Second World War veterans Frank Wong and George Chow are sitting in the Chinese Canadian Military Museum in Vancouver, on a mission to educate Canadians about Chinese Canadian military history and their long, hard battle for full citizenship.
Born in Canada shortly after the First World War, both men experienced the sharp divide of discrimination and racism. “We were not allowed to live outside Chinatown [in Vancouver],” says Wong, “and professional jobs were not available to us. I wasn’t even allowed to go swimming in a public pool.” They were paid less than Caucasians and white-only rules barred them from some businesses and professions, swimming pools, restaurants, theatres and barbershops.
From 1872 to 1949, those in British Columbia couldn’t vote in provincial elections. Saskatchewan passed a law in 1909 denying the right to vote to Chinese people. Those excluded “for reasons of race” at the provincial level were also excluded from voting federally. In addition, provincial law required pharmacists, lawyers, and provincial and municipal civil servants be registered voters, making these professions off limits.
“I decided maybe if I joined the armed forces, after the war they would give me the right to vote,” says Wong, who served with the Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers as France and Holland were liberated in 1944 and 1945, respectively.
Chinese Canadian military history is intricately intertwined with the march towards full citizenship. So many Chinese brought in to build the Canadian Pacific Railway decided to stay in Canada that European Canadians felt threatened by their numbers. To discourage immigration, a federal head tax was established at $50 in 1885. That grew to $500 in 1903 and was still in effect when the First World War started.
When China entered the war in 1917, Chinese-Canadians hoped for a change in attitude, says retired colonel Howe Lee, who founded the Chinese Canadian Military Museum Society in 1998. It is believed 300 Chinese-Canadians volunteered for the First World War, though no precise official record exists.
Attitudes did change—for the worse. In 1923 the federal Chinese Immigration Act, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, was passed, barring most Chinese immigration. Canadian Chinese were unable to sponsor their spouses, parents or children born in China to join them in Canada. George Chow’s family had to leave behind his sister born during a visit to China.
The museum, located in the Chinese Cultural Centre in Vancouver’s Chinatown, has photographs and artifacts from the First World War, including the helmet of Wee Tan Louie of Shuswap, B.C., who was wounded in action serving with the Calgary Regiment’s 10th Canadian Infantry Battalion. His brother Wee Hong served as a radio operator and driver with the 102nd Regt. Their father had worked on construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, completed in 1885. After the war Wee Hong bought a radio shop but was turned down for a business licence. Outraged, he sent his uniform and medals to Mackenzie King, who intervened to secure the licence.
By the beginning of the Second World War, there were about 35,000 Chinese in Canada, many from families that had immigrated generations earlier.
The Chinese Canadian Military Museum has documented histories of dozens of veterans who served on land, sea and in the air and behind enemy lines—stories Lee is glad to share.
Among the first to enlist was Calgary’s Lieutenant Frank Ho Lem, a reservist sharpshooter who served as a small-arms instructor with the 1st Calgary Tank Regt., and was chosen to be trained for intelligence operations in the Pacific.
Able to speak four languages, K.L. Douglas Sam joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and served in Bomber Command. Shot down over France, he joined the resistance movement, eventually helping to liberate Paris. The French Government awarded Sam the Croix de Guerre Silver Star. He had a postwar career in military intelligence. Flying Officer Quan Jil Louie was killed when his bomber was hit by flak over Germany in 1945. Louie Lake, north of Vancouver, was named in his honour in 1996.
Lieutenant-Commander William Lore joined the Royal Canadian Navy when enrolment restrictions were eased in 1943, the first naval officer of Chinese descent in the Commonwealth. A specialist in signals intelligence, he was the first Allied officer ashore to liberate Hong Kong prisoners of war on Aug. 30, 1945.
Vancouver’s Bill Chong, Agent 50 of the British Army Aid Group, helped hundreds of prisoners of war and downed fliers cross Japanese lines to safety, delivered medical aid and assisted local underground resistance groups. He escaped capture many times, once after being forced to dig his own grave.
Peggy Lee was among dozens of young Chinese Canadian women who wanted to “do their bit” in the Women’s Ambulance Corps.
Major Ross Jung served in North Africa with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. After returning to civilian life in the U.S., he counted President John Kennedy’s family among his patients. On a visit to Canada, Kennedy asked to meet Ross’s brother Doug, one of 13 volunteers trained in guerrilla warfare as part of Operation Oblivion. Doug became the first Chinese-Canadian member of Parliament, chaired the Canadian legal delegation at the United Nations, and introduced the program granting amnesty to 12,000 Chinese who entered Canada illegally.
For many of these veterans, Second World War service gave them their first taste of equality. After being treated “like a second-class citizen” in youth, in the army “they treated me just like an equal,” says Wong. “You have your uniform, you’re in it together; you eat together and you sleep together.” While in England, Chow, a gunner with the 16th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, met and married Mabel Rose who became one of about 45,000 war brides brought back to Canada.
The loyalty, courage, service and sacrifice of these men and women during the war played a large part in gaining full rights as citizens. After the war church leaders, labour unions and newspapers joined Chinese and Japanese activists demanding citizens of Asian descent be treated as equals. The government reviewed its anti-Chinese laws and in 1947 repealed the law preventing Chinese immigration to Canada and gave Chinese Canadians the right to vote federally. B.C. followed suit in 1949.
Though small, the Chinese Canadian Military Museum is chock full of donated photographs, memorabilia and artifacts representing all branches of the military and conflicts in which Chinese Canadians have served since the First World War. Its special projects include the documentaries, Heroes Remember and Outside The Wire and a photo exhibit on MP Douglas Jung. The museum website www.ccmms.ca has biographies and a photo gallery of many who served.
Its current special project is an exhibition, One War, Two Victories, at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa until Jan. 6, 2013. Through photographs, documents and artifacts, it examines the contributions of Chinese Canadians in the Second World War and the struggle for equality at home.