Riot Walk tour recounts dark moment in Vancouver's history

Vancouver is known for its multiculturalism, and dating all the way back to when the city was founded on the unceded land of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations in 1886, there have been people from a mix of cultures calling the place home.

But many Vancouverites may not be aware of the racist aspects of the city's history. That's why Henry Tsang, artist and associate professor at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, created an immersive, self-guided walking tour of the oldest parts of the city, focusing on the details of the 1907 race riot.

It takes a couple of hours to complete the 360 Riot Walk, which is free and requires only a mobile device connected to the internet. It leads people through 13 stops beginning in Gastown, and continuing through Chinatown, the Downtown Eastside, and into what was known at the time as Japantown.

The anti-Asian riot of 1907 involved a mob of about 9,000 people, according to Canadian Encyclopedia. Whipped up by the Asiatic Exclusion League, rioters smashed windows and destroyed the shops and homes of Asian Canadians in Chinatown and Japantown.

"I think anyone who's interested in the place that they're living should take the tour," said Tsang. "This is where Vancouver began, right? This part of town."

While the race riot is central to the tour, it also offers context and other historical details of the early days of Vancouver. It can be taken by anybody, anywhere on a computer. But people walking the tour are invited to begin at Maple Tree Square in Gastown, where Carrall, Alexander, Powell, and Water streets intersect.

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There, surrounded by today's bustle of the touristy square with its streets paved with bricks, people are introduced to how the land would have looked before European settlement.

The narrator, Michael Barnholden, describes the area as a canoe portage between Burrard Inlet and False Creek, with a canal that filled at high tide, allowing Indigenous people to paddle between the bodies of water.

Standing in the square with mobile device in hand, one can swivel around, looking at archival images overlaid on the 360 photos that make up the immersive tour experience.

360 Riot Walk

The tour quickly builds toward the race riot, which lasted two days and nights. 

"Over a third of Vancouver's population came out to this anti-Asian demonstration," said Tsang. "Well, there were inflammatory speeches that were made. Some folks got really excited, and they decided to go attack the Chinese Canadians in Chinatown."

According to Tsang, the riot wasn't part of the plan and took everybody by surprise. At a stop at Main Street and Pender, Barnholden describes the scene.

"This was the entrance to Chinatown, into which the mob stormed," he says in the narration to the English version of the tour. "The rioters identified which businesses were run by Chinese, and smashed their windows and vandalized their buildings."

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Eventually, the riot moved toward Japantown on Powell Street. There, the rioters were driven away by Japanese Canadians who had a day's warning of the threat, and armed themselves.

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The tour was made with $17,000 in funding from the Vancouver Park Board and Emily Carr University. It's available in English, Cantonese and Japanese. According to Tsang, the Punjabi version will soon be online.

For some, the tour will serve as a reminder of the city's dark history. For others, it may come as a shock.

"A surprising number of people that were born here also don't know the white nationalist and very racist history of, specifically, Vancouver, British Columbia — and overall, Canada," said Tsang.

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