The Evolution of City of Tribes
If you survive long enough as a writer you’re bound to come across stories that are, for one reason or another, harder to tell. People confide things to journalists that they would never admit in a court of law. Whistleblowers arrive with the threat of lawsuits or other kinds of censorship or retribution heavy on their shoulders. Just ask Edward Snowden or Karen Silkwood (if she were still alive) and the writers who’ve tried to tell their stories. Assuming the information proves to be accurate and the story is important, the question becomes: what do you do when only part of “the truth” can be told? I once had a business card with the inscription, “The truth is a moving target,” which hints at my approach to complex and controversial tales.
A good reporter will deliver the stuff that’s confirmable and hope to flush out details or a better explanation later. But sometimes later gets lost in the clutter. Vital stories get bottled up and suffocate. Journalists turn blue around the gills because they know something they cannot tell you. Unlike prosecutors they can’t issue subpoenas; unlike judges, they can’t compel testimony. The truth may be “out there,” but there’s no way to prove it. And it’s not just because corrupt public officials, evil tycoons, their unscrupulous lawyers or other powerful people are trying to keep dirty deeds secret. Sometimes there’s just too much history in the way.
City of Tribes – my first adventure in fiction – is a case in point. The story is based loosely on “the Komagata Maru incident,” an ugly, racial confrontation that saw nearly four hundred Punjabi passengers hounded from Vancouver harbour by a Canadian warship in the summer of 1914. There was so much backstory, such a tangled web of hatred, geo-politics and violence—with a very convoluted prelude—I decided to write a novel rather than film a documentary or add another opus to the heavy shelf of existing histories.
It wasn’t that the truth had been censored; on the contrary—Hugh Johnston’s excellent and very readable book, The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada’s Colour Bar, contains all the necessary elements for a clear understanding of what happened. I highly recommend it. And Ali Kazimi’s Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru, is a prime example of creative non-fiction. But having read these and other versions of the story, I still felt that what happened in this city a hundred years ago was too important to be ignored by people who are stumbling through the same racial and tribal minefields today. People who might not take the time and effort to read a scholarly text.
I thought a novel might reach a different audience—readers who enjoy spy stories and tales of global intrigue. People who might not sit still for a simplistic morality play or a preachy lecture. This defining moment in Canadian, British and Indian history has been retailed many times, primarily as a screed about racial intolerance—and that certainly is the heart of the matter. Yet, after so many tellings, the tale has (in my opinion) been oversimplified and reduced to a single focus. The wider picture is lost.
In most versions of the story white racism seems to rise from nowhere and to exist—fully formed—in a vacuum. White people are bad; brown people are good; end of story. But when you try to figure out why people here behaved the way they did, the narrative becomes more complex and far more interesting.
Here’s how I described City of Tribes to my agent when I started working on the book several years ago:
This is a work of historical fiction inspired by events that took place in British Columbia, India, and Hong Kong in the months leading up to The Great War of 1914.
The British Empire begins to stagger under the weight of “the White Man’s Burden.” Germany builds a modern navy to challenge English sea power. Unrest in Serbia pushes Europe to the brink of war. Workers in London, Moscow, Paris, and Vancouver trigger a wave of strikes, riots and sabotage. Robber barons fight back with goon squads and gangs of cheap foreign labour. Class warfare and tribalism sweep the earth like serial plagues.
In the spring of 1914 on Canada’s west coast Charlie Patterson, disillusioned veteran of the Boer War, formerly of the Northwest Mounted Police, and now a Vancouver city police inspector looking forward to retirement, investigates Bolshevik agents believed to be active in local labour unions. Charlie feels under educated and overwhelmed. He doesn’t like his job anymore. He will soon be diverted to a new assignment involving clandestine cells of nationalist rebels from Delhi and Calcutta, covertly active in Vancouver, plotting to throw the British out of India. Only a budding love affair with Marie O’Grady keeps Charlie from quitting the force and drifting home to Alberta.
In Calcutta, 28-year-old Inspector Kip Henley hustles out of police headquarters with a list of intelligence targets, members of a secret organization known as the Ghadr Party. The dark-skinned son of an English soldier and a Hindu mother, Henley is tasked by the British Secret Service to infiltrate the East Indian community in Vancouver and do whatever he can to stop the terrorists. The dangerous mission might also prevent Kip’s marriage to his boss’s daughter, Lucinda Wessington.
A rusty tramp steamer called the Komagata Maru, three weeks out of Hong Kong, rounds Brockton Point and drops anchor in Vancouver’s Coal Harbour. A kinetic crowd of 376 Indian nationals, primarily Punjabi Sikhs, surges against the ship’s railing. Poor, unemployed, many of them veterans of the British Indian Army, these passengers have gambled their meagre life savings to chase a dream. They stare at this smoky young city on the edge of a dark forest and wonder what’s next.
The man who brought them here, Gurdit Singh, grey-bearded, turbaned and regal at 54, stalks from the door of his private cabin across the main deck to see what Canadian authorities will do. An experienced and successful entrepreneur based in Singapore, Gurdit has bought and sold lumber from Vancouver for years. This time, however, things will be different. Canadian authorities are determined to stop all immigration from India. Gurdit steels himself for an ugly confrontation. Thus begins an eight-week siege.
And thus begins my own experiment with fictional storytelling. Timelines have been altered and slightly compressed; real incidents and public figures are blended with fictional characters and imaginary dialogue. Because no single character in real life saw or experienced the whole sordid mess firsthand, I had to invent one—several, actually—who did. I needed characters with feet in many camps. Characters who would link events of the recent past with the moment of the ship’s arrival. I wanted to put myself on the streets of Vancouver in that turbulent summer of 1914 and imagine what motivated people here to do what they did. The Komagata Maru did not sail into a void; there was a context. Ugly and brutal things had been building up for years. The trouble in Vancouver had as much to do with class warfare and world politics as it did race.
Because there was such a tangled web of conflict that came before and so much more that came after—murders, revenge killings, a massacre—it’s hard for any writer to know where to begin or end the telling. It’s impossible to find “the whole truth” because there are so many things we can never know for sure.
What parts can you safely ignore or fairly leave out? With all the animosities, rivalries and feuds that developed—some of which plague the city of Vancouver and its East Indian communities to this day—it’s a challenge to weave the disparate strands together. But in the end, if even a few people who’d never heard this story before take the time to read it and see the parallels to things happening all over the world, then my first experiment with fiction will have been a success.
Postscript: How did I become aware of the Komagata Maru story myself? Funny you should ask. In the late 1970s, while working for CBC News in Vancouver, I was invited to lunch one day at the Board of Trade by a well-known immigration lawyer named John Taylor. I had interviewed the man a number of times when he represented an Irish fugitive arrested by the RCMP and implicated in a gun-running plot for the IRA. Taylor was trying to stop Canadian immigration authorities from deporting his client to face trial in the United Kingdom.
At lunch I assumed we’d be talking about this infamous client—known to the British tabloids as “The Fox.” But no—when the soup and salad arrived Taylor asked instead whether I’d ever heard of the Komagata Maru incident. I said, yes, actually, I’d recently read the first edition of Hugh Johnston’s book, so I was definitely aware of the story. Then he told me about his father’s personal involvement.
It turns out his dad was Fred “Cyclone” Taylor, a Stanley Cup-winning hockey superstar for the Ottawa Senators who could skate backward faster than most ordinary mortals could skate forward. In the early 1900s few hockey clubs earned enough money to pay their players a livable wage, so many of the guys had day jobs. Cyclone Taylor’s day job in Ottawa was as an agent for the Dominion of Canada’s Immigration Branch.
When he transferred to the Vancouver Millionaires in November 1912, Cyclone insisted on taking his day job with him. Thus he was working for Immigration when the Komagata Maru arrived here in the summer of 1914. What’s more, Taylor was a member of the ill-fated boarding party of immigration agents and city cops sent under cover of darkness to re-gain control of the ship after angry Sikh passengers had taken the crew hostage. The night ended in disgrace and bloody defeat for the men in blue.
As John Taylor finally ordered coffee I couldn’t help wondering what the family dynamic had been. A famous hockey-player dad works for Immigration during one its darkest hours and his son John makes a career as a lawyer fighting Immigration. How did that work out? I wanted to hear more but the conversation took a turn I hadn’t seen coming. Did I think the Komagata Maru story would make a good movie, he asked.
Absolutely, I said. But I doubted it could happen because it would cost a ton of money to recreate the Vancouver waterfront circa 1914 and Canadian film budgets in the 1970s were way too thin for such grand ambitions. This, of course, was before the dawn of modern CGI—computer-generated imagery. Now anything’s possible and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. But I digress…
John Taylor offered Jerry Thompson a contract to write a screenplay of the Komagata Maru story. He urged me not to worry so much about the money, he could probably raise the funding somewhere. This was back when financing movies in Canada generated huge tax write-offs, so all kinds of people were becoming executive producers and instant filmmakers—with predictable results.
Since I was only a journalist, not a screenwriter, I needed and got help from a CBC colleague named Hugh Beard who was at the time executive producer of the long-running drama series, The Beachcombers. I booked time off work (by then I was a field producer for a current affairs program called ‘the fifth estate’ – Canada’s answer to 60 Minutes) and rented a room at the Pacific Palisades on Robson Street. If memory serves, Hugh and I bashed out close to two hundred pages in about a week. With a manual typewriter, no less. No laptops back in those days.
We came up with a potential solution to the financing problem as well: we transferred the storyline from 1914 to modern time. After the fall of Saigon in April 1975 and the American withdrawal from Vietnam, thousands of “boat people” began to flee the country. Desperate refugees fearing a Communist onslaught crossed the South China Sea in rickety boats arriving at camps in Hong Kong and elsewhere. The exodus was in the news day after day.
One night, half asleep, my cluttered mind merged the two stories: a bunch of refugees—imagine they are Sikh freedom fighters trying to escape India’s crackdown on terrorism—cram themselves into an old tramp steamer and sail halfway round the world arriving unannounced in Vancouver harbour. They insist they are fleeing murderous political oppression and ask for asylum in Canada. What would happen? Would Canada let them in? Or send them packing same as last time?
Long story short: John Taylor paid me and Hugh for our hasty first draft (I shudder to think what a sloppy mess it must have been), but the film was never made. That was thirty-plus years ago and while several other filmmakers have also tried to make a movie about the Komagata Maru, thus far no one has pulled it off. Perhaps the folks who pass out money for script development and film financing think it’s still too expensive. Or controversial. But it’s such an amazing story. And it’s still out there.