By Cat Rose
“I want you to understand and to take into consideration the fact that the man who stands arraigned on this charge is a Chinaman of low caste,” began the counsel for the defense at the pimping trial of Wong Yuen Jim. “There is a tendency among some juries to convict a man who is a Chinaman largely on the accident of birth; but I want you to forget his nationality and look at the matter in a true British spirit. I believe I can count upon you to do that.”
Described as “a short, thick-set man… with a decided stoop and long, grey hair,” the defendant’s physical appearance belied a ruthless character. Born in China around 1857, Wong—alias Jim “Salt Water” Goon—had had a lengthy and varied criminal career, but for the most part had escaped the long arm of the law. He had left China at the age of 17 and spent a number of years in San Francisco where, it was rumoured, he had murdered a policeman and numerous other people. More likely, however, his decision to head north around 1882 had more to do with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which created increasingly severe barriers to Chinese settlement in the United States. Fortunately, the transcontinental railway expansion was underway in Canada at this time, requiring a massive influx of Chinese labourers and the outfitters, restaurants, laundries, gambling dens, and brothels to support them.
As he told the court in 1917, the 60-year old Salt Water had been resident in the Dominion for the past 36 years, with time spent in several western Canadian rail towns between Winnipeg and Vancouver. He claimed to have worked as a cook, run employment agencies, and been a paid interpreter and “fixer” for legal cases involving other Chinese people—including, in 1924, the Shaughnessy servant wrongfully tried for murder in the infamous Janet Smith case. He was also unusually political. A prominent supporter of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, Goon was a regular contributor to the New Republic, the official newspaper of the Chinese Nationalist Party, and was once arrested for inciting a riot at a meeting of the Chinese Benevolent Association (which exists to this day, at 108 E. Pender St.) One suspects that a significant portion of Salt Water’s illicit income went to funding the revolution.
Named in the press as Chinatown’s “King of the Thugs,” Goon’s luck appeared to have run out when he was arrested for attempted murder in 1915 after a serious assault on a business rival. The victim, Gee Chong, alleged that he had been watching a free fight in Shanghai Alley when he heard someone cough next to him. In the next moment, Goon’s henchman attacked Chong with an iron bar and a knuckle-duster, as Goon yelled in Cantonese, “Strike him to death. There are no police in sight!”
Chong suffered a fractured skull and a broken arm, but Goon and his accomplice escaped with suspiciously light prison sentences. After losing an appeal to have the case dismissed due to an alleged deficiency in the Canadian legal system, Goon was sent to Oakalla Prison on a 1-year sentence. He was out in 5 months.
The 1917 procuring trial that followed was a mere inconvenience, resulting in a hung jury. When his co-accused in the attempted murder case was severely beaten in a rival’s gambling den in 1920, a newspaper article described Goon as a City Police Chinese Inspector, who had allegedly sent the man to the premises to gather evidence.
Little else is found on Wong Yuen Jim following a footnote in the Janet Smith case, by which time he would have been in his late 60s. A Wong Yuen died in Vancouver in 1932 at the age of 75, and is buried in Mountainview Cemetery.
Jim “Salt Water” Goon is soon to be featured in “Alice: A Murder Mystery,” an original immersive theatre experience at the Vancouver Police Museum. Details can be found at: https://vancouverpolicemuseum.ca/vpm/alice2019/