This Week in History: “Secrets of Chinatown” (1935)

Eighty-four years ago this week, on March 14, 1935, the BC Provincial Police raided the Empire Theatre* on Government Street in Victoria, and seized the feature film playing there: The Black Robe, better known as Secrets of Chinatown.

There was considerable local interest in the picture, largely because it was filmed in a Victoria studio and on local locations. It was one of the so-called “Quota Quickies”–fourteen cheap features made in BC by producer Kenneth J. Bishop during the years 1933-37. A dozen of these films were financed by Columbia Pictures of Hollywood, in response to a British content quota meant to promote films made in the Commonweath. The Black Robe was subject to heavy criticism due to its negative stereotypes of Chinese Canadians, and its depiction of drug trafficking and mayhem by a criminal secret society based in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

In the short span of 53 minutes, the film manages to incorporate such plot elements as murder, kidnapping, mind control, opium-filled duck eggs, a Sherlock-Holmes-like British detective disguised (badly) as an East Indian, a Yogi with mind-probing powers, and a mysterious cult  of chanting, black-robed devil-worshippers—with a brainwashed Caucasian shopgirl serving as their high priestess.

The film premiered at the Empire in Victoria on Friday, Match 8. After complaints from the Chinese Canadian community and from the Chinese Consul General, it was seized on March 14 and re-examined by the BC Film Censor in Vancouver. However, it reappeared for a three-day run at Victoria’s Columbia Theatre** on Monday, March 25. Later in the 1930s and 1940s, it also ran at small town theatres in the USA. A copy is preserved by Library and Archives Canada, and can be viewed online.

*  The Empire Theatre was located at 1609 Government, near the intersection with Cormorant (now Pandora). It opened as the Pantages Theatre in 1914, and is today the McPherson Playhouse.

**  The Columbia Theatre was at 1311 Government Street, between Yates and Johnson Streets.


READ: Black Robe Has Premiere,” Victoria Daily Times, March 9, 1935, p. 20


READ:  “Police Seize Local Picture,” Victoria Daily Times, Friday, March 15, 1935, p. 1


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