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. Following up on these busts is interesting. After the initial publicity around the police action it was interesting to see that if these cases made it into court the result was often an acquittal or a lesser charge for the participants. The lawyer that appeared for the defence in many of these cases was Joseph Ambrose Russell. He’s shown here drawn by artist Donald McRitchie for a 1906 issue of The Daily World.
Chinatown was a place viewed with suspicion by a large segment of the Vancouver population and what was an ordinary activity elsewhere in the city, say socializing with friends or simply playing cards with friends was often transformed by its association with chinatown as something that “had to be stamped out.” Various committees, politicians and religious leaders were a constant chorus of outsiders that poked and prodded authorities to “clean the place up.” And much of the official action, outside of the arbitrary and racist Health Department orders, was targeted at gambling.
The newspapers wrote extensively about gambling dens and their ‘inmates’, they covered meetings where the district was described as a “hellhole”. In a 1908 speech the Reverend Dr. Fraser announced 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, considered a moderate voice, according to Patricia Roy’s book The Oriental Question: Consolidating a White Man’s Province, 1914-41 gave numerous interviews and appearances in front of committees and public meetings where he made extravagant claims about the state of Chinatown. He tended to rail against the threats posed by Chinatown in general and specifically, gambling and frequently brought the spectre of organized crime syndicates to the conversation.
Police department members were very busy, busting many of these ‘gambling hells’ seemingly every couple of days and 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 in the Chinese clubs.
Checking addresses in the arrest reports with city directory entries a different picture begins to emerge. 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 couldn’t just leave them alone. Joseph Ambrose Russell took many of the cases and challenged the double standard applied to the Chinese. In a 1905 case concerning the Vancouver Chinese Club and the prosecution of Sing Chin for being a keeper of a gambling house 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 Sergeant Fulton, the first witness 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. He and other witnesses couldn’t explain why card games played at the Vancouver Club were ok and yet not ok in Chinatown. Sing Chin was acquitted.
Russell took the city on in 1904 when a new bylaw upped the annual licence fee for laundries to an annual $50.00 fee which he called out as an attempt to stifle competition from smaller Chinese facilities, pointing out that the two councillors who brought the bylaw forward had interests in two larger steam laundries.
In a 1915 case he had the mayor of Vancouver on the defensive as L.D. Taylor’s campaign manager was said to have offered protection to a Seattle-based gambling operator in the form of an early heads up on any raids that might come their way. Despite some considerable exchange of funds the manager failed to deliver on the promise and the joint was busted. In a 1917 case on appeal, Justice Grant was openly contemptuous of Russell’s arguments about the legitimacy of the club stating “I am satisfied this is a sham club instituted for the express purpose of running a gambling hell.” “It is the first step to the downfall of young men…”
Russell arrived in Vancouver in 1888 and quickly found work as a legal advisor with Ross and Ceperley the land agents for the Canadian Pacific Railway. In 1891 he was appointed as a Justice of Peace, and in 1895 he became a Police Magistrate, a post he held for ten years. During this time his law practice flourished and after working with a number of lawyers he formed a partnership with his brother, Finley Robert McDonald Russell, in 1896. Shortly thereafter, A. B. Pottenger joined the firm and would stay until moving into the court system in 1907.
The firm would have a number of names over the years and Russell worked until his death in Kelowna in 1949. The Advocate described him in an article at the time of his death as “one of the most vigorous and colourful members of the British Columbia Bar.”
Outside the law Russell had a number of business interests including salmon canning, lumber, mining, shipbuilding and manufacturing. He was an active sportsman with interests in a number of activities and was one of the founders and directors of the Vancouver Horse Show and president of the Vancouver Rowing Club. During the First World War, Joseph formed the Vancouver Volunteer Cavalry Reserve.