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Racism caused Chinese farmers to create local movement: Yu

Graeme Wood / Special To The News 
December 6, 2013 12:00 AM

When Chinese farmer Chung Chuck tried to cross the Lulu Island Bridge with his crop of potatoes one fateful August day in 1935, he was confronted by a group of Caucasian farmers and members of the newly formed B.C. Vegetable Marketing Board.

Chuck normally sold his potatoes at markets in New Westminster or Vancouver, but this time he wasn’t legally allowed to do so. When he tried to make it over the bridge illegally, Chuck was beaten to a pulp by a board enforcement officer and six Caucasian farmers.

The incident was born of Richmond’s Chinese potato growers’ indignation for the new Vegetable Marketing Act, which barred them from selling their products whenever and wherever they wanted. If farmers were caught selling produce without the permission of the marketing board, they faced stiff penalties of up to $500 in fines and three months in jail.

The act particularly affected Chinese farmers more than their Caucasian counterparts because they depended more on the local connections they had made with vendors.

Logistical problems followed the act, such as vegetables rotting in barns for no reason other than bureaucratic red tape.

On Jan. 12, 1938, Chuck, after failed appeals, was found guilty of illegally transporting his potatoes. During the sentencing, he bolted from the courtroom with a policeman in high pursuit. He evaded capture, but eventually turned himself in, according to the local newspaper.

Chuck’s story is etched in the city’s history and represents many of the struggles Chinese immigrant farmers faced during the early twentieth century. Richmond has a long farming history and Chinese-Canadian farmers are some of its the most important subjects.

A 2011 Simon Fraser University study on Chinese-Canadian farmers noted by 1921, 90 per cent of vegetables in B.C. were produced and distributed by Chinese immigrants.

But, as the study notes, because of their success, racism took hold. In 1923, the Chinese Immigration Act was enacted and fear from Caucasian farmers that Chinese immigrants would take over spread. Then, in 1927, the province enacted its first laws to regulate and market vegetables.

“It was the use of laws to break an existing industry. Anti-Chinese racism was about driving them out of an industry that they helped to build,” notes history professor Henry Yu of the University of British Columbia.

Eventually, Chinese immigrants were forced into creating their own farmers associations in order to protect whatever rights they could hold on to. As a result of this overt and systemic racism, a separate food supply network emerged for unregulated, non-marketed Chinese vegetables.

Hence, it’s argued by some scholars like Yu that Chinese-Canadian farmers developed a local and sustainable food movement long before this century’s own mainstream movement took hold.

© Richmond News

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