British Columbia

Film exposes persecution of Sikhs in early Vancouver, director says

A provocative film based on the real-life tale of two Sikh mill workers tried for sodomy in the early 1900s is making its world premiere at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival.

A provocative film based on the real-life tale of two Sikh mill workers tried for sodomy in the early 1900s is making its world premiere at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival.

Three directors — Ali Kazimi, Richard Fung and John Greyson — worked on the short Rex versus Singh, which makes its debut on Aug. 20 at the film festival. It comprises four versions of the story told from different points of view. The versions range from a sobering documentary to a whimsical musical.

Dalip Singh and Naina Singh were arrested in Vancouver in 1915 as part of an undercover sting operation. In the film, based on court records, they are accused of offering 75 cents for sex to a police detective and a chauffeur at a muddy rail yard.

At the time, more than 6,000 South Asians, mostly men, had settled in Vancouver. Many lived in close quarters in predominantly bachelor societies and worked as labourers in forestry mills along the Fraser River, or did piecework on the railway.

Kazimi said Rex versus Singh shows how police in Vancouver used laws against homosexuality to jail some South Asian men and to discourage others in their communities from making Vancouver home.

The film was commissioned as part of Vancouver Out On Screen's Queer History Project, after several court cases involving Sikhs during the period from 1909 to 1929 were discovered.

"We know that there were more than two dozen cases. We don't know if that represents the totality of the targeting. There is a lot that is unknown," said Kazimi.

"I think for most people in the [South Asian] community, this would come as a huge shock and a surprise, as well."

Kazimi also directed the documentary Continuous Journey about the Komagata Maru incident, which took place only a year before Dalip Singh and Naina Singh were arrested. In 1914, Canadian authorities turned away the ship, the Komagata Maru, from Vancouver's Burrard Inlet. Officials refused to let 376 immigrants from India disembark, citing immigration policies aimed at keeping Canada white.

Kazimi said the Canadian government allowed few South Asian women into the country in those days in the hopes that the men would return to their homeland.

"The women were not allowed to come and they were not allowed to come because Canada did not want any permanent settlement of South Asians, so there were about only about five women who came," said Kazimi.

Rex versus Singh is based on existing court transcripts that are rife with obscene language. 

During one courtroom scene, a chauffeur accuses Dalip Singh of boldly propositioning him in English, although the mill worker could speak only Punjabi. 

The other accused, Naina Singh, testifies the sodomy charges came after he acted as a witness in a case against a Sikh man that police had used as an informant during the Komagata Maru incident.

Gordon Brent Ingram, who researches gay culture in Vancouver, makes an appearance in the film.

"What's so funny about this 1915 trial … is that you can see how hard the nascent municipal government was trying to associate these Sikh males with homosexuality, to the point where they were involved in very aggressive hands-on entrapment," Ingram said.

"Whether the acts they are accused of engaging in actually happened or not, or were they fantasies of the police officers, or whether there was an issue of the arrested individuals not being able to bribe police out of being arrested, those are the great historical questions that we may never be able to answer."

Because of spotty court records, the fate of the two men is not known, but similar cases involving Sikh men in California resulted in sentences ranging from five to seven years.

Vancouver Queer Film Festival runs until Aug. 28.

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