They fought bat­tles on two fronts

China Daily (Canada) - - IN DEPTH -

Dur­ing World War II, Chi­nese Cana­di­ans faced ob­sta­cles, such as whether they would be al­lowed to serve in the mil­i­tary, and two prov­inces de­nied them the right to vote. But as the war’s fo­cus shifted to the Pa­cific Theatre, dis­crim­i­na­tion against Bri­tish

Columbia’s Chi­nese be­gan to ebb, HATTY LIU re­ports from Van­cou­ver.

When Canada en­tered the Sec­ond World War in Europe, another con­flict al­ready had been brew­ing at home about the sta­tus of its Chi­nese pop­u­la­tion.

In the days when even Chi­nese born in Canada did not have full cit­i­zen­ship rights, and Chi­nese immigration to Canada was still banned un­der the Ex­clu­sion Act of 1923, there were de­bates in the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, the prov­inces and each branch of the mil­i­tary on whether Chi­nese Cana­di­ans should be al­lowed to serve.

Like many young Chi­nese Cana­di­ans in the early days of the war, Bri­tish Columbia vet­eran Tommy C.G. Wong was ea­ger to vol­un­teer, “but when some of us went to en­list, they wouldn’t ac­cept us”, he re­called. “They said they weren’t ac­cept­ing any Chi­nese.”

Wong and more than 100 Chi­nese Cana­di­ans would even­tu­ally end up serv­ing in Force 136, a branch of the Bri­tish Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Ex­ec­u­tive (SOE) whose cre­ation was re­spon­si­ble in many ways for turn­ing the tides of dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Although Chi­nese Cana­di­ans could usu­ally vol­un­teer in the army in all of the prov­inces, there were vet­er­ans in BC like Wong who re­called Chi­nese be­ing turned away. BC had the largest Chi­nese pop­u­la­tion in Canada at the time, but along with Saskatchewan, it was one of two prov­inces that did not grant Chi­nese Cana­di­ans the right to vote.

Be­cause pro­vin­cial vot­ing rights au­to­mat­i­cally granted the fed­eral fran­chise, this meant that the Chi­nese in BC, who were the ma­jor­ity of Chi­nese in Canada, had no vot­ing rights on the fed­eral level.

BC also was in­stru­men­tal in get­ting the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to place a na­tion­wide ban on Chi­nese and Ja­panese Cana­di­ans be­ing called up to ac­tive ser­vice un­der the Na­tional Re­sources Mo­bi­liza­tion Act of 1940 (NRMA).

Due to the strong as­so­ci­a­tions be­tween mil­i­tary ser­vice, pa­tri­otic duty and the con­cept of full cit­i­zen­ship, there was a dreaded pos­si­bil­ity that these eth­nic groups would de­mand the right to vote if they were called up to ser­vice.

Faced with dis­crim­i­na­tion

In a let­ter ad­dressed to Prime Min­is­ter Macken­zie King, BC Premier T.D. Pattullo stated that this pos­si­bil­ity was some­thing “which we in this province can never tol­er­ate”.

Neill Chan, another BC vet­eran who be­longed to the same unit as Wong, re­mem­bered that when the war started in 1939, he took part in mil­i­tary train­ing for air cadets with the rest of the stu­dent body at Van­cou­ver Tech­ni­cal Sec­ondary School.

“As the war went on, the white stu­dents all went off to war,” Chan said “But they didn’t want [the Chi­nese] since we were ‘im­mi­grants,’ so we stayed in school.”

Chan also got a reg­is­tra­tion to serve in the Chi­nese Na­tion­al­ist Army, but lacked the funds to travel to China. In Van­cou­ver Chi­na­town at the time, both he and Wong re­called, there were many cam­paigns to sup­port China in the war against Ja­panese ag­gres­sion, and the prospect of help­ing out in the Chi­nese war ef­fort was a ma­jor mo­ti­va­tion be­hind Chi­nese Cana­di­ans’ at­tempts to en­list.

Wong re­called that it was only “when the war pro­gressed in the South Pa­cific and the Ja­panese were sweep­ing all of Malaysia, Philip­pines, In­done­sia and Burma, then all of a sud­den the Al­lied forces thought they could use more Chi­nese help over there”.

Mar­jorie Wong (no re­la­tion to Tommy), a his­to­rian of Chi­nese Cana­di­ans in World War II, has claimed that the “nec­es­sary po­lit­i­cal change in Ot­tawa” to re­duce dis­crim­i­na­tion against Chi­nese Cana­di­ans dur­ing the war re­sulted di­rectly from the Bri­tish War Of­fice’s re­quest for the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment to send Chi­nese to serve in the SOE.

In her book, The Dragon and the Maple Leaf, Wong noted that the SOE asked to re­cruit a greater num­ber of Chi­nese Cana­di­ans than were vol­un­tar­ily en­listed in the Cana­dian Army. The Na­tional De­fence Depart­ment pes­simisti­cally be­lieved it could not call up even 150 men for the SOE to re­cruit.

Nev­er­the­less, in the sum­mer of 1944, the Cab­i­net War Com­mit­tee fi­nally per­mit­ted Chi­nese Cana­di­ans to be called up for ac­tive ser­vice. Af­ter 1942, draftees called un­der the NRMA had the choice of serv­ing in the home de­fence or to go over­seas. The ma­jor­ity of Chi­nese draftees who chose to go over­seas were loaned to the SOE in South­east Asia and the Pa­cific, which op­er­ated un­der the code name Force 136.

Their bilin­gual­ism made them suited to in­ter­pre­ta­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tasks. If nec­es­sary, their ap­pear­ance and their Chi­nese-lan­guage skills also made them ideal can­di­dates for train­ing lo­cal re­sis­tance fight­ers in Malaysia and Burma and op­er­at­ing be­hind en­emy lines.

“We were sup­posed to be on a se­cret mis­sion,” Tommy Wong said. “We would have to para­chute into Burma dur­ing the night and meet up with the lo­cal Chi­nese, since we could com­mu­ni­cate with them, and train and or­ga­nize the lo­cal peo­ple in how to re­sist the Ja­panese ad­vance­ment.”

The SOE was a se­cret or­ga­ni­za­tion formed by the Bri­tish Min­istry of Eco­nomic War­fare in July of 1940. Its ini­tial pur­pose was to as­sist in the train­ing and arm­ing of re­sis­tance move­ments in oc­cu­pied parts of Europe af­ter the Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force was driven out of the Euro­pean Con­ti­nent.

Some in­tel­li­gence was also gath­ered in the course of these oper­a­tions.

The SOE in South­east Asia went un­der the code name Force 136. Its pur­pose was to help the re­sis­tance in oc­cu­pied parts of Malaysia, Burma and China it­self. Ba­sic train­ing for the Cana­dian re­cruits took place in Canada, Bri­tain, Aus­tralia and In­dia.

Ac­cord­ing to Mar­jorie Wong, few peo­ple knew dur­ing or af­ter the war

Go­ing over­seas

what the SOE’s pur­pose was. Most of its mem­bers were only aware of their own part in it. The tasks that its mem­bers per­formed were eclec­tic and var­ied across re­gions and sit­u­a­tions.

The Cana­dian media were told not to give pub­lic­ity to the SOE’s re­cruits, and there would be no dis­clo­sure made as to what these Chi­nese Cana­di­ans were be­ing trained or em­ployed in, though they could pub­lish sto­ries about Chi­nese-Cana­dian sol­diers em­ployed in other ar­eas of the mil­i­tary.

When the war ended in Au­gust 1945, Chan and Wong were based in the bushes north of Cal­cutta wait­ing for their mis­sions to start.

The ini­tial re­quest for Canada to “loan” Chi­nese sol­diers to the SOE in In­dia and Aus­tralia re­ferred to the re­cruits as “wire­less op­er­a­tors”. Later re­quests were for men who could be trained as wire­less op­er­a­tors, in­ter­preters, trans­la­tors, li­aisons, pro­pa­ganda op­er­a­tives and mem­bers of “Jed­burgh teams”, who would be parachuted be­hind en­emy lines to per­form sabotage and guerilla war­fare.

Chan was re­cruited into Force 136 to in­ter­pret mil­i­tary com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the In­dian Na­tional Army. In ad­di­tion to be­ing a na­tive Chi­nese speaker, he had learned Ja­panese from friends at Van­cou­ver’s Strath­cona Ele­men­tary School, even tak­ing jiu-jitsu lessons in Ja­pan­town.

Wong was part of another group that trained to be­come gueril­las. Chan later par­tic­i­pated in the same train­ing when he dis­cov­ered there wasn’t a need for more in­ter­preters. There was an ex­haus­tive list they had to learn and pass on to the lo­cal re­sis­tance.

Be­sides parachut­ing, get­ting in touch with the lo­cal Chi­nese and or­ga­niz­ing re­sis­tance move­ments, the re­cruits “had to learn Morse code, how to blow up bridges and de­mo­li­tions”, Wong said. “We learned how to tele­graph, how to han­dle ex­plo­sives, how to use knifes and hand-to-hand com­bat.

“When they would drop us in, we were [go­ing to be] more or less alone,” he added. “We had to train the lo­cal peo­ple by our­selves, so we had to know ev­ery­thing.”

The mis­sions would have brought them in di­rect con­tact with Chi­nese Na­tion­al­ist op­er­a­tives in parts of Burma oc­cu­pied by Ja­pan.

“There was a Chi­nese pop­u­la­tion in Burma, and at the time the Chi­nese Na­tion­al­ists al­ready started or­ga­niz­ing some re­sis­tance groups, and they sent us in there to train them more in the Western style of war,” Chan said.

In ad­di­tion to them­selves, the Force 136 op­er­a­tives brought food, weapons and other mil­i­tary equip­ment for the gueril­las and other op­er­a­tives in the re­gion. They ei­ther car­ried these sup­plies with them, or the planes would drop the sup­plies af­ter the op­er­a­tives were in place.

Ac­cord­ing to Mar­jorie Wong, re­cruits had to vol­un­teer to move to each suc­ces­sive stage of the train­ing and to go on mis­sions. Many did not move onto para­chute train­ing. They could still be in­serted be­hind en­emy lines by sub­ma­rine or act as in­ter­preters for the in­vad­ing Bri­tish Army.

Of the Chi­nese-Cana­dian re­cruits who trained in In­dia, eight had en­tered the field by the time of the Ja­panese sur­ren­der in 1945, and two more were dropped in af­ter­ward. All the oth­ers were in train­ing, and many had formed small teams to pre­pare for their mis­sions.

“The Bri­tish knew it was a dan­ger­ous mis­sion be­cause they is­sued us cyanide pills that we were sup­posed to take with us when they sent us in there, and we were sup­posed to take [the pills] when we were cap­tured,” Tommy Wong said. “The chances of com­ing back were not so good.”

What they gained

Wong es­ti­mated that he was only about a week away from be­ing called to para­chute to Burma when the war ended. He was glad to come home, though he said that the Chi­nese-Cana­dian re­cruits at the time were not fazed by the dan­ger or dif­fi­cul­ties fac­ing them.

“At that time we were there, we made a com­mit­ment to go wher­ever they wanted us,” he said. “When you’re called up and you go ac­tive, if you choose to go over­seas in­stead of stay in Canada [for the home de­fence], then there was no ques­tion of not want­ing to do some­thing or go some­where once you’re there.”

Chan said that the re­cruits in his group were mostly too young to re­al­ize what they were do­ing. Many of the young Chi­nese Cana­di­ans were over­seas for the first time and trav­el­ing the far­thest they ever had in their lives.

“There was just the idea of ex­cite­ment with your big group,” Chan said. “All I knew was that wher­ever it is I go, I’ll have some ex­cite­ment, and that’s that.”

He did ad­mit that al­most ev­ery­one got malaria at some point, and he suf­fered a slew of other dis­eases, in­clud­ing dysen­tery and jun­gle fever.

In be­tween their train­ing, the Chi­nese group in In­dia got to go sight­see­ing. “We saw the Taj Ma­hal, we went to New Delhi and Cal­cutta,” Chan said. “We learned a lot in In­dia. I saw how the peo­ple there lived, did and saw the things In­di­ans did.”

But the most mem­o­rable part, Chan added, was when the group was sent into the jun­gles north of Cal­cutta be­tween the end of their train­ing and the pro­jected start of their mis­sions.

“We didn’t know what was hap­pen­ing, and they were keep­ing us there for the time be­ing, so we just learned to live off the jun­gle,” Chan said. The army supplied only dry ra­tions, so the Chi­nese group tried hunt­ing for food and took turns cook­ing.

“Most of the Chi­nese were good cooks back at home,” he laughed. “We didn’t know any­thing about hunt­ing, though. I re­mem­ber some of the boys took their ma­chine guns and shot a wild boar, and when they brought it back to the camp to be cooked … only about a pound of meat was left in the boar. [The rest] was all full of bul­lets.”

Soon af­ter the Cab­i­net War Com­mit­tee re­versed its stance on call­ing up Chi­nese Cana­di­ans for ac­tive ser­vice, the BC Leg­is­la­ture re­lented to pres­sure and granted the pro­vin­cial fran­chise to Chi­nese Cana­di­ans serv­ing in the war as well as to Chi­nese-Cana­dian vet­er­ans of the First World War, though the fran­chise was not given to the whole eth­nic group.

Upon their re­turn to Canada, some vet­er­ans of Force 136 ac­tively pe­ti­tioned the gov­ern­ment of Canada to give vot­ing rights to the Chi­nese com­mu­nity.

Con­tact the writer at chonghua@ chi­nadai­


Tommy C.G. Wong, a World War II vet­eran from Bri­tish Columbia, at­tends the open­ing cer­e­mony for the ex­hi­bi­tion on Chi­nese-Cana­dian con­tri­bu­tions to the war at the Chi­nese Cana­dian Mil­i­tary Mu­seum on May 9.


Tommy C.G. Wong (left) and Neill Chan are in­ter­viewed by re­porters at the Chi­nese Cana­dian Mil­i­tary Mu­seum on July 16.


Neill Chan (right) with his fel­low sol­diers in Force 136 dur­ing ba­sic train­ing in In­dia in 1945.


Force 136 in In­dia in 1945, with Tommy C.G. Wong at the far left.

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