Powerful Polygamous Chinese

by setohj

Recent news of the trial in Cranbrook, British Columbia of Winston Blackmore, invoking a 127 year old statute which criminalizes polygamous marriages, brings to mind that some of the early Chinese in Canada were also practitioners of polygamy. Mr. Blackmore is a leader of a breakaway sect of the Mormon Church. This sect still carries on the practice of polygamy in which men would have more than one wife, but the wife is expected to have only one husband. Whereas the Mormon Church in its early years had carried on the practice of polygamy but no longer condones it. Mr. Blackmore is alleged to have as many as 24 wives. News reports claim that the current Blackmore trial is the first time the 127 year old law is used to prosecute anyone in Canada. The main thrust of the Crown attorneys is to show that polygamous marriages endanger the well-being of children. I find it also interesting that, as far as I have looked, there was never a Chinese charged with an infraction of the polygamous law of this country. It seems the 127 year old law was created specifically to keep Mormons from entering Canada. Canadians in 1890 appears to be more fearful of a white polygamous arrangement than a Chinese one.

There was one especially interesting case involving a powerful and prominent Chinese merchant and a fourteen year-old Chinese girl in the summer of 1900. The man was Sam Kee and the girl was Soy King, both residents of Victoria, British Columbia.[1] The girl ran away from the home of Sam Kee and took refuge in the Chinese Rescue Home operated by the Woman’s Missionary Society. Sam Kee applied to the courts to have the girl returned to him. He claimed that he was the rightful guardian of the girl. His case and his circumstances to retrieve the child were not unique in the experience of the women running the Home. What set this case apart from other habeas corpus cases involving a Chinese plaintiff was that Sam Kee presented evidence to prove that he had the legal authority to act in place of the girl’s father. Justice Martin heard the case and agreed that Sam Kee did indeed have the lawful right of guardianship over this girl. Sam Kee’s success for custody though was another matter and hinged on the judge’s views on how the applicant’s polygamous arrangement at home would affect the well-being of the child.

Although during the nineteenth and early twentieth century white folks were aware of Chinese men carrying on with multiple wives, Canadian law was never used to stop this practice. At the time, those Chinese who did practice polygamy were usually wealthy and powerful businessmen. Perhaps their access to Canadian law through hiring high-powered lawyers dissuaded anybody attempting to stop the Chinese practice of polygamy. It is also clear that not all Chinese favored polygamy. Other prominent Chinese, in particular Chinese Christians, lobbied against men having more than one wife. In any event it appears that despite their frowning on the practice of polygamy within the Chinese community, the Caucasian population simply grinned and bore it so long as the Chinese kept the perceived repugnant practice among themselves.

White women, particularly members of the Methodist Woman’s Missionary Society [2] denounced, often publicly, Chinese polygamous arrangements but especially those marriages that involved child-brides. The Methodist ladies sometimes even accused the Chinese businessmen of having “slave girls” as their wives. A safe house in Victoria B.C. for Chinese girls and prostitutes was established in 1886 by a private citizen named John Vrooman Gardiner along with the Rev. J.E. Starr, Superintendent of the Methodist Chinese Mission in Victoria. Mr. Gardiner was also a Christian evangelist and a fluent interpreter of Chinese dialects, employed by the Canadian Customs Office. His house of refuge was eventually turned over to the Woman’s Missionary Society to operate under the name “Chinese Rescue Home”. At various times it was also known as the “Chinese Refuge Home” and the “Oriental Home and School”. The eventual change in the organization’s name was likely a result of the Chinese businessmen’s indignation at the pejorative tone of the word “Rescue” which could be construed to suggest that there was something wrong in the Chinese community that requires rescuing. From its inception in 1886 through the early years of the 20th century, dauntless, the Methodist matrons and their staff at the Chinese Rescue Home had it in mind that their purpose was to rescue Chinese girls and women from their allegedly dire situations. There appears to be at least one instance when the staff at the Chinese Rescue Home threatened to have a Chinese merchant charged with a crime under the polygamy law, and he backed away from trying to remove a girl from the Home.

The women at the Home also had the objective of providing for the basic needs of food and shelter for runaway or homeless Chinese girls or women as well as giving them domestic skills and some formal education. There was no doubt the main motive behind this charity work was fueled by a zeal to evangelize the heathen in the Chinese community, who were generally assumed to be the majority of the Chinese. Initially the wards of the Home were indeed runaway Chinese girls and prostitutes, but later the Home’s objectives were expanded to include safe harbour for Chinese wives escaping unbearable domestic conditions, along with their children. In its later years the doors of the Home were also opened to Japanese girls and women.

The Chinese Rescue Home was involved in at least four reported cases of habeas corpus from 1893 – 1900. A typical habeas corpus action alleges that a party–in this case the Chinese Rescue Home matron and staff–is detaining a person against her will and is to be ordered by the Court to make the missing person appear before the Court. In each case, the initiator of the court action was a prominent Chinese or someone from an established Chinese family in Victoria. A Chinese applicant was successful in only one of the four cases. There seems to be a number of other similar cases that involved Chinese businessmen seeking custody of Chinese girls lodged at the Home, but these remain largely unreported or whose court documents have yet to be discovered.

The 1900 case involved the Chinese merchant Sam Kee of Victoria (not to be confused with another prominent merchant of Vancouver known by the same name). Sam Kee applied to the courts for an order to compel the Chinese Rescue Home to bring a fourteen year old girl named Soy King before a judge and have her be returned to Sam Kee as her rightful guardian. Sam Kee had documents stating the transfer of parental authority from the girl’s biological father in China. The Honourable Justice Martin ruled that Sam Kee indeed was the legal guardian of the girl, but the reason for denying Sam Kee’s petition to return the girl to his care was that Sam Kee was purported to have at least two wives. The question of the legality of the practice of polygamy was never raised. But the judgment did consider the pivotal issue of the immorality of the petitioner’s polygamous marriage and how harmful it could be to the moral upbringing of the child Soy King. Counsel for Sam Kee did not contest the allegation that Sam Kee lived with two wives. The judge took this to mean that Sam Kee in fact had entered into a polygamous marriage. He then ruled that the moral and religious welfare of the child Soy King superceded even the legal right of the applicant, a right which was equal to that of the biological father with regard to custody of the child. Justice Martin saw Sam Kee’s polygamous arrangement as living an immoral lifestyle. The judge concluded “that Soy King will be morally contaminated by a further residence under his [Sam Kee’s] roof.” The judgment was in favor of the Chinese Rescue Home by denying Sam Kee his application for habeas corpus.

The Sam Kee trial in 1900 and the current Blackmore trial both share one pivotal issue: the courts’ judgment depends ultimately on the best interest for the welfare of the child. In other words, is polygamy ultimately harmful to the child, or not?

[1] Here, I respectfully disagree with Shelly D. Ikebuchi, Professor at Okanagon College. She opines that the Sam Kee of the Soy King case described above is the same person as the Sam Kee of Vancouver whose actual Chinese name was Chang Toy. Although the two men shared the same English name “Sam Kee,” one lived Victoria and the other in Vancouver. The Sam Kee of Vancouver did live for a short period in Victoria, but he moved to the BC mainland as early as 1876 and later in 1877 moved to Granville before it was incorporated as the city of Vancouver. He eventually founded the Sam Kee business in Vancouver and was operating in the early 1890s. On the other hand, the Sam Kee of Victoria lived in the city of Victoria and never moved out of the city after he first settled in Canada. I intend to dwell more on the Sam Kee of Victoria in some future blog. See Shelly Ikebuchi, From Slave Girls to Salvation: Gender, Race, and Victoria’s Chinese Rescue Home, 1886-1923 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015).

[2] Although it seems “Women” should replace “Woman” in the “Woman’s Missionary Society,” the singular is the historically correct name of this society.