Chinatown · History · Pacific Northwest · Vancouver · walking tours

Rubber Knives, Ketchup and the Persistence of Tourism Myths…

Years ago I had heard of a tour bus operator who arranged for a couple of guys in costume brandishing knifes that would run across Pender Street near Carrall on the edge of Chinatown as the bus came down the street so that the driver could announce “oh my a tong war!” to the apparent horror and or delight of the passengers.

Opium, cleanliness, or lack of and gambling were convenient tropes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for newspapers and local officials to push a myriad of discriminatory regulations in Chinese district across North America. In Vancouver, it was the Health Department that happily and readily ordered the closure of businesses and the demolition of structures they deemed unsanitary, while the police department seemed to think that a couple of men playing cards constituted a gambling den which of course, needed to be raided and shut down.

Tongs were another favourite for newspaper writers. Seemingly any disagreement would or could erupt into a major conflict and newspapers happily cast any incident a potential tong war. The incidents of actual tongs fighting were quite rare, but the idea of potential street clashes always seem to get the newspapermen wound up. Research in local newspapers did turn up references to tong wars with some writers commenting about the potential for them to happen in Vancouver, but the majority of the reports were from elsewhere and Chinatown’s leaders were quick to counter articles that claimed it might be a problem in Vancouver.

It was also interesting to look for any reference to tours of Chinatown. What turned up were mostly items for San Fransisco or were about police and other authorities looking into issues in Chinatown. I did find a short article in the Vancouver Sun for August 4, 1938 : Vancouver’s Chinatown, with all its glamor and romance, is to be officially opened up to tourists. Chris McDevitt, who has an intimate knowledge of West Pender Street and is a friend of the leading Chinese here, has been named the authorized guide. Announcement of his appointment was made today by Foon Sein, general secretary of the Chinese Benevolent Association. That organization has provided Mr. McDevitt with a passport whose Chinese characters open the “town” to him. Mr. McDevitt is the only person ever to receive a passport for this purpose.

A few days later the Tea Time Topics column of the Vancouver Sun, August 20, 1938 had this item: At last here’s a new idea for a party, thanks to ex-newspaperman Christy McDevitt, who has just launched a novel new business, the Chinatown Guide Service at 4 West Pender Street. When Celestials go to the joss house to light a stick of incense, it seems they are entitled to have their fortunes told by the votary in attendance. Christy has persuaded the local Chinese authorities that such an attraction is not to be overlooked, and now you can arrange to take a party to the Chinese joss house for fortune-telling. They’re told in Chinese, of course, but an interpreter gives you the low-down. Christy can arrange guided tours through Chinatown, seats for the Chinese theatre, shopping trips and luncheons, teas or supper parties.

So this sound alright and maybe the story I’d heard was one an urban legend. And certainly some of McDevitt’s other reporting, particularly on the city’s enforcement of the provincial Women’s and Girls’ Protection Act of 1923 that prohibited white and Native women frequenting or working in a variety of Chinese-owned establishments was very good and sympathetic to both the women affected and their Chinese employers. His articles were refreshing for the lack of the usual stereotypes. Writing in the September 16, 1937 edition of the Vancouver Sun he wrote “Many of the girls have had previous experience in other local cafes, and declare the receive finer treatment from the Chinese than from a lot of the “high-class places.” and he went on “The general feeling of the girls is that they are being meddled with by persons who do not understand their position. One girl was particularly bitter in her condemnation of “a bunch of fussy old bridge-playing gossips who are self-appointed directors of morals for the girls in Chinatown. They are bound to get us out of here,” she complained, “but what will they do for us then.”

A few more searches and up pops the January 1949 issue of Mcleans magazine with Clyde Gilmour writing about Vancouver’s Chinatown. It’s a good even-handed article exploring the expectations of visitors looking for a place of secret tunnels and opium den versus the reality of everyday life in the district. Gilmour follows along with a knowledgable guide, a Mr Wong, as they examine Chinatown and are taken to meet with Foon Sein (president of the Chinese Benevolent Association) “We got talking again about false myths such as secret tunnels, and Wong told us about another one, “tong wars.” He said tongs have never existed in Vancouver in the way they used to in San Francisco. “We have family tongs or clan associations here,” he said, “such as the Wongs, the Lees, the Chins, and the Mahs.”

At this point somebody mentioned Christy McDevitt and Foon and Wong shared an affectionate, nostalgic chuckle. McDevitt, an affable Irish journalist and dead-pan kidder, now edits Harbour and Shipping, a monthly magazine, but at various times he has been a circus press agent, a newspaper reporter and a professional orator.

McDevitt ran a fabulous one-man tourist bureau in Chinatown for several months in 1938. He hired jobless Chinese to run yelling through the crowd holding rubber daggers dripping with ketchup, just as McDevitt and his paying sight-seers were turning the corner. McDevitt now insists that his bizarre excursions were conducted with the full knowledge and consent of Chinese leaders in the community.

Darn, the story was true.

Even though his tour efforts lasted just a short time I think the impact was longer lasting since it helped to reinforce accepted stereotypes instead of flipping the view for a greater understanding of the area because, as we’ve seen, it takes much more effort to dislodge a narrative that confirms existing prejudices.

Christy McDevitt enjoyed a long and varied career in his adopted city. He was a former reporter on The Vancouver Sun, the managing editor of The Progress Publishing Company which published Harbour and Shipping magazine and The Retailer. Prior to the Vancouver Sun he was the theatre critic at the News Herald and had worked in local press in the Interior and began his career Vancouver as the advance publicity agent for the Polack Bros. Circus. McDevitt was also in politics as a long time North Vancouver councillor and he ran unsuccessfully for provincial and federal office.

At last here’s a new idea for party, thanks to Ex-Newspaperman Christy McDevitt, who has just launched a novel new business, the Chinatown Guide Service at 4 West Pender Street. When Celestials go to the joss house to light a stick of incense, it seems they are entitled to have their fortunes told by the votary in attendance. Christy has persuaded the local Chinese authorities that such an attraction is not to be overlooked, and now you can arrange to take a party to the Chinese joss house for fortune-telling. They’re told in Chinese, of course, but an interpreter gives you the low-down. Christy can arrange guided tours through Chinatown, seats for the Chinese theatre, shopping trips and luncheons, teas or supper parties.

3 thoughts on “Rubber Knives, Ketchup and the Persistence of Tourism Myths…

Leave a Reply to Lorenz von Fersen Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s