Letters to the Family V


by Rudyard Kipling

ONE cannot leave a thing alone if it is thrust under the nose at every turn. I had not quitted the Quebec steamer three minutes when I was asked point-blank: “What do you think of the question of Asiatic Exclusion which is Agitating our Community?”

The Second Sign-Post on the Great Main Road says: “If a Community is agitated by a Question—inquire politely after the health of the Agitator,” This I did, without success; and had to temporise all across the Continent till I could find some one to help me to acceptable answers. The Question appears to be confined to British Columbia. There, after a while, the men who had their own reasons for not wishing to talk referred me to others who explained, and on the acutest understanding that no names were to be published (it is sweet to see engineers afraid of being hoist by their own petards) one got more or less at something like facts.

The Chinaman has always been in the habit of coming to British Columbia, where he makes, as he does elsewhere, the finest servant in the world. No one, I was assured on all hands, objects to the biddable Chinaman. He takes work which no white man in a new country will handle, and when kicked by the mean white will not grossly retaliate. He has always paid for the privilege of making his fortune on this wonderful coast, but with singular forethought and statesmanship, the popular Will, some few years ago, decided to double the head-tax on his entry. Strange as it may appear, the Chinaman now charges double for his services, and is scarce at that. This is said to be one of the reasons why overworked white women die or go off their heads; and why in new cities you can see blocks of flats being built to minimise the inconveniences of housekeeping without help. The birth-rate will fall later in exact proportion to those flats.

Since the Russo-Japanese War the Japanese have taken to coming over to British Columbia. They also do work which no white man will; such as hauling wet logs for lumber mills out of cold water at from eight to ten shillings a day. They supply the service in hotels and dining-rooms and keep small shops. The trouble with them is that they are just a little too good, and when attacked defend themselves with asperity.

A fair sprinkling of Punjabis—ex-soldiers, Sikhs, Muzbis, and Jats—are coming in on the boats. The plague at home seems to have made them restless, but I could not gather why so many of them come from Shahpur, Phillour, and Jullundur way. These men do not, of course, offer for house-service, but work in the lumber mills, and with the least little care and attention could be made most valuable. Some one ought to tell them not to bring their old men with them, and better arrangements should be made for their remitting money home to their villages. They are not understood, of course; but they are not hated.

The objection is all against the Japanese. So far—except that they are said to have captured the local fishing trade at Vancouver, precisely as the Malays control the Cape Town fish business—they have not yet competed with the whites; but I was earnestly assured by many men that there was danger of their lowering the standard of life and wages. The demand, therefore, in certain quarters is that they go—absolutely and unconditionally. (You may have noticed that Democracies are strong on the imperative mood.) An attempt was made to shift them shortly before I came to Vancouver, but it was not very successful, because the Japanese barricaded their quarters and flocked out, a broken bottle held by the neck in either hand, which they jabbed in the faces of the demonstrators. It is, perhaps, easier to haze and hammer bewildered Hindus and Tamils, as is being done across the Border, than to stampede the men of the Yalu and Liaoyang.1

But when one began to ask questions one got lost in a maze of hints, reservations, and orations, mostly delivered with constraint, as though the talkers were saying a piece learned by heart. Here are some samples:—

A man penned me in a corner with a single heavily capitalised sentence. “There is a General Sentiment among Our People that the Japanese Must Go,” said he.

“Very good,” said I. “How d’you propose to set about it?”

“That is nothing to us. There is a General Sentiment,” etc.

“Quite so. Sentiment is a beautiful thing, but what are you going to do?” He did not condescend to particulars, but kept repeating the sentiment, which, as I promised, I record.

Another man was a little more explicit. “We desire,” he said, “to keep the Chinaman. But the Japanese must go.”

“Then who takes their place? Isn’t this rather a new country to pitch people out of?”

“We must develop our Resources slowly, sir—with an Eye to the Interests of our Children. We must preserve the Continent for Races which will assimilate with Ours. We must not be swamped by Aliens.”

“Then bring in your own races and bring ’em in quick,” I ventured.

This is the one remark one must not make in certain quarters of the West; and I lost caste heavily while he explained (exactly as the Dutch did at the Cape years ago) how British Columbia was by no means so rich as she appeared; that she was throttled by capitalists and monopolists of all kinds; that white labour had to be laid off and fed and warmed during the winter; that living expenses were enormously high; that they were at the end of a period of prosperity, and were now entering on lean years; and that whatever steps were necessary for bringing in more white people should be taken with extreme caution. Then he added that the railway rates to British Columbia were so high that emigrants were debarred from coming on there.

“But haven’t the rates been reduced?” I asked.

“Yes—yes, I believe they have, but immigrants are so much in demand that they are snapped up before they have got so far West. You must remember, too, that skilled labour is not like agricultural labour. It is dependent on so many considerations. And the Japanese must go.”

“So people have told me. But I heard stories of dairies and fruit-farms in British Columbia being thrown up because there was no labour to milk or pick the fruit. Is that true, d’you think?”

“Well, you can’t expect a man with all the chances that our country offers him to milk cows in a pasture. A Chinaman can do that. We want races that will assimilate with ours,” etc., etc.

“But didn’t the Salvation Army offer to bring in three or four thousand English some short time ago? What came of that idea?”

“It—er—fell through.”


“For political reasons, I believe. We do not want People who will lower the Standard of Living. That is why the Japanese must go.”

“Then why keep the Chinese?”

“We can get on with the Chinese. We can’t get on without the Chinese. But we must have Emigration of a Type that will assimilate with Our People. I hope I have made myself clear?”

I hoped that he had, too.

Now hear a wife, a mother, and a housekeeper.

“We have to pay for this precious state of things with our health and our children’s. Do you know the saying that the Frontier is hard on women and cattle? This isn’t the frontier, but in some respects it’s worse, because we have all the luxuries and appearances—the pretty glass and silver to put on the table. We have to dust, polish, and arrange ’em after we’ve done our housework. I don’t suppose that means anything to you, but—try it for a month! We have no help. A Chinaman costs fifty or sixty dollars a month now. Our husbands can’t always afford that. How old would you take me for? I’m not thirty. Well thank God, I stopped my sister coming out West. Oh yes, it’s a fine country—for men.”

“Can’t you import servants from England?”

“I can’t pay a girl’s passage in order to have her married in three months. Besides, she wouldn’t work. They won’t when they see Chinamen working.”

“Do you object to the Japanese, too?”

“Of course not. No one does. It’s only politics. The wives of the men who earn six and seven dollars a day—skilled labour they call it—have Chinese and Jap servants. We can’t afford it. We have to think of saving for the future, but those other people live up to every cent they earn. They know they’re all right. They’re Labour. They’ll be looked after, whatever happens. You can see how the State looks after me.”

A little later I had occasion to go through a great and beautiful city between six and seven of a crisp morning. Milk and fish, vegetables, etc., were being delivered to the silent houses by Chinese and Japanese. Not a single white man was visible on that chilly job.

Later still a man came to see me, without too publicly giving his name. He was in a small way of business, and told me (others had said much the same thing) that if I gave him away his business would suffer. He talked for half an hour on end.

“Am I to understand, then,” I said, “that what you call Labour absolutely dominates this part of the world?”

He nodded.

“That it is difficult to get skilled labour into here?”

“Difficult? My God, if I want to get an extra hand for my business—I pay Union wages, of course—I have to arrange to get him here secretly. I have to go out and meet him, accidental-like, down the line, and if the Unions find out that he is coming, they, like as not, order him back East, or turn him down across the Border.”

“Even if he has his Union ticket? Why?”

“They’ll tell him that labour conditions are not good here. He knows what that means. He’ll turn back quick enough. I’m in a small way of business, and I can’t afford to take any chances fighting the Unions.”

“What would happen if you did?”

“D’you know what’s happening across the Border? Men get blown up there—with dynamite.”

“But this isn’t across the Border?”

“It’s a damn-sight too near to be pleasant. And witnesses get blown up, too. You see, the Labour situation ain’t run from our side the line. It’s worked from down under. You may have noticed men were rather careful when they talked about it?”

“Yes, I noticed all that.”

“Well, it ain’t a pleasant state of affairs. I don’t say that the Unions here would do anything to you—and please understand I’m all for the rights of Labour myself. Labour has no better friend than me—I’ve been a working man, though I’ve got a business of my own now. Don’t run away with any idea that I’m against Labour—will you?”

“Not in the least. I can see that. You merely find that Labour’s a little bit—er—inconsiderate, sometimes?”

“Look what happens across the Border! I suppose they’ve told you that little fuss with the Japanese in Vancouver was worked from down under, haven’t they? I don’t think our own people ’ud have done it by themselves.”

“I’ve heard that several times. Is it quite sporting, do you think, to lay the blame on another country?”

You don’t live here. But as I was saying—if we get rid of the Japs to-day, we’ll be told to get rid of some one else to-morrow. There’s no limit, sir, to what Labour wants. None!”

“I thought they only want a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work?”

“That may do in the Old Country, but here they mean to boss the country. They do.”

“And how does the country like it?”

“We’re about sick of it. It don’t matter much in flush times—employers’ll do most anything sooner than stop work—but when we come to a pinch, you’ll hear something. We’re a rich land—in spite of everything they make out—but we’re held up at every turn by Labour. Why, there’s businesses on businesses which friends of mine—in a small way like myself—want to start. Businesses in every direction—if they was only allowed to start in. But they ain’t.”

“That’s a pity. Now, what do you think about the Japanese question?”

“I don’t think. I know. Both political parties are playing up to the Labour vote—if you understand what that means.”

I tried to understand.

“And neither side’ll tell the truth—that if the Asiatic goes, this side of the Continent’ll drop out of sight, unless we get free white immigration. And any party that proposed white immigration on a large scale ’ud be snowed under next election. I’m telling you what politicians think. Myself, I believe if a man stood up to Labour—not that I’ve any feeling against Labour—and just talked sense, a lot of people would follow him—quietly, of course. I believe he could even get white immigration after a while. He’d lose the first election, of course, but in the long run. . . . We’re about sick of Labour. I wanted you to know the truth.”

“Thank you. And you don’t think any attempt to bring in white immigration would succeed?”

“Not if it didn’t suit Labour. You can try it if you like, and see what happens.”

On that hint I made an experiment in another city. There were three men of position, and importance, and affluence, each keenly interested in the development of their land, each asserting that what the land needed was white immigrants. And we four talked for two hours on the matter—up and down and in circles. The one point on which those three men were unanimous was, that whatever steps were taken to bring people into British Columbia from England, by private recruiting or otherwise, should be taken secretly. Otherwise the business of the people concerned in the scheme would suffer.

At which point I dropped the Great Question of Asiatic Exclusion which is Agitating all our Community; and I leave it to you, especially in Australia and the Cape, to draw your own conclusions.

Externally, British Columbia appears to be the richest and the loveliest section of the Continent. Over and above her own resources she has a fair chance to secure an immense Asiatic trade, which she urgently desires. Her land, in many places over large areas, is peculiarly fitted for the small former and fruit-grower, who can send his truck to the cities. On every hand I heard a demand for labour of all kinds. At the same time, in no other part of the Continent did I meet so many men who insistently decried the value and possibilities of their country, or who dwelt more fluently on the hardships and privations to be endured by the white immigrant. I believe that one or two gentlemen have gone to England to explain the drawbacks viva voce. It is possible that they incur a great responsibility in the present, and even a terrible one for the future.