T.W. Paterson: Dark doing in Chinatown thrilled residents

In due course, all appeared before Magistrate Yarwood. That’s when the fun began.

In due course, all appeared before Magistrate Yarwood. That’s when the fun began.

Opium, gambling and cheap labour were the three ‘sins’ for which white society — while employing them for substandard wages — condemned Chinese immigrants to second-class status.

Periodic raids on so-called opium and gambling dens in Chinatown kept the police busy, the courts and newspaper columns full, and perpetuated the image of dark-doings in the alleys and backrooms of Chinatown.

The arrest of 18 Chinese during a raid on a gaming-house in July 1904 had Nanaimo residents enthralled with its implications of a tong (gang) war and the suspicious death of a police informer, all topped off by bitter courtroom scenes between Crown counsel and the bench.

It was, for two days, the best show in town.

It began with the arrival to the Island of a new gambling operation. The existing franchise met the challenge by blowing the whistle on the newcomers. Police Chief Crossan, alerted that a fan tan game was going on in a rooming house, swung into action and arrested the occupants. In due course, all appeared before Magistrate Yarwood. That’s when the fun began.

Having accepted police testimony that gambling was, in fact, in progress when they raided the premises, the magistrate had each defendant, one after the other, take his place in the witness box. First up was Yung (or Tung) Lee, who said he’d been sent to the rooming house by his employer, the Western Fuel Co., to find men to work. He’d seen no gambling going on although “there was a fan tan lay out”. Case dismissed.

Chong admitted to being in the house, chatting and smoking with a friend in another room. Despite Constable Neen’s testimony that Chong and Jim Kee had come out of the room where gambling was underway, he, too, was discharged.

Fung Gee was there to meet a friend, knew nothing about a fan tan game. Yarwood fined him $25 and costs but dismissed Tai Yen who told the same story. Yip Suey claimed to have mistaken the rooming house for a “place where cherries were sold”. Because a fruit seller was among those arrested, Yarwood accepted his plea of innocence.

This was too much for Crown Counsel Barker who argued (apparently with warmth) that it was no use his proceeding if the court was going to allow such frail defences. He threatened to withdraw from the case, but the trial continued. Wang Wing, who said he’d entered the rooming house to see what everyone was laughing about, was convicted. Wang Fung claimed he was just cutting through the rooming house when police arrested him. Guilty. Lee John was another of those looking for a friend. Yarwood asked him if he was there to buy cherries. “Oh, yes sir.” Guilty.

Sung was also there to see his friends. Which friends? Why, everybody. Guilty. Ari Kay was just collecting a bill for his employer: $25 and costs. (He was said to have been “very much annoyed”.)

Jim Kee, accused of being a keeper of a gambling house, was also charged with being an onlooker. He again told his story of just having a smoke with his friend Chong, who reciprocated by testifying to this effect. A prosecuting witness for the Crown, likely a police informant, swore that Kee had walked up and down, watching the game. Nevertheless, Yarwood dismissed him. Sing Gee — the cherry seller whose presence had spelled release for Yip Suey — didn’t enjoy the same fate. For him: $25 and costs.

The remaining defendants were convicted in turn. But the case didn’t end there. Charlie Chin Dee, foreman of a logging camp at French Creek, was the man who, six weeks before, had provided a list of gaming houses run by the rival gambling gang. He’d since borrowed $20 from a countryman to take out an accident policy for the benefit of his two daughters, saying that he knew he was going to “be killed before very long”.

Two weeks before the gambling cases came to trial Charlie was indeed dead — accidentally drowned after falling off a log at French Creek. So the coroner said. But police recalled the case of a Chinese informer who’d helped them eight years before. He’d gone missing and hadn’t been seen or heard of since.