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The Chat with Henry Tsang

Henry Tsang

Artist Henry Tsang has put together a powerful book exploring the 1907 Anti-Asian riots in Vancouver. The essays and photographs featured in White Riot: The 1907 Anti-Asian Riots in Vancouver (Arsenal Pulp Press) speak directly to the structural social and historical forces underpinning anti-Asian sentiment in Canada today. It’s a work called “an unsettling, shattering must-read” by author John Kuo Wei Tchen.

Henry Tsang is an artist who explores the spatial politics of history, language, community, food, and cultural translation in relationship to place. His artworks take the form of gallery exhibitions, 360-degree video walking tours, curated dinners, and public art. Henry teaches at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver.

White Riot explores the historical context and aftermath of the 1907 anti-Asian riots in Vancouver. It’s a powerful mix of art and social history. Why is it important for the book to come out at this moment in time?


White Riot: The 1907 Anti-Asian Riots in Vancouver is based on 360 Riot Walk (, a 360-degree video walking tour that traces the history and route of the mob that attacked the Chinese Canadian and Japanese Canadian communities following the demonstration and parade organized by the Asiatic Exclusion League in Vancouver.

360 Riot Walk was launched in 2019, and the years since have been remarkable. We experienced the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and with it a dramatic rise in anti-Asian violence, fanned by anti-China sentiment. If there was ever any doubt about whether the past has any impact on today, this is yet more proof. Racism by association resulted in a surge in racially motivated hate crimes through the targeting of vulnerable people, especially lower-income seniors and single women, which in turn became its own epidemic.

In the same year, protests erupted in the US as well as in Canada following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many other Black people at the hands of police. The efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement helped build more public awareness of systemic racism across many sectors of society. There was also growing awareness of anti-Muslim, and anti-Indigenous violence as part of the legacy of historical and current racism. This did not exist in 2019 when the tour was created. In a few short years, it’s become more socially and politically acceptable to acknowledge racial inequality to take action against it is even encouraged. So it seems like the release of this book in 2023 is pretty timely.

The book carefully traces the social, political, and economic backdrop for the riots, demonstrating clearly that the riots were not an isolated event, but a symptom of wider structural oppression against Asian communities in British Columbia at the time. Can you talk more about the collaborative work involved in the project?

The centrepiece of the book is, in some ways, the script for 360 Riot Walk, which was co- written by Michael Barnholden, author of Reading the Riot Act: A Brief History of Riots in Vancouver (Anvil Press) and me. Initially, I asked Michael to adapt his chapter on the riots for this project, but after initial discussions, it became clear that I wanted more, that, in his words, this needed to be a story about white supremacy in British Columbia. So we collaborated. After we finished the script, I asked Grace Eiko Thomson and Hayne Wai – who are elders in the Japanese Canadian and Chinese Canadian communities, respectively – for feedback. Some revisions were made based on their suggestions, and what was striking was that each expressed their appreciation for learning about each others’ communities. This showed that our script was on the right track, that our intention to provide a broader, more inclusive perspective was working.

For the book, I wanted to contextualize the content in 360 Riot Walk, to expand on the dialogue between present and past, and for this I invited seven writers whose contributions has provided a wealth of perspectives. Historian Patricia E. Roy’s foreword sets up the Vancouver in 1907 with the social and political tensions of the time and what led up to the riots. The Asian Canadian Labour Alliance outlines a contemporary perspective on anti-Asian violence in Canada, especially since COVID. Angela May and Nicole Yakashiro decry the use of the name “Japantown” as another example of dispossession for Japanese Canadians and argue that the historic neighbourhood be called “Powell Street (Paueru Gai),” as the local residents did prior to their internment.

Paul Englesberg focuses on the Bellingham Riot that took place three days prior to Vancouver’s own, and places them in relationship to five other race riots on the West Coast within a twelve month span. Melody Ma outlines the struggle of Vancouver’s historical Chinatown, with its roots in anti-Chinese exclusion, and the present-day threat of gentrification that is eroding the neighbourhood’s cultural identity. Andy Yan looks at how the Census was used not as a neutral tool of quantitative measurement, but as a socially constructed measure that reflected the ideas and values of the toolmakers. And the Right to Remain Research Collective examines 150 years of colonial policies of racial containment in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

For community partners, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden was the 360 Riot Walk’s lead collaborator and will be hosting the book launch in late April. The first guided tours took place at the Powell Street Festival, and they have since taken on the stewardship of the guided tours. The Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall have provided unwavering support and have been terrific partners. The Chinese Canadian Historical Society of BC, the Carnegie Community Centre, Project 1907, and Emily Carr University of Art + Design, where I teach, have all contributed to the walking tour project, and by extension, the book.

White Riot builds upon your 360 Riot Walk, a 360-degree-video walking tour you organized a few years ago. I’m curious about how participants on the tour reacted to the walk, and how those conversations and interactions shaped your work following the tour?

360 Riot Walk takes you into the social and political environment of the time, where racialized communities were targeted through legislated acts, as well as physical acts of exclusion and violence. The interactive tour can experienced on any web browser via, so anyone with internet access can experience the tour. If you’re in Vancouver, you can take the tour in person by using a mobile device such a smartphone or tablet, which has distinct advantages. First of all, it’s an embodied experience, as you are moving through the same space where the riots took place. Secondly, using a gyroscope on your phone or tablet allows you to line up the 360 image with the world directly in front of you, with the picture on the screen responding to your every movement, creating an overlapping effect between the real around you with the virtual of the tour.

The soundtrack is available in four languages spoken by the local residents of the time: English, Cantonese, Japanese, and Punjabi. Each voice-over includes an introduction in Sḵwx̱ wú7mesh Sníchim, one of the two Indigenous languages of the area (the other being hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓), as the events occurred on the unceded land of the Sḵwx̱ wú7mesh (Squamish), xwməθkwəy̓ əm (Musqueam), and səlilwətaɁɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.

Although 360 Riot Walk was intended to be a self-guided tour, we thought that guided group tours would provide a more focused experience. These have been offered every summer since the project launched in 2019. Participants are set up with a tablet and headphones and shown how to navigate the 360 video—in particular, how to line up the 360 image with the world around them, how to activate the gyroscope to have the picture on the screen respond to their movements, and how to start the audio. A guide then leads them to each of the thirteen stops, after which they adjourn to the Japanese Language School for a post-tour discussion, which gives the participants the opportunity to share and compare with each other what they have just experienced.

Some of the most significant moments of the tour are when participants reflect on what they have seen, heard, and walked through, crystallizing the information conveyed through the script, often evoking associations with issues we are facing in the present and raising questions about how past events have affected how things are today.

The guided tours have proven to be an integral component of the project, providing a framework for those unfamiliar with the markedly distinct neighbourhoods that the participants walk through. They sell out usually within a day or two of being announced by The Powell Street Festival, which has taken on stewardship of the tours. Currently, virtual guided tours are being developed to make it accessible to those located outside of the Vancouver area.

From your perspective, what more needs to be done to educate British Columbians and Canadians more broadly about the role of the riots in our history, and the structural forces that continue to lead to anti-Asian backlash today?

It’s sad but not uncommon for those in my generation to not have known about this event until adulthood or beyond; I certainly wasn’t introduced to it growing up in Vancouver. Nor was introduced to the Indian Act, nor the Komagata Maru incident. There’s more awareness now of different cultural experiences in the K-12 education system, but much still depends on the individual teacher who can offer perspectives that broaden the minds of the students, or not.

But these perspectives and attitudes need to start earlier than that, it needs to be part of each child’s early upbringing, which means it needs to start at home, with the parents. And for that,we all bear the responsibility of needing to work harder to create more awareness of the place where we are living. We need to understand how things got to be the way they are today, for the conditions of the now have been heavily influenced by the past, which continues to frame and sometimes haunt what can be built for our children in the future. My hope is that by raising awareness of the 1907 anti-Asian riots, White Riot can encourage dialogue and reflection on who has the right to live here, and to reflect on one’s position in this very particular place and time.

Now that the book is out in the world, what do you have planned for the project? Will you continue to offer the walking tours or will the work take on a new form?

It’s been so heartening to see the attention that White Riot has received so far, and as I write this, it hasn’t even been officially released yet! I’ll be giving a few talks and have crafted a series of public conversations with contributors of the book in a variety of venues starting in May going into the fall.

It appears that there’s an appetite, an openness to discussing such a topic with wider audiences at this moment, which from some perspectives has been long overdue. It’s terrific that the interviews and conversations that accompany this book will create more dialogue and awareness of the challenges some have faced trying to live in this part of the world.

As for the public guided walking tours, yes, we’ll be continuing them this summer under the stewardship of the Powell Street Festival. And we’re currently developing virtual guided tours for 360 Riot Walk for participants who are located outside of the Vancouver area or who are unable to attend an on location experience.

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