They fought battles on two fronts
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
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@ chinadailyusa.com
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.