Monday, 26 May 2014

Uncomfortable History: Racism and the Komagata Maru Incident

In Canada, we often like to slap our own backs a lot about how multicultural we are, how accepting we are of other peoples. Heck, since 1971 when our government declared multiculturalism a state goal, we've been saying how awesome we are.

Let's not forget our racist, imperialist past. 

Officials board the Maru 1914 - Vancouver Public Library
A hundred years ago this week, Canadians denied a ship load of immigrants because they were not white and they might be supporters of independence in Indian.

On May 23, 1914, The Komagata Maru from Hong Kong carrying 376 passengers, most being immigrants from Punjab, British India, arrived in Vancouver's Burrard Inlet. They wanted to challenge the Continuous Passage regulation, which stated that immigrants must "come from the country of their birth, or citizenship, by a continuous journey and on through tickets purchased before leaving the country of their birth, or citizenship." The regulation had been brought into force in 1908 in an effort to curb Indian immigration to Canada.

Why no Indians in Canada? To quote the 1923 Immigration Act, the desirable immigrants were in these two categories:

a) "Preferred Category": British and Americans, West Europeans. Example: the Empire Settlement Scheme, 1923.
b) "Acceptable Category" (although not "preferred"). immigrants in "sheep-skin coats". East Europeans (Russians, Ukrainians, Poles); South Europeans (Italians, Greeks, Spaniards). If they go West and farm, they will be accepted although considered "foreign", as long as they know "their place".

As a result, the Komagata Maru was denied docking by the authorities and only twenty returning residents, and the ship's doctor and his family were eventually granted admission to Canada. The ship was then escorted out of the harbour by the Canadian military on July 23, 1914 and forced to sail back to Budge-Budge, India where nineteen of the passengers were killed by gunfire upon disembarking and many others imprisoned.

What is rarely focused on in the may sources is the human drama unfolding and why would they even try to come to Canada, knowing they might be turned away. What makes people so desperate?

Baba Gurdit Singh - a nice man who clearly had enough
These were British subjects, but many were under the scrutiny of the British government. At the time in India, the call had gone out for independence. Some men on the boat were members of the Ghada Party. They conducted revolutionary activities in central Punjab and attempted to organize uprisings against the British overloads.

One member was Gurdit Singh. In 1911 he raised his voice against forced labour. He wrote to the Government complaining against officials who forced poor villagers to work for them without remuneration, and when he received no response, he exhorted the people of his village to refuse to be subjected to forced labour.

He's the one that chartered a Japanese ship, Kamagata Maru in 1914 to go to Canada.The obstructions put up by the alien authorities and the hardships faced by its passengers turned them into staunch nationalists.When it was turned back and reached Calcutta, the passengers were not allowed to enter Calcutta, they were rather ordered to board a Punjab-bound train especially arranged for the purpose. They refused to do and many of the passengers were shot dead. Gurdit Singh escaped and remained underground for many years till in 1920 on the advice of Mahatma Gandhi he made a voluntary surrender and was imprisoned for five years. After his release he settled down at Calcutta where he died in 1954.
Why did he do what he did? One quote sort of lets us know:

Memorial in Punjab to the people and to Singh
“The visions of men are widened by travel and contacts with citizens of a free country will infuse a spirit of independence and foster yearnings for freedom in the minds of the emasculated subjects of alien rule.”
~ Gurdit Singh

Monday, 19 May 2014

Perky History: Five Words in The History of Coffee

Let's start with a classic ad that's pure cheese, but it works. I can taste that coffee now!

Coffee is always in the news. Is it good for you? Is it ethical or is it made with the tears of starving children just so you can get a hit before crawling off to work?

What is this great black liquid that so many of us, including me, deeply enjoy? Coffee originated in Ethiopia, but the Arabic world was the first to cultivate and trade coffee. By the fifteenth century, coffee was being grown in the Yemen district of Arabia and by the sixteenth century it was known in Persia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey.

There's a huge amount of research out there on coffee and coffeehouses, but let's just hit five of the historic highlights below:

The Port of Mocha 1600s - world changing bean not pictured.


A type of bean native to Ethiopia and Yemen, Mocha was probably the first to be commercially cultivated. Legend states that the bean takes it name from the port city of Mocha, and that Marco Polo had a few sips in the Yemen port. He apparently bought some and bought them back to Europe. However, this is probably a nice story and that's it. More than likely traders brought it to Europe in the 1700s. Mocha originally did have a bit of a chocolate taste but that was for some stupid reason they bred it out of it. I like a complex note of yum.

Dutch East India Company: 

...or in Dutch the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, (VOC). Wow, no wonder they shortened it. The company was founded in 1602 and did well until they went bankrupt in 1799. When I say well, I mean the biggest global trading empire well. It also played politics brilliantly, and ended up becoming a colonial power in its own right. It was with great reluctance, however they decided to import commodities like tea, coffee, textiles and sugar. Why? Commodities had a lower profit margin than other goods, so they needed to sell a larger volume of things like coffee to make it worth their while. The Dutch East India Company realized that the hunger for coffee and tea was growing in Europe and they believed it would support their efforts. They were right and the company became the big supplier of coffee to Europe.

A lovely plantation Cafe Las Flores in Nicaragua - slaves or heavy labour by crying peasants not shown.
With the advent of so much trade in coffee, production needed to match demand. Coffee plantations in eastern Cuba and modern Haiti were some of the first. Coffee production was established in the island of Saint Domingue (Hispaniola) by French settlers in the 18th century. But this was no coffee guzzling paradise - these plantations were manned with slaves. With the uprising and eventual creating of an independent Haïti in 1804, the French plantation owners, dragging along their African slaves, went to Cuba, then under Spanish rule, to create plantations. They were to be joined by other coffee planters, from Metropolitan France and elsewhere, throughout the 19th century. In the late 19th century coffee production began in other parts of Latin America, such as Brazil, Colombia and Costa Rica. Large scale and intensive plantation production then extended to Hawaii. There's an awesome map by National Geographic of where you get your coffee from today.

Dating back to 1725, 'Sobrino de Botin' is the oldest working restaurant/cafe in the world -
bet your the coffee is awesome.

Lots of coffeehouses existed in the Arab world in the 1500s, but it took another century until Europe figured it out. By 1700, there were 500 coffeehouses in London. Business, like today, was conducted in these houses. The London Stock Exchange and Lloyd's Insurance both got their start in the cafes. In France, cafes were central for the exchange of revolutionary ideas. Camille Desmoulins gave his compatriots a famous call to arms at Paris’s Cafe de Foy, two days before the storming of the Bastille. If coffee can do that for them, what can it do for you?

Khaldi (Kaldi)

The legend and the man behind it is a bit far afield. A humble goat herder in the Yemen/Ethiopia area in the 800s CE, Khaldi noticed his goats getting high on red berries. It looked like fun to him, since he must have been bored to death, and he chewed a few himself. Apparently it was so delightful he started frolicking with the goats. Supposedly he and the local leaders embraced the new bean. More than likely he and other headers knew it would help keep them awake to tend to their animals for a while. But what a nice story of dancing around with the help of coffee!

Goats not pictured - but did the camels partake as well?
Want more? Head over to listen to an NPR interview about the history and impact of coffee.

Good sipping to you.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

These Amazing Shadows: World War I on Film Part 1

Canadian Soldiers being silly: you're going to need a bigger tank
For the rest of the year, I will try to post a topic or issue on World War I (The Great War) as 2014 is the 100 anniversary of the beginning of the war.

This first entry is on the first hand footage available. Thanks to the Internet, there exists a huge amount of accessible newsreels, stills and archival footage from the war 

The reason was not to be fascinated by the dead bodies, but to learn about a conflict that kicked off how we think of war, how we go to war, and how we use technology in war, which I'll argue in a future blog post.

It also cements in my mind that these are images of people who died in the war, who had families and loved ones, or who lived to be old men with the memories of war staying with them. I wonder if politicians watched more of these films if they would be so quick to send men to their deaths?

Personally, my great-grandfather and his brother fought in the war as a recent immigrant to Canada. He also fought in the South African war previously for the British. These archives gives me some sense of what he went though and what he had to do.
From Canadian War Museum, two nurses near the front in France, enjoying a nice day out?
The top five resources I found:

European Film Gateway has a primer on the war, some great links, and a good list of archival footage from around the world and includes both sides. Germany, Spain, Netherlands and British film archives are all listed here with easy to access links. Newsreels, feature films, propaganda, and archival footage are all there.

British Pathe holds an amazing collection of British archival footage, with some material focused on the Germans, Turkish and other nationalities involved in the war. Most are really short clips and you can purchase them if you need to for a course or lecture. My current favourite is actually after the war. The Greatest Pilgrimage 1928 is film of British Legionaries and family members visiting battlefields of France and Flanders. The look on some of these men's faces is of pure desolation.

National Film Board of Canada has released their collection of footage for the centennial. Almost all the films are of Canadian forces, with the bulk of the films covering the actual war. They also have films on training, and times before and after the war back in Canada. A highlight is the tons of fragmentary films of Canadian troops on the Western Front during the Battle of Arras, April 1917. Amid the explosions are so many great moments of warmth and camaraderie of the men in these films.

The Library of Congress researchers have complied a Web Guide to World War I materials, which includes films. This site takes a lot to get through as really it's just a list of their resources, but it's worth the time to go through their archives. My brain felt full afterwards which was awesome.

The CBC Digital Archives of World War I is impressive with clips from film and radio for you to listen to. Most of them have been packaged into actual programs to provide more context for you to watch.

One Extra...

RMS Olympic in Dazzle paint. Not a zebra but an idea for ship camo in WWI

BBC Online has made available interviews with British veterans and civilians about the first World War. These were conducted in the 1960s, and all 13 interviews are amazing first hand accounts, including women who were involved in some way in the war effort, which is a rare thing in archives I've found. One interview made me cry: Katie Morter lost her husband in the war. However - these are only uploadable if you live in the UK but some of them ended up on youtube.

Next time I'll talk about the top five most accurate but also good to watch documentaries on the war. Till then, I leave you with the song my grandma use to sing. She said she learned it as a kid during the war: "Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag"

Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Golden Naked Man and the Blackface Singer: The History of Blackface

This week I've been so busy with working at my library job and taking care of a sick aunt that history has been very far from my mind, until I saw this:

No. I don't care if you're wearing a suit, it's still not cool
This is from the 1927 film The Jazz Singer. Other than spitting out my tea as a man in blackface showed up, the film was quite good. The story of a Jewish man who becomes a great singer and finally wins respect is touching, if only not for the "Mammy" blackface song. Wow.

At this time, sound had just been introduced into film. The Warner Bros. movie The Jazz Singer-one of the first "talkies"-was not allowed to compete for Best Picture because the first Academy Awards committee decided it was unfair to let movies with sound compete with silent films. It did win a special production award, and two Academy Awards for Adapted Screenplay and Special Effects.

They had no problem then with what I consider personally the most bizarre thing I've seen since last week's movie viewing:
Yes I did watch it - sorry good taste, I know you'll never forgive me.
The whole black face thing began way back in theatre makeup. Remember the play Othello? There were no black actors in Elizabethan England so a white guy had to make himself up as a Moor. It was very common in European theatre after the 1700s that actors would put on ethnic makeup for shows. But the real increase in racist characters inflated in the United States, because beating down people you had as slaves is always a good idea. They created the Minstrel shows, where whites would sing African-Irish fused folk songs as black characters. Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice developed the first popularly known blackface minstrel character (“Jim Crow”) in 1830. The shows travelled over to England where their popularity grew.

Yum, chocolate?
The University of Southern Florida has a great special collection online that puts it all in context: why when the movement to abolish slavery was blackface so popular? It states:

"It may seem strange and ironic that abolitionists helped popularize blackface performance and black stereotypes, but minstrelsy tapped into a much wider audience than anti-slavery pamphlets, books, or speeches. Starting in 1832, Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice took his Jim Crow act from New York to London, kicking off a craze for minstrel song and dance. Abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic seized upon this new format, including burnt-cork blackface, to promote the end of slavery. In one of Rice’s songs, the master of a slave named “Gombo Chaff” went to Hell after he died, where he was forced to perform the menial tasks he assigned to his slaves."

One other crazy thing happened before the age of minstrel shows died out: African-Americans performing all the minstrel songs. Unlike the majority of white blackface performers in the 1800s who were born in Northern cities prior to the Civil War, most African American blackface minstrel performers were born after the Civil War and in Southern cities. The differences between white and African American minstrel performers do not stop there. Although the age of urban industrialization brought great opportunity for whites in America, according to Karen Sotiropoulos, “for black Americans, the 1890s ushered in a decade of shrinking possibilities, and artists and activists alike desperately sought any avenue for advancement.

Yup - even Judy Garland int he 1930s did it because this is really how African Americans look.
By the early 1900s, people were still fascinated and watched blackface being performed by men and women, and accounts for the popularity of The Jazz Singer. The singer and actor Al Jolson rocketed to stardom with this movie with his music and face paint, becoming a house hold name. So painting your face like a black person and singing songs was popular up until the 1930s when awareness of human rights and the 1960s civil rights movement began.

If you think that blackface completely died out with the end of segregation in the US, you'd be wrong. Thanks to those "I think minstrel shows are cool" British people, The Black and White Minstrel show (1958-1978) was a singing and dancing show. It was extremely popular, until people noticed that it was really racist and finally made the BBC cancel it.
Because the sequence was the most offensive thing here.
 Unless a performer is doing some sort of historical retrospective, being in blackface is very rarely seen...except in Hollywood and the music industry. The controversy came back in 2008 with Tropic Thunder, where Robert Downey Jr. portrays a Australian method actor named Kirk Lazarus who immerses himself so thoroughly in his role as a gung-ho black sergeant that he undergoes what the script calls a "controversial procedure" involving pigmentation alteration. While I get that the film makers were trying to satire blackface, it still is a creepy thing to watch. Just like people in whiteface, yellowface, redface...sigh.

A dude playing another dude...

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

COOKIE! The History of Cookies

What's a cookie blog without the cookie monster doing it right?
My friend Anne, who is a serious food lover (she hates the term foodie), asked me to write more on her personal favourite desert item: the cookie. She loves the new edgy ones made with no gluten and chickpeas, but Anne also loves nothing more than baking up some perfect gingersnaps for her three kids, wife and anyone else who comes near them. So here you go, Anne, a little doughy history ready to be baked and served with ice cream.

A cookie is a thin, usually sweetened, small cake that is hand held, and can be either crisp or soft. The name cookie is from the Dutch word koekje, meaning small cake. Some historians believe that the first cookies were used as tests, and a small amount of cake batter was used to test over temperatures and the recipe. It can be baked or fried, and is seen in almost every country in the world.

The first record of what we'd call a cookie was in the Persian Empire (modern day Turkey and Iraq) around 600s CE, and made with honey. These cookies were usually only for the wealthy who could afford the flour and time to make these things. We can thank the Muslim invaders of Spain and the Crusaders heading to the holy land for giving Europe a taste of the good life. They brought the spices and recipes needed to improve some seriously boring cooking.

Many cookbooks of the 1400s detail how to make cookies, such as German springerles, or little jumpers, because these cookies rise while cooking. It's a anise-flavoured cookie first mentioned in 14th century, and usually is imprinted with designs or images of horses or biblical scenes with special rollers or molds.

The delicious taste of Christianity.
In Asia, cookies were usually less sweet but still loved. When sugar was first introduced to China from India in the 600s CE, the Chinese went nuts for it and created sesame see balls. It was a sweet dough rolled in seeds, expanded, then was filled with something yummy inside like red bean paste or crushed peanuts. 

Cookies fit for an Emperor...or a 21st century cookie fiend.
The Chinese almond cookie made of course with almonds is similar in appearance to Turkish cookies and also that they are usually dry, crisp and sweet. Another common cookies is the walnut cookie, first mentioned in the Ming Dynasty around 1500. It was considered a cookie only for the palace, but once word and the recipe got out, the common peasant made it with almonds, sesames, roasted melon seeds, cashews or other nuts.

My personal favourite is the chocolate chip cookie.  It has its humble beginnings during the American Great Depression. Ruth Wakefield of Whitman, Massachusetts ran the Toll House restaurant with her husband from 1930 to 1967. One day she messed up a chocolate cookie batch when she ran out of cocoa and put hunks of baker's chocolate into it thinking it would melt. It did not but it tasted darn good. She called it the Chocolate Crunch Cookie.

Ruth Wakefield my hero
She published it in her cookbook in 1938 and got the attention of the Betty Crocker radio show, and Nestle, who asked for the right to use her recipe and print it on their baking chocolate wrappers. Some of you might remember the Toll House cookie name: that was the original name of Ruth's cookies. Ruth originally thought these cookies should be served with ice cream, so do her proud people and break out that tradition.

A huge thanks goes to Sweet Tooth Design, who has done a ton on the history of cookies, and baking in general.

Friday, 2 May 2014

A Nazi in Palestine - The Flat and the darkness of family history

"When we start talking about the past, it is impossible to stop" - Arnon Goldfinger

I just watched the fascinating documentary The Flat on Netflix, which focuses over the life long friendship of a Nazi and Jewish couple. When Arnon Goldfinger’s maternal grandmother passed away at the age of 98, she left a mountain of photos, letters, files, and objects: the accumulated ephemera of a lifetime. He admits that his family was not talkative and they know so little of their family's past except that they came to Israel from Berlin before World War II. Like the film maker, I know very little about the Europe pre-World War II. My area was/is China and Aboriginal studies, so I'm learning only now about European History.

In his grandmother's flat Goldfinger finds a crazy relic: a commemorative coin with a swatskita and a Jewish star on the sides. H reads and finds out from a friend that it commemorates the Nazis coming to Palestine. He finds pro-Nazi papers in the house. This mystery deepens until it drag him into an unknown part of his own history. Slowly he begins to uncover a complex story of friendship despite war. political and racial differences.

To understand the coin, let's go back to the 1930s and the "Jewish Question". Where the National Socialists (Nazi party) had not yet worked out a way to get rid of the Jews in Germany, the Zionists, with their ambition to establish a Jewish homeland and their sponsorship of Jewish emigration to Palestine, had an answer. After the boycott of German Jews of April 1st, 1933, and the introduction of the non-Aryan legislation less than a week later, there was no specific policy concerning its solution. Men like SS Officer Leopold von Milderstein wanted to removed all Jews from Germany and were looking for an easy answer. The Zionist had it. Everyone should be sent to Palestine and start their own homeland - which many Jewish pioneers to the region has already begun. So von Milderstein headed to Palestine to see if this was possible.

Goldfinger's grandfather was Kurt Tuchler, an official with the Zionist Federation of Germany, who traveled with von Milderstein. The men brought their wives with them. As they headed on the train Palestine, they all became friends. Goldfinger finds pictures of his grandparents and the von Midlersteins, just a happy set of people looking mightily at their ease on vacation. 

Some expulsions did occur. A central office for Jewish Immigration was created in Vienna, and they deported over 150,000 Jews. von Milderstein who by this time thanks to his friends, became a pro-Zionist, was told the idea was too expensive, and id not fit with the antisemitism of many higher ups. Despite this he remained as far as documents can attest, to be part of the secret service before 1937. He even hired Aldoph Eichmann and was his first boss. He was promoted to working with the media even into 1938.
But why did the Tuchlers resume their friendship even after the horrors of the war and the Holocaust?

Von Mildenstein was an educated and sophisticated man who found in Tuchler his intellectual equal, Goldfinger proposed.  So the SS officer found no contradiction in ordering the expulsion of Jews in the morning, and in the afternoon having a cup of coffee and stimulating chat with Tuchler, though, regrettably, the Jew would have to go in the end. Goldfinger put the same question to a German scholar as part of the documentary, who answered that perhaps Tuchler needed the relationship more than did von Mildenstein.