Zoot Suit Riots

Riots enjoy a prominent place in Vancouver’s civic memory. From the 1907 anti-Asian riots to the 1994 Canucks-didn’t-win-the-Stanley-Cup-again riots, there’s no shortage of interest in this city’s violent past. That’s why I was surprised to come across a forgotten week of rioting during a summer heat-wave in 1944.

American zoot suit riots haven’t been forgotten, and tell an important early chapter of the civil rights story. For young zooters like Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez, the riots were nothing less than race riots: white sailors targeting gangs of young blacks and “Pachucos,” Mexican Americans who adopted zoot suits as part of their subculture. (A recent depiction of the Los Angeles riots can be seen in the opening sequence of the film The Black Dahlia).

An injured zoot suiter on Granville Street.

An injured zoot suiter on Granville Street.

Vancouver’s zoot suit riots weren’t race riots, but since the so-called zoot suiters were Italian and the sailors and their civilian allies were ethnically British, there was a clear ethnic dimension. And given that the zoot suiters claimed the East End (Strathcona) as their territory – deemed a slum district at the time – it had an element of class conflict. According to Alan Morley, writing in the News-Herald, the zoot suiters were no different from “the perennial succession of East End gangs that … Vancouver’s slums have always bred.”

There’s reason to doubt the name “zoot suit” can accurately be applied to these riots. Alan Morley claimed he was unable to find any actual zoot suiters when he toured their alleged hangouts. One of the rioters told a reporter that zoot suiters were dancers, and his group didn’t dance. Yet others insisted they were, in fact, zoot suiters, including one who phoned the News-Herald and threatened to sabotage the paper’s East End distribution if Morley continued to deny their existence. The Vancouver Sun was more precise when, on one occasion, it referred to the disturbances as the “café wars.” Much of the reporting seems to have lazily followed the script from the riots in Los Angeles, Montreal, Detroit, and several other cities.

On their home turf in the East End, the alleged zoot suit rioters were known by the less-than-menacing name, the “Home Apple Pie Gang,” so called after their café hangout at the corner of Hastings and Princess. The sailors, meanwhile, made the Aristocratic café at Granville and Smithe their home base. These two locations were the main targets. Another site was the Manning Pool at Richards and Dunsmuir, where the sailors were housed. East End hooligans lured the sailors into battle one night by smashing twenty-something of the building’s windows.

No one could say for sure how the feud started, but most versions agreed it began one night on Granville. In some accounts, a zoot suiter knocked a sailor unconscious outside a Granville Street café. According to the police chief, it all started with a drunken sailor’s false report of being assaulted. The subsequent police investigation revealed that the complainant’s injuries resulted from a fall down a flight of stairs, not the fists of a zoot suiter. But really, the exact trigger was incidental.

As in other cities with zoot suit riots, the defiance expressed by wearing the suits was more than just symbolic. The outfits were effectively outlawed by wartime restrictions dictating how much material could be used in the manufacture of suits. Stylish youth simply bought suits that were a few sizes too big and took them in at just the right places to zootify them. But just as wearing a hoodie today doesn’t mean you’re a hooligan, drapy pants and zoot-esque suits were simply in style. Modernize Tailors in Chinatown was apparently the place for young hipsters to buy their clothes, but probably very few Modernize customers were members of the Home Apple Pie Gang. Despite evidence to the contrary, sailors and the press also claimed zoot suiters were draft evaders thumbing their noses at heroic servicemen by loafing about in cafés and on street corners causing trouble.

A cherry cudgel-armed "zoot suiter" under arrest.

A cherry cudgel-armed "zoot suiter" under arrest.

The police seem to have been fairly effective in preventing an escalation of violence, all things considered. The VPD was greatly reduced in numbers and relied on numerous inexperienced special constables during the war. But their biggest obstacle to keeping the peace was undoubtedly the military police. The army insisted zoot suiters were entirely at fault and seems to have been only interested in avoiding negative publicity. Any sailors that were picked up were turned over to the military police and probably released shortly after. Zoot suiters, meanwhile, were made an example of by the courts and some were sentenced to as much as six month’s hard labour.

I haven’t done a full tally, but one innocent bystander was knocked out with a rock, and numerous others were injured, including at least one cop, and dozens of arrests were made. Property damage seems to have been mostly broken glass, including police car windows. In all, probably hundreds participated in the riots, which took place between the weekend of 30 July 1944 and 7 August 1944. On some nights, there were as many as 1500 spectators, especially for the fights on Granville when the after-theatre crowds were mulling about. (For the American riots and photos of zoot suits, see Stuart Cosgrove, “The Zoot-Suit Riots and Style Warfare”

5 thoughts on “Zoot Suit Riots

  1. Pingback: Shrek in Vancouver « Past Tense

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  3. While it’s true that a lot of the East End Zoot-Sooters were from the large Italian population that made up the original Van East area bordering and including China Town, we can’t forget the large number of Yugoslav-Canadians who in that same style were an integral part of the Zoot Soot movement and lifestyle. Also, the children of the Jewish and W.A.S.P. families of the Strathcona area played a huge role as Zoot-Soot trend setters. It was the poor of the East Side of Vancouver, once again, leading the the city in what was hip. With the Negro tenor sounds of Big Jay McNeeley, Count Hastings and the honey-drippin’ piano of Joe Liggins leading the way.

  4. Pingback: Vancouver Riots « Shrine of Dreams

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