand on his and then he motioned to his mouth. Then I pushed him away made him get and put on his coat. He followed me out of this Chinese Hospital. He had a room there.

Q. Court:- You say he has a room there?- A. Yes five or six of them had a room together.”

“Q. Did he say anything?- A. He started to open my pants up.”

“Q. Was Detective Scott with you when you first saw the accused that night. A. He was right across the street.

Q. He did not did not follow you?- A. He followed us.

Q. When this attempted act of gross indecency took place was he there?-

A. He saw the Hindu pull me away.

Q. But he does not know anything about this attempted act of gross indecency?- A. I do not suppose he would.”

“MR. MCTAGGART:-

Q. Did you go inside the house w[h]ere the Hindus were?-

A. I did.

Q. Were there others there?- A. Yes.

Q. Do you remember where those others were? A. All lying in bed.”

“DETECTIVE SCOTT

Q..When we came along to the corner of Pender and Columbia we saw the accused walking up and down the street. The first we saw of him there was a man apparently to me under the influence of liquor came out of the Great Northern Hotel and went east on Pender St.

Q. A white man? A. Yes a white man.

The accused went a few doors up and stopped him and spoke to him. After speaking to him a few minutes he crossed the street.

Q. Who crossed? A. The accused.

It was then that Detective McDonald went across and met him.”

A. I saw them come up from this stable and they came up and met me together then I went up stairs with the accused to his room in the rear of 112 Pender St. East. He took off his shoes when he went into the room which was very dark. He said nothing.”

“Q. I am going to ask you to go over, very carefully, all the movements that occurred after accused took you to his room that would justify a charge of attempted gross indecency.

A. Everything was very qui[e]t[]. There was no light. The lamp was burned down until the wick was just red. After the accused had taken his boots off and laid them on the floor very quietly. He took his coat off. He came up to me and put his hand on my face and down over my chin and his other on my fly.”

“A. I had hold of him and when he jumped in the bunk I flashed the light on him.

There was a window at this back and there was a dim light coming in.

Q. Electric light? A. A very dim light from the outside. The window was very dirty.”

“COURT:- Having heard the evidence do you wish to say anything in answer to this charge? You are not obliged to say anything unless you desire to do so; but whatever you may say will be taken down in writing and may be given in evidence against you at your trial. You must clearly understand that you have nothing to hope from any promise of favour and nothing to fear from any threat which may have been held out to you to induce you to make adminission or confession of guilt, but whatever you now say may be given in evidence against you upon your trial, notwithstanding such promise or threat”.

COURT:- Has he anything to say. A. Nothing to say.

COURT:- Any evidence:- A. No.

COURT:- I order him to be committed to trial.”

Ali and I kept returning in the cold early April rain to those stables on East Pender.

Ali Kazimi, Sun Yat Sen Gardens, Vancouver, 7 April, 2008 [10]

The most complex of the anti-Sikh sodomy trials that we have found so far was around an ill-fated foursome in the winter following Vancouver’s terrible summer of 1914 where both Vancouver’s politicians and racist whites blocked the docking of the ship[9]. In the 1915 Rex versus Nana Singh and Rex versus Dalip Singh, there was a botched entrapment and arrest that saw a rather short, undercover officer, Detective Ricci, having the beginnings of sex (supposedly just for King and Country) with a much taller Punjabi male who soon after had his jaw broken. After Detective Ricci’s partner was arrested, he accused the officer of trying to extort a bribe from him.

“the said City of Vancouver, on the 2nd day of February A. D. 1915 Nana Singh a male person, in public, did unlawfully attempt to commit an act of gross indecency with Joe Ricci, another male person.”

“the said City of Vancouver, on the 2nd day of February A. D. 1915 Dalip Singh a male person, in public, did unlawfully attempt to commit an act of gross indecency with Ralph Pierce, another male person.”

“RALPH PIERCE

Q. What is your occupation?

A. I am a chauffeur just now…

it was in the afternoon the machine was l[ai]d up and I was down there at the Panama Hotel, and I first met one of these man.

Q. Which one?

A. The one with the white turban. I don’t know his name.”

“A. I first meet him and he wanted to take me up to the room.

Q. Up to whose room?

A. Up to his room, up to the Sunset Rooms. So I went up there with him…there were two detectives come in there, so then when they came in they kind of spoilt the whole thing, and he made an appointment at eleven o’clock at night to meet him at the Panama Hotel to go up - he didn’t mention where to go to but I said alright. And I dropped down in the Panama again that night after I had supper and I met this Hindoo down there again. This was about seven p.m. So he wanted me to go with him then; so I got Detective Ricci there and [Detective] S——r, and he wanted me to get my friend because he had another friend.”

“Q. Who wanted you to?

A. That Hindoo with the white turban on. So I got Ricci and introduced him at the tram station as my friend. So at the tram station he said he would give us seventy-five cents for the two of us and two dollars every Sunday and pay car-fare both ways to Central Park. That is for both of us; and so then he would not give us the seventy-five cents[.]”

“We took our pants down, and he had his penis out and everything, and came up on us, and then Mr. S——r came in a few minutes after that.”

“Q. Where did that happen?

A. That happened just a little the other side of the Georgia-Harris street viaduct on the C.P.R. [Canadian Pacific Railway] tracks.”

“A. When we were talking in the afternoon he was standing beside me and got talking about the Komagata Maru, whatever it was…

In the afternoon he asked me if I would like to fuck. That is just what he said to me, and I said ’sure any old thing’.”

“Q. Ever act as stool pigeon for the police?

A. No, sir, never did.

Q. Do you at the present moment?

A. No.

Q. How did you get in touch with [Detective] Ricci?

A. I didn’t think it was a very just thing that he was trying to do. I thought the matter should be reported..

A. And you reported the matter yourself?

A. Yes.

Q. The fact is you met this man, a perfect stranger, in the Panama Bar[]room?”

“Q. Now I tell you frankly this man doesn’t speak a word of English?

A. He did when I saw him.

Q. He learned English fir the occasion?

A. Perhaps he did.

Q. Well you talked English to him?

A. Yes and he talked English to me.

Q. Now I want you to tell me. You have given me four or five words in English. I want everything he said in English on that occasion and on the evening.

A. We were talking about the Komogata Maru.”

“Q. You tell me all he said in English.

Q. Well at the tram station he said ‘you come out to Central Park there and I will give you seventy-five cents tonight and two dollars every Sunday and pay carfare both ways’

Q. What for?

A. To go out there every Sunday and stay with him.

Q. Did he use the expression ‘to stay with him’?

A. I don’t know whether he used that expression.”

“Q. Did you hit him with a revolver over the head?

A. No, sir.

Q. Who did?

A. I don’t know.

Q. How did this man fracture his jaw?

A. I guess he did that when he jumped in the pool of water.

Q. I am advised that you and [Detective] Ricci held this man up on the street and asked him for money, and that Ricci hit him over the head with the revolver and he fell down and fracture his jaw?

A. I deny that.

Q. I also tell you very fairly that the tall man knows Ricci as well as he knows to see the Magistrate. He has talked to him frequently. Now do I understand you to say that this man came then and didn’t know Ricci as a detective?

A. Yes, sir. We he didn’t say anything about it, but it seems very strange to me that he would try to take down Ricci’s pants and try to go at him.

Q. And you and Ricci were perfectly agreeable that they should begin?

A. Yes.

Q. For seventy-five cents?

A. Yes.”

“DETECTIVE RICCI

Q. You know Nana Singh very well don’t you?

A. I don’t. I might have seen him but I cannot say I knew him at all. I never spoke to the man before.

Q. You never spoke to the man before?

A. I don’t think I did.

Q. Do you mean to say you didn’t caution this man several times on the occasion of the Bela Singh murder charge?

A. No.

Q. You were a witness on that case?

A. I was.

Q. And he was too?

A. I don’t know.

Q. He says he knows you very well indeed, that he saw you frequently in the Bela Singh case, and you cautioned him.

A. He didn’t know me that night.”

“DETECTIVE RICCI

A. The two accused can speak very nice.

Q. Just confine your evidence first to D—p S—g and give me the words that you describe as ‘nice’.

A. Do you mean Dalip Singh, can he speak English?

Q. I am not asking you if he can speak English, I am asking you to satisfy me.

A. He can speak English.

Q. Tell me what words in English he used.

A. He used in English, ‘you come up South Vancouver Sunday, you savvy Sunday?’ He said ‘you savvy Sunday?’ I said ‘yes’ ‘Me pay you’.

Q. South Vancouver?

A. Central Park.

Q. You said South Vancouver

A. I believe Central Park is in South Vancouver.

Q. You believe Central Park and South Vancouver is the same place.

A. I think so.

Q. Central Park and South Vancouver are two distinct municipalities.

COURT. Oh, no Central park is South Vancouver till it meets Burnaby.

Q. Go on.

A. He said ‘I got a shack’ this man here he pointed him out. Dalip Singh, Nana Singh I mean, ‘he sleep with me, if he don’t want to fuck, I will fuck you, two dollars every Sunday, street car all time, get automobile’ he pointed out automobile ‘only five cents’.”

“DETECTIVE RICCI

Q. Are you in the habit of getting men to go tricking these Hindoos into making suggestions of this kind?

A. No, sir.

Q. Why did you do it this time?

A. Because it was necessary.

Q. It wasn’t a case of seventy-five cents each it was a case of seventy-five cents for both?

A. It was seventy-five cents for both.

Q. 37 1/2 cents for apiece?

A. They didn’t have enough money on him, they will give us the money next Sunday and we will go up to their shack. Two dollars for each one and five cents for street car-fare.”

“DETECTIVE S——R

A. I went there to watch what I could see.

Q. And you saw Ricci take down his pants, then you went over to interfere?

A. I went over. I did.”

“NANA SINGH Called and Sworn…

Q. What nationality are you? A. Sikh from India.

Q. What village? A. Kordola…

Q. Do you know Detective Ricci? A. Yes, I know him very well.

Q. When did you first meet Detective Ricci? A. I remember him well in the Bela Singh case…

Q. Where you a witness in the Bela Singh case? A. Yes.

Q. Was Detective Ricci a witness in that case? A. Yes.

Q. Did you have occasion to speak to Detective Ricci during the progress of that case?

A. Very often.

Q. Can you tell us anyone of the conversations that took place?

A. Yes, I can.

Ali Kazimi, Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, Vancouver, 6 April 2008, photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram. In the early 20th Century, this site was a railroad yard on the edge of tidal flats and was the location for one of the more bizarre and violent set of arrests of Sikh men involved in political activism.

Notes

[1]  REX VS. SINGH. 2008. Directed by Ali Kazimi, Richard Fung and John Greyson /Canada /2008 /video /  39 minutes. Produced under the auspices of the Out on Screen Queer History Project of Vancouver.

[2] ibid.

[3] Ingram, G. B. 2003. Returning to the scene of the crime: Uses of trial narratives of consensual male homosexuality for urban research, with examples from Twentieth-Century British Columbia. GLQ (Gay and Lesbian Quarterly) (New York) 10(1): 77 - 110. [A PDF version of this article is available here. ingram-2003-glq-101-77-110]

[4]  Indiana Matters. 1985. “Unfit for publication.”: Notes towards a lavender history of British Columbia. Presented at the Sex and the State Conference, Toronto, Ontario, July 3 - 6, 1985. (on file, Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, Toronto, Accession 91 - 258, Box 2).

[5]   Mattew Hays. 2008. Unearthing the ignored and forgotten: Retelling the entrapment case of Rex vs Singh. Xtra! West (14 August, 2008): 25 (plus cover of issue). [Two versions of this article are available as PDF files: matthew-hays-2008-rex-vs-singh-discussion-xtra-west, matthew-hays-2008-unearthing-the-ignored-and-forgotten-xtra-west-n-391-14-august-2008-p-25.

[6]  Ingram, G. B. 2003. Returning to the scene of the crime: Uses of trial narratives of consensual male homosexuality for urban research, with examples from Twentieth-Century British Columbia. GLQ (Gay and Lesbian Quarterly) (New York) 10(1): 77 - 110.

[7] Continuous Journey, 2004, Director: Ali Kazimi, 87 minutes, colour video DVD, http://www.socialdoc.net/kazimi/ali_html_pages2/1AK2Cont.html

[8] Rex versus Nar Singh, 1909, British Columbia Attorney General documents GR 419, V. 134, file 50 (on file British Columbia Archives, Victoria).

[9] Rex versus Nana Singh  & Rex versus Dalip Singh, Vancouver, BC Attorney General documents (GR 419, V. 197, file 31 (1915) (on file British Columbia Archives, Victoria).

[10]   http://www.vancouverchinesegarden.com/

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