Local history: An infamous Halifax race riot

The Crown Café on Gottingen Street, shortly before demolition in 1959. Photo: HRM Archives

Since COVID-19 hit, there has been a surge of anti-Asian racism worldwide. In the U.S. alone, there were 3,800 documented incidents in the first year of the pandemic.

And the situation has been no better in Canada, with 1,000 incidents recorded here in the same period. Indeed, such racism is a part of our heritage. Few people talk about it today, but a century ago, Halifax was a hotbed of anti-Chinese racism, which culminated in riots and physical attacks.

The frenzy erupted in February 1919 at Chinese restaurant called the Crown Café, on Gottingen Street. A drunk soldier was dining at the restaurant with friends. When the bill arrived, he became belligerent and aggressive. Ask to leave, he refused, suddenly switching off the restaurant’s lights and grabbing a handful of money from the open cash register.

After stealing $75, he tossed the register through the front window and yelled for help, pretending somone was attacking him as the restaurant’s terrified Chinese patrons retreated to the back.

Police arrived and ushered the drunks away, but didn’t take them into custody. Unsupervised, they soon returned to the Crown. A crowd gathered outside the restaurant, and a rumour spread that a Chinese man had beaten up a soldier.

There was no truth to it, but the mob lapped it up, and began attacking the Crown and other Chinese-owned restaurants and businesses along Gottingen, Brunswick, and Barrington streets. The attackers pelted onlookers with stones and did $10,000 worth of damage. They were largely focused on looting, taking laundry, eating utensils, ciragettes, cigars, and even a typewriter. They badly beat a Chinese laundry owner on Agricola Street.

The Evening Mail, Feb. 20, 1919. Source: HRM Archives

When the smoke cleared, most Haligonians were appalled, calling on the government, police, and military to act decisively. After a second night of attacks, the Herald printed photos of the carnage, with the banner headline “How long will Decent Citizens in Halifax Tolerate this?”

The Herald also called the the violence the “most flagrant violations of justice and law and an utter disgrace to the capital of Nova Scotia … The Chinese deserve the best protection that the laws and statutes can, or should guarantee them.” The newspaper called for the attackers to be “rounded up and punished.”

Records show that a ringleader, Thomas Allen, was arrested then released, and a man named Samuel Lesser was charged with assault. But most of the rioters escaped any legal consequences.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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