Late nineteenth-century Canada was not exactly a place that welcomed difference or embraced diversity. In fact, thanks to “degeneration” theory and its believers among social scientists and medical experts, both racism and homophobia were growing in the new Confederation.
The theory of “degeneration” suggested that societies could be put into three categories – the “primitive or barbaric,” the “civilized,” and the “degenerate.” This was a one-way process. Barbaric societies could become civilized, and civilized societies could degenerate, but not the other way around. “Degenerate” societies would eventually be overrun by the barbarians or more civilized masters, in a kind of survival of the fittest of societies.
The only truly interesting phase of the process – for the social scientists and doctors and intellectuals that believed in it – was the middle part. They thought that the goal of any society should be to ensure that its “civilized” phase was stretched out as long as possible. Once degeneration reached the heart of society, it would be impossible to reverse the tide. The fall of the civilization would be inevitable.
Throughout the West, educated people were spurred by fear of “degeneration” to see any moral tolerance as the first symptoms of an oncoming plague. And the poor and those from outside the Europe and its colonies were seen as carriers of this plague. “Degenerate” behaviours – gambling, drinking, drug use, prostitution, extramarital sex, a lack of church attendance, an inability to hold a job, a disrespect toward one’s elders, and (of course) homosexuality – were both the symptom and the cause of “degeneration.” The majority of Western intellectuals saw these things everywhere, except of course inside their own white and middle class culture.
These theories still had an aura of respectability in European society when they became the justification for concentration camps and the Holocaust in the first half of the twentieth century, and are still consciously argued by white supremacist groups. In Canada, the panic around “degeneration” resulted in a fierce and deeply entrenched racism directed at the black population, as well as at immigrants from India and Japan. But the two favourite targets of racist intellectuals in 19th-century Canada were the First Nations and the Chinese.
Even at the end of the 19th century, there were still people arguing against degeneration theory – either from an Enlightenment perspective that said that people were equal, or from a Christian one of love of the human race and of compassion. In order to overcome what it saw as naive tolerance, racist intellectuals argued that non-white groups had to be contained, assimilated, or even removed from Canada for the good of the country, and that tolerance put them all at risk.
To make that argument, these intellectuals tended to claim that groups like the Chinese and First Nations had tendencies toward vices even the most liberal weren’t likely to defend. And homosexuality was a favourite charge.
The Chinese in Canada
In the mid-nineteenth century, the first Chinese came north to British Columbia following the tide of gold rush to the Fraser Valley. Pretty soon they were joined by workers imported in large numbers directly from China to make up labour shortages on the Canadian railroad.
The Chinese largely saw themselves as temporary workers. Money was easier to come by in North America than in the drought-ravaged areas of southern China that provided the workers. Whole communities raised the cash to send their men overseas, on the understanding that after they would return after earning enough money to pay off their debts and put their family in a better financial position. Most of these men left their wives in China, and many left children. If the man being sent to Canada didn’t return to China in his lifetime, his remains would be transported back after his death to be buried with his ancestors.
Because they considered themselves temporary workers, the first few generations of Chinese in Canada saw little point in assimilating more than was absolutely necessary. Chinese workers often kept their traditional modes of dress. The community created clan associations that ran temples and assistance programs, to better reproduce life in the homeland.
The Chinese in Canada also tended to hold on to their traditional moral codes, mostly based in Confucian ideas, which Christian social reformers considered much too lax. For example, gambling in moderation was seen as an acceptable way to pass the time by many Chinese, but it had the taint of sin to the Protestants of western Canada. Intellectuals and newspaper columnists claimed that Chinese communities were awash opium, and that they were havens for prostitution. Some social purity groups claimed that white women were being kidnapped and forced into prostitution by Chinese men.
And along with all these other evils, the anti-Asian movement claimed that homosexuality was particularly common among the Chinese.
There was a small grain of truth in the claim. China had no equivalent of the West’s fits of moral outrage or panic around homosexuality. None of China’s gods called for the execution of homosexuals, and no one in China expected cities to be destroyed by fire for permitting it within their walls. Homosexuality, at worst, was seen as something funny, and in certain times and places in China’s history, gay love affairs were even romanticized.
For ordinary people in the areas of China that gave Canada most of its immigrants, sexuality was governed by Confucianist principle that said it was a duty to one’s ancestors to produce children. Confucian morality also suggested that there were certain behaviours that were proper to women and certain that were proper to men. So homosexuality was seen as a distraction from these duties.
But among the elites, homosexuality was featured without judgement in stories and histories, particularly in the histories around the Han emperors (202 BCE to 220 Common Era). Homosexuality went under such poetic names as “the breaking of the sleeve”—after a story about how the Emperor Ai cut his sleeve rather than wake his lover, Dong Xian, who’d fallen asleep on it – and “the bitten peach.” Among the Chinese, certain areas such the city of Quanzhou in the Fujian province had a reputation like San Francisco does today.
In Homosexuality and Civilization, Louis Crompton talks about the many stories in China of the aristocrats and their male lovers:
Clearly, these normative tales, if we may so call them, show an unselfconscious acceptance of same-sex relations, an acceptance that was to persist in China for twenty-four centuries. They contrast strikingly with the myth that dominated the imagination of Western Christendom – the story of Sodom with its supernatural terrors.
A few centuries of travel narratives had already cemented the idea for Europeans that China was a place rife with homosexuality. The Dominican monk Gaspar de Cruz had claimed that the earthquakes that had hit China in the 1550s were caused by the Middle Kingdom’s tolerance of “sodomy.” In 1598, the Spanish put two Chinese traders to death for homosexuality in the Philippines. The traders defended themselves by saying that it was common among men in China.
And right from the early days of the British in Canada, books were available to British settlers that described China like a modern Sodom. A 1732 collection of travel stories that found its way to Canada claimed that “Sodomy is frequent in China,” and said that “In the time of the Chinese [Han] emperors, there were publick stews [brothels] of boys in the imperial city Pequin [Beijing].” This collection also repeated the Chinese view that homosexuality was most common in Quanzhou.
Until halfway the late 19th century, British-Canadians had tended to think of homosexuality as something that only happened in other, more tropical places. And China, India, and even Italy were comfortably far away. The complete denial and silence around homosexuality in Canada had inoculated the colony against anti-gay panics that hit their peak in the early 1800s in Britain, and then began to die down.
But increasingly, homosexuality was being discussed as a problem. Newspapers began reporting sodomy trials in the 1840s, but started talking about it as a social problem in the 1880s.
Edward Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire had convinced the intellectual classes that homosexuality could help bring down an empire. And Max Nordau’s Degeneration had argued that immorality and “effeminacy” could spread like a disease, both across a society and through a family line. So homosexuality was not only contagious, it was fatal to empires.
And right around the time social reformers were first seriously trying to whip the public and governments into a panic around the “problem” of homosexuality in Canada, the man in charge of finding labour for the national railroad – Andrew Onderdonk – imported 5000 Chinese men (and no women) from Taiwan and Guangdong – the province next door to Fujian.
Political careers could be (and were) made opposing Chinese immigration, especially in British Columbia where the anti-Chinese panic was at its worst. BC politicians Amor de Cosmos and Noah Shakespeare both built their careers on their very vocal anti-Chinese racism. While the railroad was still being built, however, arguments against the Chinese in Canada were balanced out by practical necessity. John A. Macdonald, our first prime minister, said, “”It is simply a question of alternatives: either you must have this [Chinese] labour or you can’t have the railway.”
Once the railroad was out of the way, though, political sentiment turned quickly against the Chinese migrant workers. A royal commission was set up to study the “problem” of Chinese immigration. Not surprisingly, many people speaking at the commission brought up homosexuality.
An American merchant named Thomas King told the commission that “Sodomy was a habit” among the Chinese, and “The practice of shipboard sodomy and pollution is common”:
Sometimes thirty or forty boys, leaving Hong Kong apparently in good health, before arriving here would be found to be afflicted about the anus with venereal diseases, and on questioning the Chinese doctors to disclose what it was, they admitted it was a common practice among them.
There are many reasons to doubt King’s version of things, including his characterization of the migrant workers as boys. Everywhere else, they’re described as young men, and the few numbers I’ve been able to find suggest that they were largely in their twenties and thirties. But this kind of slippage – describing men as boys when talking about homosexuality – was very common in 19th-century Canada whenever the subject came up.
King was far from alone in his views, though. A detective by the name of C.C. Cox from San Francisco said he knew of “one instance” where a Chinese man “cut out the penis of another who refused to submit to his degrading desires.” An Irish businessman named Cornelius Mahony who was working in Peru was somewhat less sensationalistic. He attributed “sodomy” among the Chinese in Peru entirely to the lack of women:
No Chinese women at all were imported ; in fact I only saw one little Chinese girl. The result of this was that crimes of the most horrible and unmentionable kind were common among them which it was found impossible to prevent. They were in point of fact sodomites of the worst kind. They were treated very badly, in many cases, in Peru.
A rare defender of the Chinese at the commission was an E. Stevenson, a doctor from Victoria. He argued that the Chinese migrant workers had been largely maligned with false accusations. Naturally, for him this meant distancing them from charges of homosexuality:
Gentlemen, you have heard several witnesses testify unfavourably on this Chinese question, and they have inferred so and so. And, from the fact that so many Chinese males are here and so few females, it has been inferred by Christian (?) people that – well, I hesitate to say it – that sodomy was by them practiced. I stamp it as a damnable slander. The man who so acts bears the mark of Cain not only on his forehead but all over him.
The 1885 commission concluded that the Chinese were a danger to Canada, especially in large numbers. The result was a series of attempts to stop Chinese immigration through taxes and outright bans that lasted until after the Second World War.
Gay panic and yellow peril fed into each other. To moral reformers, the belief that the Chinese were inclined toward homosexuality meant that their arrival in large numbers in western Canada could trigger the collapse of Canadian civilization into “degeneracy.” The existence of homosexuality in Canada had been denied up to that point, but now moral reformers were saying that homosexuality had arrived on Canada’s shores at last. As carriers of this supposed infection, the Chinese were seen as a particular danger to the country.
For all the panic about the Chinese and homosexuality, though, there doesn’t seem to be a disproportionate number of cases of Chinese men before the courts for “sodomy” or “gross indecency.” The Victorians were kept careful records about their prison populations and the race and place of origin of their convicts, and while the Chinese were charged disproportionately with almost every other crime, they’re nearly absent from lists of people charged with “sodomy” and “gross indecency.”
One curious exception is the case of a man named Ah Hoy, who in 1887 was sent to the British Columbia penitentiary for two and a half years for “Assault with intent to be carnally known.” “To carnally know” and “to be carnally known” were Victorian legal terms and quite precise, and suggests that Hoy was looking for an active, male rather than a passive partner. Sadly, this bland page of statistics doesn’t yield any other details of the case, and my best research has yet to turn up any more facts.
Naturally, the lack of concrete evidence to back up the assumptions of the white supremacists that the Chinese were carriers of homosexual degeneracy. Homophobia shored up and helped entrench a powerful anti-Chinese sentiment in this country that only began to thaw with World War II.
The Chinese weren’t the only group to come under the Victorian microscope because of their supposed inclination toward homosexuality. The First Nations of Canada, too, faced scrutiny from a society that already saw them as a problem to be fixed.
But this will have to wait for my next instalment.
Sources:My best source for this section was The Report of the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration, prepared for the federal government in 1885. It includes about 400 pages of arguments, mostly anti-Chinese. I only skimmed it, but I don’t recall ever seeing one Chinese name among the people called to speak before the commission. For background on the Chinese communities in Canada themselves, I found Smoke and Fire by Kwok B. Chan an excellent resource. For attitudes on homosexuality in China, I wasn’t able to locate a good print resource so I relied a little more than I like on Wikipedia, augmented by resources such as Homosexuality and Civilization by Louis Crompton and the Dictionnaire des chefs d’État homosexuels by Didier Goddard. The travel narrative
is “An Account of the Empire of China” by Dominic Fernandez Navarette, in A Collection of Voyages and Travels, 1732, accessed from Early Canadiana Online