He fought for the future
Bing Wong, a Chinese-Canadian veteran of World War II, reflects on lessons learned from his military service and his business career
When Chinese-Canadian veteran Bing C. Wong thinks back to his days in World War II, his most vivid memories are of the times he stood at the shooting range during training, wondering what would happen when the real shooting started.
“The thing I remember most is saying to myself, ‘I hope I won’t be scared,’ ” he told China Daily. “That thought really bothered me. I told myself, ‘I hope I can go out there and fight, and I won’t be like a coward.’ ”
Born in Vancouver in 1924 and raised on an island off the coast of British Columbia, Wong was 18 years old when he joined the Canadian Army. He is one of the youngest Canadian veterans of the war. In a photo of him taken during guerilla training in Saskatchewan in central Canada, he is standing in uniform next to two older soldiers with a sunny, exuberant smile.
Wong wore a badge on his uniform for his excellence as a rifle marksman. In 1945, he became one of around 80,000 Canadians who volunteered to participate in the attack of the Japanese Home Islands, which was supposed to take place in November.
He was also scared of heights, Wong said, and didn’t know how the commanders would get him out of the airplane once he started parachute-training in the United States. He worried that he would fear the shooting and wasn’t even sure he wanted to go to war, but in the end there was one thing that gave him the necessary courage.
“It was the overwhelming feeling for most of the Chinese at the time,” he said. “Nobody wanted to go out there and get killed, but we had to go to show everybody that the Chinese weren’t cowards.”
Wong said that when he was a child, his father moved the family to Alert Bay, BC. The fishing village on a small island off the northeastern coast of Vancouver Island was the traditional territory of the Namgis First Nation.
“Somebody my father knew went there for work, and he said the First Nations were so good to the Chinese, so my father moved the whole family there,” Wong said. “He said he wanted to raise the children in an atmosphere where there was no discrimination.”
The Wongs were one of three Chinese families in Alert Bay, who made up a “Little Chinatown”, Wong said.
They were friendly with the First Nations community, who were customers at Wong’s father’s general store. They also got along with the families of Japanese fishermen who lived in the area until they were removed to the internment camps under the War Measures Act in 1942. Growing up, Wong played “Cowboys and Indians” with the indigenous children.
“I played the Indian, all the time — they wanted to be the cowboys,” he said with a laugh.
Wong went to the mainland to attend high school at Vancouver Technical School, where he trained as an air cadet. His brother, Frank, was one of the few Chinese in BC accepted into the army near the start of the war and participated in the D-Day landing at Juno Beach.
Having originally wanted to be a pilot or navigator in the Air Force, Bing Wong enlisted shortly before the Chinese were called up under the National Resources Mobilization Act because he heard that those who joined early could pick a branch of the military to serve in.
“Back then, everyone wanted to fly airplanes,” he recalled. “But only the top recruits got to do that. So then, I wanted to join the Armoured Corps, but it turns out once you joined [the military] they got to decide where to put you, and they needed infantry.”
Like many other Chinese in the Canadian Army, Wong was soon recruited to conduct special operations behind enemy lines in Japanese-occupied territories in Asia.
“I went in for the interview with the captain, and he told me, ‘Your Chinese is lousy,’ ” he chuckled. “A lot of the Canadian-born Chinese were like that: I spoke Cantonese at home with my mother, but I didn’t really read or write it, and I went to the regular [English] schools.”
Nonetheless, Wong was assigned to a three-person team with Dan Chan and Daniel Wong (no relation). They were expected to get parachuted together on their missions.
Wong was the team member responsible for handling the ammunition, guns and explosives, which he would eventually be training local guerillas in Asia how to use. Daniel Wong learned to operate the radio and communicate in code.
Chan, who could read and write Chinese, was sent to take a six-month Japanese language course in order to train as a language specialist.
It was because they had to wait for Chan to finish his course that the three were still in Canada in May 1945, when most of the other Chinese in the special operations and other parts of the military had gone overseas.
As the war in Europe drew to the close, an order came calling for volunteers to join the Canadian Army Pacific Force (CAPF), the expeditionary unit that would be sent to participate in the attack of Japan.
The Americans predicted that there would be a million casualties in the attack. Married men, like Chan, were told not to volunteer. With so many of the others having gone overseas, Bing Wong and Daniel Wong became two of the only Chinese Canadians they know to have joined the CAPF.
“They called us the ‘Tiger Force,’ ” Bing Wong said. “We were going to train under the Americans and use all American equipment but wear the Canadian uniform.”
According to a report compiled by the Canadian Department of National Defence, discussions as to how Canada might play a part in the war against Japan had started by early 1944. The documents cited in the report indicate that by September of that year, the Canadian Cabinet had concluded that once the war in Europe ended, Canadian forces should participate in the war against Japan directly in the North and Central Pacific rather than Southeast Asia and take part in the final attack of the Japanese homeland.
That would allow Canada to base its forces in Western Canada in close cooperation with the US, joining the British forces in the Southwest Pacific. The North and Central Pacific were strategically important to Canada as a Pacific-facing nation with connections to the United States.
By the end of 1944, it was decided that Canada’s contribution, the CAPF, would consist of an infantry division possibly reinforced with armour, serve as a follow-up unit to the main operation in the North Pacific theatre, use US Army equipment, be organized along the lines of a US corps and train in the US under the supervision of the US Army Ground Forces.
“We were in an unhappy position,” Wong recalled. “We were what they called ‘replacements’ for the best troops that would be sent first, so we didn’t know who we would be [going in with.”
“I trained to be a machine gunner, so say if the machine gunner gets killed, then I’d take over.”
Despite this, Wong thought he would have preferred fighting in the attack “with the whole group, instead of as a guerilla, where you’re all on your own and on the run from the Japanese all the time”, he said.
“Afterwards we found out it was just as dangerous,” Wong said.
Wong is modest about his decision to volunteer. He said that as a Chinese Canadian, the decision to join the attack and join any part of the military “wasn’t about being brave,” but just knowing there were a lot of things worth fighting for.
“When they called for volunteers, Danny [Daniel Wong] came to me after and he said, ‘Bing, did you volunteer? Being a Chinese, you have to volunteer to fight the Japanese,’ ” Wong said. “Most of the Chinese at the time, of course, we didn’t want to go to Europe; we wanted to fight [against] Japan for China.”
There were also the struggles back home in Canada to consider.
“I really didn’t want to volunteer for the Pacific Force, but I couldn’t let them think the Chinese were cowards,” Wong said. “And if we didn’t fight for the country, we would not get the vote, [and] some of the men who had families in China weren’t allowed to bring them to Canada.”
When the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, Wong was halfway through his training with the American command in Nelson, BC, and was preparing to travel to the States for further training.
“We were very lucky,” he said. “We were going to lose a lot of people.”
As two of the few ChineseCanadian soldiers still in Canada by June 1945, Bing Wong and Daniel Wong also were among the first Chinese Canadians from BC to cast votes in the federal election.
By that time, the BC Legislature had granted the right to vote to Chinese Canadians currently serving in the war as well as Chinese-Canadian veterans from World War I, though Bing Wong’s and Daniel Wong’s ballots were cast in Calgary during advanced training for the CAPF.
Apart from the marksmanship, Wong considers having played a part in getting ChineseCanadians the right to vote and immigrate nationwide after the war as his “greatest achievement”. However, discriminatory attitudes did not end even after Chinese Canadians received these rights.
Wong had considered teaching as a career but decided to study accounting after the war. He had trouble finding a job in a firm.
“I went to one company, they said, ‘ Mr Wong, I think you’re a better accountant than the Caucasian employees I have, but the staff won’t take orders from a Chinese,’” he recalled. “My schoolmates who got jobs tried to get me in, but [the firm] would say, ‘No, we don’t want Chinese.’”
Wong searched for a job for 18 months until a representative from the Canadian Department of Veterans Affairs helped him come up with a better plan.
“They did a survey and said, ‘Mr Wong, there are no accountants in [Vancouver] Chinatown; you’re the only one,’ ” he said. “They said, ‘All those Chinese businesses need an accountant.’ ”
He was put in touch with an injured veteran who was also an accountant who tutored him over the phone since he “didn’t know anything about doing payroll or anything about [starting] a business”, Wong said.
“The other Chinese also encouraged me and brought their business to me, since they knew me well. So I looked after maybe 80 percent of the businesses in Chinatown — I’ve looked after about 200 restaurants.”
Wong’s firm on Pender Street in Vancouver Chinatown is still in the family today, operated by his son. Built on the roots he laid down with the indigenous community all those years back, Wong was elected a few years ago as the economic development designate for the National Aboriginal Veterans Association.
He said he is grateful for his experience in the army not only for helping him in his career but for the education it gave him about tolerance and discrimination.
“I found the army to be very accepting. I didn’t experience discrimination, and they tried to find me a job afterwards, for six months, and got frustrated on my behalf when they couldn’t,” he said. “The army was an exceptional place.”
“When you’re in uniform, you’re just treated like another soldier,” he said.