When working on research into Chinatown buildings, it’s common to come across newspaper reports of police raids on the area’s ‘gambling dens.’ Reporters highlighted the number of men arrested and in some cases, the haul of money confiscated. It was interesting to following up on these raids and note that cases brought forward for prosecution often resulted in the acquittal of the game’s participants. The constant in the majority of these cases was a lawyer, Joseph Ambrose Russell.
I was intrigued to find out who Mr Russell was.
Chinatown was a place viewed with suspicion by most Vancouverites. What was taken as ordinary activity elsewhere in the city, say growing and selling produce or playing cards was somehow transformed into something that “had to be stamped out.” Various committees, politicians and religious leaders were part of the chorus of outsiders that poked and prodded authorities to “clean the place up.” And most of those clean up operations, outside of the arbitrary and racist Health Department orders, were targeted at gambling.
The newspapers wrote extensively about gambling dens and their ‘inmates’, they covered meetings where the district was described in derogatory terms. The Daily World, the official organ of the Asiatic Exclusion League, reported a 1908 speech from Reverend Dr. Fraser demanding that city council “must proceed to clean Chinatown out completely.” The Daily World writer, in a rare unbiased instance noted that “A radical measure like this might be objected to by some on the grounds that the Chinese had paid their head – tax and were entitled to rights which must be respected.” however, the writer continued “In [Fraser’s] opinion they had no rights under the sun to debase and demoralize our young men and future citizens…” It’s no surprise that Fraser was also a member of the Asiatic Exclusion League.
The Reverend Dr. S. S. Osterhout, though according to Patricia Roy’s book The Oriental Question: Consolidating a White Man’s Province, 1914-41, was considered a moderate voice, gave numerous interviews and appearances in front of committees and public meetings where extravagant and often erroneous claims about the state of Chinatown were made . He tended to rail against the threats posed by Chinatown in general and specifically gambling. He frequently brought the spectre of organized crime syndicates into the conversation.
Police department members were very busy busting many of these card games seemingly every couple of days and the accompanying newspaper accounts left the reader with an impression of dingy smoke-filled rooms stuffed with desperate card players. Frequent commentary also linked the gambling to the corruption of young and vulnerable white youth, though interestingly, there was little account of anyone other than Chinese being arrested.
Checking addresses in the arrest reports with city directory entries, a bit of a different picture emerges. Names such as the Hong Kong Club, Pekin Club, Shanghai Club and others appear on Pender and Hastings Street in the directory pages. Many of these clubs were named for the first time in the directories of 1915, though in previous years many of the locations simply had the notation ‘Chinese’ attached to the address. Registered under the provision of the provincial Benevolent Societies Act, the clubs were organized along the lines of other social clubs in the city where member’s paid a small sum for membership and often informal card games were played for small sums of money that paid the bar tab of the players.
Despite the legitimacy of these clubs, the cops and civic authorities just couldn’t believe that they could be legit. One of the first references to charges related to the Vancouver Chinese Club was the prosecution of Sing Chin for being a keeper of a gambling house in 1905. Russell’s opening argument was that the “Chinese had as much right to play fan-tan as white men had to play poker and stated that the Vancouver Chinese Club was on exactly the same footing as the Carleton, the St. James’, the Athenaeum, the Vancouver, the Terminal City, the Western, or any other of the clubs of world-wide reputation.” Russell took on the first witness Sergeant Fulton, and wanted to know why “the Chinamen, should not be allowed to play fan-tan which was his national game, as poker was America’s.” The sergeant didn’t have a good answer to the question and it turned out didn’t know that the Vancouver Chinese Club games had a 25-cent limit, similar to the games of poker played in the white men’s clubs. Sing Chin was acquitted.
Throughout the various cases brought to court, Russell challenged the double standard and the frequency of the raids and arrests made in Chinatown’s clubs and informal games. The Vancouver police and council didn’t like losing and urged the Attorney General to cancel a number of the club’s registrations. The cat and mouse game continued for years.
Russell took on a variety of cases that had an impact on Chinese residents and businesses including Sunday shopping and the city’s laundry bylaw. Digging through the newspapers a number a cases show up where he also defended South Asian clients. While Russell served the Chinese community well he wasn’t completely without flaws or prejudice.
Lisa Rose Mar’s book Brokering Belonging: Chinese in Canada’s Exclusion Era, 1885 – 1945 lead me to interviews conducted in 1924 for the Survey of Race Relations; A Study of the Oriental on the Pacific Coast. Russell was interviewed and talked about the Chinese and how he found “the Chinese honest and loyal” and that there “were many fine things about them that you can learn to appreciate” however, he went on to say that he felt that they could never assimilate “that was out of the question.” And in that same interview he admitted that in one case he did not present evidence that would have acquitted a Chinese man accused of the murder of a woman. Russell explained he was innocent because it was women’s fault but he did not reveal all he knew because the woman was the wife of a good friend and he didn’t want to cause any trouble for the friend. Russell did at least ensure that the man did not hang.
Russell arrived in Vancouver in 1888 and worked as a legal advisor with Ross and Ceperley, the land agents for the Canadian Pacific Railway. By 1891 he was a Justice of Peace and was a Police Magistrate by 1895, a post he held for three years. During this time his law practice grew and in 1896 he formed a partnership with his brother, Finley Robert McDonald Russell. Over the years the firm would take on a number of partners and Russell himself worked up to his death in 1949. The Advocate described him at the time of his death “as one of the most vigorous and colourful members of the British Columbia Bar.”
Outside of the law Russell got involved in salmon canning, lumber, mining, shipbuilding and manufacturing. He was an avid sportsman and was active in rowing, tennis and show horses, becoming one of the founders and directors of the Vancouver Horse Show. His love of horses probably played role in the location of his house at Chilco and Robson, just above the Horse Show building on Georgia Street.
Russell commissioned Seattle architect Warren H. Milner (1865-1949) to design his residence, an eccentric mix of modern and traditional styles with hip roofs, outdoor living porches, enormous chimneys along with elements of a nineteenth-century Queen Anne Style house. The Russell family would live there from 1910 until 1937.