We were pleased to see the excellent article in the Fall issue of British Columbia History about Chinese laundries in BC.
It is worth noting, however, that discriminatory legal measures against the Chinese were not confined to head taxes and labour restrictions, but were intended to affect Chinese laundries, as well.
In 1885, BC’s provincial government amended its Municipal Act to authorize municipalities to regulate and licence laundries with fees that were calculated to force them to shut down. The City of Victoria quickly enacted a bylaw designed to have this effect. Of course, everyone knew that such laundries were almost exclusively owned and operated by Chinese.
Once such operator, Mee Wah, was convicted under the bylaw because he had not paid the exorbitant licence fee. He challenged this conviction, and his challenge came before Chief Justice Matthew Baillie Begbie, who allowed the appeal and quashed the conviction. The bylaw, he ruled, was discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional. As for the prosecution’s argument that the bylaw was racially neutral on its face and was therefore not discriminatory, Begbie responded by quoting from an American case:
When we take our seats on the Bench, we are not struck with blindness and forbidden to know as judges what we see as men; and when an ordinance, though general in its terms, only operates against a special race, sect or class, it being universally understood that it is to be enforced only against that race, sect or class, we may justly conclude that it was the intention of the body adopting it that it should only have such operation and treat it accordingly.
Begbie concluded that the laundry bylaw had no other purpose than “to compel [the Chinese] to remove certain industries from the city or themselves from the Province,” and struck it down.
In another case two years later Begbie condemned the “racial jealousy” behind another move by the City of Victoria, this time to use the law to deny pawn brokers’ licences to Chinese applicants. Citing international legal norms, he concluded that the law was an infringement “of personal liberty and the equality of all men before the law.” Writing about this case 80 years later, a Manitoba judge advised his readers to “[p]lease remember that these words, which have a modern ring, were spoken in a British Columbia Court in 1888.”
For such decisions, and for his testimony favourable to the Chinese before a formal inquiry into Chinese immigration, Begbie was — according to the Victoria Daily Times for 22 May 1885 — denounced “in scathing terms” at a public meeting, and a day later the newspaper reported that there was a resolution “fastening the blame of future bloodshed on the heads of our … judicial rulers.”
In 2017, the Law Society of British Columbia removed Begbie’s statue from its foyer, relying on a report that accused him of being “influenced by racist ideologies of his era.” No doubt he was, as all were then, and as we still are. It is also true that a colonial judge is no longer an appropriate symbol for BC’s legal profession in the 21st century. But this is not the only area in which Begbie showed himself to be well ahead of his time, and people should know this.
Hamar Foster, QC, and John McLaren, LLD, professors emeritus, University of Victoria
A happy reader
Thank you for such a beautiful publication on B.C. I can’t believe I’ve never seen them before. So many great stories and topics. I found your last four editions in our laundry room. I live in the old landmark, 1952 Hycroft apartment building on 16th and Granville. I’m an native Underwood from central Saanich. Granny was a Peters, from Nanaimo … I think. Mom use to work in the old Oakland fisheries next to Johnston Street bridge in Victoria and then the defunct building in James Bay. She was a fourth generation residential school child in Port Alberni. I think grandpa went to Kupers Island.
I use to live in an old farm house in Victoria on Graham Street. Across the street, to the north two or three houses, is the maid’s quarters. A little white house. The houses are still there. I’ve wondered who the old farm belongs to. The house was extremely haunted. A nasty spirit. The house had all the designs for servant’s services.
I’m hoping to research your past magazines. to see what I can find. Thank you again for your great work. Keep it up!
An Ode to Mom, COVID, the Internment, and the 2020 Fall issue
What a timely and touching memoir that emerged as a deja-vu feeling in the mind of Laura Saimoto!
Indeed, this was only one of the fascinating stories that filled the Fall issue; Jane Watt’s interview with the Clearbrook artist, farming, weaving and washboard legacies, Boyhood Rambles, “Time Travels,” BC Gay and Lesbian Archives, and one that featured a solution to a serious cow comfort problem! These writer’s tales enhance our imagination and even evoke memories of childhood!
Thank you, Andrea Lister and all concerned for making British Columbia History, the British Columbia Historical Federation Magazine a “must read.” Good wishes, Andrea, for your future endeavours.
Archives Chair, BC History of Nursing Society