READING THE PAPERS, IN SEATTLE

kids-reading-paperHey, kids! Montreal Expos caps and vinyl aren’t the only hip retro around. Be the first in your group to read a print newspaper. Take time out from your busy online life, relax and turn the pages. Impress your friends. You never know what unexpected treasures of information and features might lurk deep within.

As the late, great David Carr (sigh) did during all his visits outside New York, I still peruse the local newspapers whenever I venture beyond Van, man. Here are some print gleanings from a recent weekend baseball venture to Seattle. You, too, can be a newspaper explorer.

  1. Let’s start with a joke. You’re probably one of those who think Boise, Idaho is no laughing matter. Well, you’d be wrong. The lede of an enticing article on Boise that made me actually want to visit was this giggle by Garrison Keillor: “No matter how smug a Boise tech millionaire might feel as he drives around in his fancy Mercedes, his licence plate still says: ‘Famous Potatoes’.” Well, it made me laugh.image3
  1. Seattle has a writer and performer name of Stokley Towles. Given all the topics in all the world, he’s chosen in recent years to focus on “LOCAL INFRASTRUCTURE”. Yep, water, sewage, garbage and “other systems we interact with on a daily basis”. Be still, my beating heart. His latest show was about Seattle’s bus service. Of course, it took place on an actual transit bus, and sold out. How cool is that? Toronto may have Drake, but Seattle has Stokley Towles (stokleytowes.com).
  1. Turning to the obits, which are often the best part of any paper (no, seriously…), we find the rich life of Mary Fung Koehler. A child of the Depression, born to Chinese-American parents in Chicago, she grew up working in Chinese restaurants. From there, she became the third woman to graduate from chemical engineering at the University of Illinois. After time out for marriage, children and a move to Seattle, Ms. Koehler enrolled in law at the University of Washington, the only female minority in her class. She graduated, seven months pregnant with her fifth child. Ever a pathfinder, in the early 1980’s Ms. Koehler represented two lesbian mothers in a successful child custody battle against their ex-husbands. The case was one of many civil liberty legal battles she fought. When clients couldn’t pay, she let them work off the debt by working on her car or painting the house.

The obit goes on to detail her “extremely colourful personality”, featuring a smile that “literally reached from ear to ear” and a life-long mission to heal people. Plus this gem: “She also liked to predict people’s IQs, and at one point declared that the family dog Izzy’s IQ was higher than that of George W. Bush.” Mary Fung Koehler, sounds like you were a real corker during your time on this struggling earth. May you Rest In Wonderful Peace.

  1. We think we have trouble with income divisions in our education system. And we do, as increasing numbers of parents send their kids to private schools, and those on Vancouver’s east side who can manage it opt for public schools on the west side. But consider Seattle. One-third of students of colour in Seattle attend a “high-poverty” school, while a third of white Seattle students go to a private school. The gap continues in the public schools, themselves. Grade 3 reading standards are being met by students of colour at a rate 30 per cent lower than those of their white classmates. The stats came out an all-day symposium attended by more than 500 politicians, educators, policymakers, parents and students to consider ways to improve this distressing situation. I liked what 18-year old, high-school senior, Ahlaam Ibraahim, had to say. Wearing a head scarf, she said that students like her suffer from low expectations, even when her classmates get A’s in advanced classes. “People were surprised that we could do it,” she told the symposium. “Why are your expectations of me so low? These lowered expectations aren’t going to get us anywhere.” Good for her. One can only hope young, confident students like Ahlaam Ibraahim are the future.
  1. From Cooking with Cannabis, now a regular column in the Seattle Weekly, I learned: “One of the oldest cannabis recipes on record is from 1475, written by a baller named Bartholomaeus Platina.” And: “Another easy way to consume weed is bhang.” A good bhang for the baller, so to speak.
  1. Alas, another Duck Boat fatality. The “amphibious sightseeing vehicle” hit and killed a woman driving a scooter in downtown Boston. It was just last year that one of Seattle’s deadly duckmobiles with the wise-cracking drivers crashed into a charter bus, killing five of the bus passengers. Two earlier accidents in Philadelphia claimed three other lives. No laughing matter, methinks.

7.  More cheery news. A 25-year old intruder in beautiful Sultan, Washington picked the wrong place to intrude. He was shot dead by an 80-year old woman, who fired three shots into him after the miscreant stabbed her husband. Her son could not have been more proud of mom. Intruders will now think twice about intruding there, he informed a Seattle Times “They’ll come in, look at her and run the other way.” Readers having their breakfast must have enjoyed his account. “My mom hears what’s going on, comes out and sees the guy standing over my stepdad, and there’s blood all over the floor and his guts are coming out.” She ran into the bedroom. “She grabbed her gun, comes out, shoots him four times and kills him,” he added, with a flourish. Justice, American-style. “My mother doesn’t feel bad, and neither do I. He almost killed my stepdad. He got what he had coming.” Just another day in the life of Sultan, Washington.

8. Sound headline advice to “Relationship Confused” from Ask Amy: “Wake up and smell the implications of girlfriend’s intimacy with her male friend.” Yep.

 
9. Boeing being Boeing, state lawmakers thought they needed to give the mega-aircraft builder some mega-tax breaks to keep all those jobs in Washington. What could possibly go wrong? Well, since the tax-incentive package took effect, Boeing has cut its workforce by more than 5,600, including the transfer of thousands of engineering jobs to lower-cost areas of the States. Never mind, say unrepentant legislators. Just think how many jobs would have been lost without those billions in forgiven taxes…

brother_typewriter_pink_210. And finally, best of all. A front page story in the Seattle Times tells all about a youth movement taking over the region’s last typewriter repair shop. After more than 75 years fixing ye olde clackety-clacks, 94-year old Bob Montgomery has sold out. Taking over Bremerton Office Machine Co. is whippersnapper Paul Lundy, a spritely stripling of 56. “I had an epiphany,” enthused Lundy. “What an amazing single-purpose machine.” For Montgomery, stooped and frail, it’s the end of a long, long love affair. He never married. “Typewriters, typewriters, typewriters,” he explained. During the Second World War, Montgomery was snatched from the infantry for the less hazardous duties of fixing typewriters, particularly those at Bushy Park in London, where Dwight D. Eisenhower had his military headquarters. The D-Day landings were planned there. Who knows? Maybe, by fixing a critical, sticky D key on Ike’s typewriter, Bob Montgomery played a “key” role in the mission’s success.

Meanwhile, the new Typewriter Repairman has to deal with the skeptics, the same kind of modernists who sadly shake their heads at me for still writing cheques and using the mail. It’s not about the money, said Paul Lundy. “I am fortunate to be one of the few individuals working on durable goods. How many people get to restore machines built in 1900 or even 1986, and see them come back to life?” Exactly. http://www.seattletimes.com/business/local-business/areas-last-typewriter-repair-shop-to-go-on-clicking/

 

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THE STORY OF THE KOMAGATA MARU

At long last, a formal apology is being delivered in the House of Commons for Canada’s racist behaviour in its shameful treatment of Sikh passengers aboard the Komagata Maru who had the effrontery to seek immigration to the West Coast more than a hundred years ago. Not only were they denied entry, they were subjected to two months of exceptionally inhumane treatment by unflinching immigration officers. While many now know the basics of the ill-fated voyage, the story has many elements that are less well known. I am indebted to Hugh Johnston and his definitive book, The Voyage of the Komagata Maru.

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Just days before the outbreak of World War One, the most direct challenge to Canada’s racist, anti-Asian immigration policies was about to come to a potentially bloody end in the waters of Burrard Inlet. Thousands of Vancouverites lined the waterfront to watch, while dozens of small boats bobbed about offshore for a ringside view. All eyes focused on the Komagata Maru, an ungainly Japanese merchant ship carrying more than 350 hungry and increasingly desperate immigrant hopefuls from India, and the HMCS Rainbow, the only seaworthy vessel in the Canadian Navy.

The cruiser had been dispatched, after the predominantly Sikh passengers resisted a deportation order by bombarding police trying to board their ship with rocks, bricks and other debris. As the Rainbow trained its guns on the Komagata Maru, those on board bolstered their spirits with patriotic war songs from their Punjabi homeland and prepared for further battle. They vowed to fight to the end. The presence of 200 armed militia gathered on the pier and 35 riflemen aboard a nearby police tug added to the tension.

By then a familiar sight to Vancouverites, the Komagata Maru had been marooned in the harbour for two months by a nasty, hard-boiled immigration agent, Malcolm Reid. An implicit believer in a “white Canada”, Reid took the law into his own hands to ensure not a single immigrant made it to shore. In this, he was actively assisted by local Conservative MP and white supremacist, Henry Herbert Stevens. Now, Reid had a deportation order to force the ship back to Asia. Except those on board were not prepared to leave. The looming showdown and potential of armed conflict so close to shore was a magnet for the people of Vancouver. As chronicler Hugh Johnston put it: “The city had taken the day off to see the show.”

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The saga of the Komagata Maru was yet another dark chapter in Canada’s racist past. A complex tale, with many twists and turns, multiple agendas and bitter factionalism, the basic issue was nevertheless straightforward. Among a series of race-based policies to curtail Asian immigration, Canada imposed its harshest restrictions on people from India. Orders-in-council in 1908 brought a complete halt to an immigration flow that had seen 2,500 Indians come to B.C. in less than five years. Though newspapers universally labelled them “Hindus”, almost all were Sikhs from rural Punjab. They proved tough, able workers, finding jobs mostly in logging and sawmills. At the same time, they suffered the same prejudice, harassment and white hysteria as immigrants from China and Japan.

Unlike the Chinese and Japanese, however, who mostly suffered in silence, those from India loudly protested the government’s immigration restrictions.

Arguing they had the same rights as all British subjects, they fought numerous and sometimes successful battles in the courts. In 1914, they took the government head on with the arrival of the Komagata Maru. Organized by Gurdit Singh, an ultra-confident Sikh businessman, the ship and its passengers defied the government’s ordinance that barred Indian immigrants from landing in Canada unless they came on a direct journey from India. No such passage existed. Singh boldly picked up passengers in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Yokohama, before heading to to Vancouver. His aim was to test the ban in court, confident their rights as British subjects would be upheld.

When the ship arrived on May 23, however, Reid refused to allow it to dock. He, too, had a goal: force the Komagata Maru back to Asia, if he could, without a court hearing. To that end, he kept the passengers imprisoned, their ship circled day and night by armed patrol launches. Ignoring instructions from faraway superiors in Ottawa, he stretched normally swift procedures into weeks. And periodically, he cut off food and water deliveries to the ship. At one point, passengers were so thirsty, some licked water off the deck when a small amount spilled from a barrel.

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Their fight was taken up by Sikhs on shore, who provided . extraordinary support for those on board. The Sikhs’ determined Shore Committee raised thousands of dollars from their relatively small community to pay for lawyers, ship supplies and expenses of the charter, itself. They kept up a barrage of pressure, until at last Ottawa over-ruled the obstreperous Reid and agreed to submit the matter to the B.C. Court of Appeal. With nothing approaching a Charter of Rights and Freedom, however, the five judges ruled unanimously that the ship’s passengers should be deported. Worn out by their many frustrating weeks at sea, those on board accepted the verdict.

Yet Reid, sensing Indian plots everywhere, continued to harass them, ordering the ship to leave without provisions and demanding its huge charter costs be paid first. The vessel remained at anchor, prompting Reid to cut off food and water for three more days. When he foolhardily came on board, the passengers threatened to keep him there. A tall, dignified Sikh told Reid: “If you were starving for three or four hours, you would soon take action to get something for yourself, but we have had nothing for three days. Now you are here, we would like to hold you until we get provisions and water.” The action worked, and supplies soon appeared. The passengers fought back again, when police subsequently tried to board the ship to send it on its way, still without adequate food. That battle brought in the navy, and that brought thousands of excited onlookers to the docks.

The hours ticked by. On the HMCS Rainbow, Commander Walter Hose warned authorities there could be heavy loss of life, if he were ordered to storm the Komagata Maru. Finally, much to the disappointment of the watching crowd and Malcolm Reid, the federal government blinked. They agreed to fully stock the ship for its return journey. At 5 a.m. the next morning, two months to the day of its arrival, the Komagata Maru weighed anchor and headed back to Asia. Racism had triumphed.

Tragically, this was not the end of the story. When the ship reached India, British authorities tried to force passengers directly back to the Punjab. When some resisted, imperial forces opened fire, killing 20 of them at an obscure railway depot named Budge Budge.

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And back in Vancouver, bitterness erupted over the role of community informers used by Reid to keep tabs on the situation. Two informers were fatally shot. Shortly afterwards, Reid’s chief Sikh informant opened fire himself at the funeral of one of the victims, killing two worshipers. When Immigration Inspector William Hopkinson, who headed surveillance activities for Reid, showed up at the courthouse, local Sikh Mewa Singh took out a .32 calibre revolver and shot him dead. Before being hung for Hopkinson’s murder, Singh said he acted to uphold the principles and honour of his religion. To this day, Singh is recognized as a martyr by many in the Sikh community.

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