From Van­cou­ver Chi­na­town to the world

Ron­ald Lee, 96, a Chi­nese-Cana­dian vet­eran of World War II, re­flects on grow­ing up in the city and later trav­el­ing the globe as a soldier

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By HATTY LIU in Van­cou­ver chonghua@chi­nadai­

At age 96, Ron­ald Lee is one of the old­est Chi­ne­seCana­dian World War II vet­er­ans in the Van­cou­ver area. He’s reached the point in his life, he said, where he gets letters from the prime min­is­ter and MP on his birth­day.

De­spite his age, Lee is an en­thu­si­as­tic sto­ry­teller with a boom­ing voice who can re­call the itin­er­ary of his trav­els dur­ing the war in un­canny de­tail, even down to the places where his air­plane stopped to re­fuel.

He gave China Daily an ex­haus­tive run­down of the des­ti­na­tions he saw af­ter he en­listed in the Cana­dian army and was as­signed to Force 136, the Bri­tish- led force trained for guer­rilla war­fare and spe­cial oper­a­tions in the Pa­cific war against Ja­pan.

“I went to Chilli­wack [Bri­tish Columbia] to train for a few months,” he said. “There were 43 of us in the com­pany. In Jan­uary, we were called over­seas, went across Canada to Hal­i­fax, em­barked on a ship called the Am­s­ter­dam to Southamp­ton [Eng­land], and went to Lon­don [where] we boarded Suther­land air­planes, flew over France and Italy, stopped in Si­cily to fuel up, over North Africa and Cairo, and ar­rived in Bom­bay, In­dia.”

“From Bom­bay we went to Poona, and then Cey­lon at Camp 26, where I trained as a wire­less op­er­a­tor be­fore I was called into op­er­a­tion. Af­ter the war ended, we were sent back to camp, then went back to Bom­bay, to Lon­don [over] the Mediter­ranean, then to Liver­pool where we boarded the Queen Mary to New York, and then we boarded the train to Van­cou­ver.”

“There, in Van­cou­ver, I was dis­charged,” he con­cluded.

Lee’s world trav­els made a big im­pres­sion on him, partly be­cause long-dis­tance travel was rare in those days, es­pe­cially for some­one in his cir­cum­stances. Grow­ing up, he rarely left Van­cou­ver Chi­na­town.

Born in 1919 in Van­cou­ver to a fam­ily of 11 sib­lings, Lee grew up of­ten feel­ing he was “not al­lowed” to go out­side of Chi­na­town for fear of be­ing ha­rassed.

“We Chi­nese knew if we walked down Granville Street, peo­ple would frown at us and try to get us to go back to Chi­na­town,” he said. “Peo­ple in stores wouldn’t wait on us — they wouldn’t even look at us.”

Some­times they even faced ha­rass­ment in their own com­mu­nity.

“Ev­ery Satur­day, the white boys would come to Chi­na­town and stand in a line, and the Chi­nese boys would also go and line up across from them, and we’d throw rocks at each other,” Lee re­called. “Then the Chi­nese cooks from the restau­rants would come out with their cook­ing knifes and the white boys would scat­ter.”

The dis­crim­i­na­tion made the com­mu­nity very closeknit, but also closed off, Lee said.

“The Chi­nese knew we would be dis­crim­i­nated against if we went out­side of Chi­na­town, so we never both­ered,” he said. “I lived with the dis­crim­i­na­tion, but I also didn’t go out­side of Chi­na­town un­til the war came.”

Even his first at­tempt to leave Chi­na­town af­ter the out­break of the war was not suc­cess­ful. In the early years of the war, Lee was one of a num­ber of Chi­nese Cana­di­ans across BC who were turned down at army re­cruit­ing cen­tres when they showed up to en­list.

“When I walked in, there were so many men ready to join, but only one or two Chi­nese,” Lee said. “The of­fi­cer asked me, ‘What are you do­ing here?’ and I said, ‘Well, I want to join the Cana­dian armed forces.’

“See, I was born in Canada and I felt like a Cana­dian. But then the of­fi­cer said, ‘I’m sorry, no Chi­nese are al­lowed to join the armed forces. Please, will you go away,’” he said. “And when they showed me the door, I just walked out and didn’t try to re-en­list again.”

In­stead, in 1941 he trav­eled to Prince Ru­pert, BC, to find work. There, he and some friends opened a res­tau­rant called the Oys­ter Bar.

In 1943, when the es­ca­lat­ing con­flict in in the Pa­cific caused the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment to call up Chi­nese Cana­di­ans into the army af­ter all, Lee re­turned to Van­cou­ver and started on his jour­ney across the con­ti­nents.

Fly­ing half­way across the globe on his first long-haul ride on an air­plane, Lee also re­called see­ing signs of the Ger­man cam­paign in North Africa rag­ing as he flew over the con­ti­nent.

“You could see where ev­ery bat­tle was fought. There were 14 of us on the plane, and re­ally, the whole way from Europe to In­dia we were point­ing and go­ing, ‘Ooh, look at that!’ — or at least, I was!” he said with a laugh.

It is not quite ac­cu­rate to say that the Chi­nese com­mu­nity in Van­cou­ver was en­tirely closed off dur­ing Lee’s child­hood and ado­les­cence. Though iso­lated from the main­stream Van­cou­ver com­mu­nity, Lee said they moved freely to other im­mi­grant neigh­bour­hoods and in­ter­acted with the Ja­panese liv­ing near Pow­ell Street and the Ital­ians on Com­mer­cial Drive.

More­over, they re­tained com­mer­cial, cul­tural and even po­lit­i­cal sym­pa­thies with China, which only in­ten­si­fied with the out­break of the war.

Lee re­called fundrais­ing drives all around Chi­na­town to sup­port the war against Ja­pan in China. Another BC vet­eran of Force 136, Tommy C.G. Wong, re­mem­bered con­stant pa­rades be­ing held around Chi­na­town in his ado­les­cence to sup­port the Chi­nese war ef­fort.

Ac­cord­ing to Paul Yee, his­to­rian with the Van­cou­ver Chi­nese com­mu­nity, the Van­cou­ver Chi­nese com­mu­nity launched a boy­cott of Ja­panese goods and raised $16,000 in war aid im­me­di­ately af­ter the Ja­panese in­va­sion of Manchuria in 1931.

In Septem­ber 1937, right af­ter the of­fi­cial out­break of war be­tween China and Ja­pan, they raised $55,000 for the Chi­nese Na­tional War Fund. Ac­cord­ing to Shelly Chan, for­mer re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia, Chi­nese-Cana­dian youth or­ga­ni­za­tions also held reg­u­lar ben­e­fit con­certs, lec­tures and ral­lies at the time.

The vet­er­ans most vividly re­mem­ber the “Bowl of Rice” cam­paign, which took place in Van­cou­ver Chi­na­town dur­ing the Mid-Au­tumn Fes­ti­val in 1939. At the be­hest of the Chi­nese War Refugees Com­mit­tee, Chi­na­town house­holds and the Van­cou­ver com­mu­nity at large were asked to do­nate the value of one bowl of rice to help Chi­nese refugees, ac­cord­ing to Chan.

Tak­ing place over four days, the drive fea­tured a Chi­nese- themed bazaar, art ex­hi­bi­tions, a pa­rade, dance per­for­mances and a 6-foot rice bowl that helped at­tract more than 9,000 visi­tors to Chi­na­town and raise $25,000 for the war ef­fort. Two months later, the Chi­nese com­mu­nity in Van­cou­ver col­lected $2,500 for the city­wide War Chest Drive.

A num­ber of Chi­nese Cana­di­ans from BC also vol­un­teered with the China Na­tional Avi­a­tion Cor­po­ra­tion as pilots fly­ing sup­plies to the Chi­nese army over the Hi­malayas from In­dia, ac­cord­ing to Chi­nese Cana­dian Mil­i­tary Mu­seum his­to­rian Larry Wong.

Ac­cord­ing to Lee, many of his neigh­bours found the war in China per­son­ally up­set­ting be­cause their rel­a­tives still lived there. Although Lee’s own fam­ily was all in Canada, there were oth­ers who could not bring their fam­i­lies over be­cause of the pro­hib­i­tive Head Tax and the Chi­nese Ex­clu­sion Act of 1923.

Lee said he was one of the lucky Chi­nese who ac­tu­ally had a chance to travel to China when his mother took the en­tire fam­ily to see their an­ces­tral vil­lage in 1931. They ended up stay­ing in China for two years.

“My mother wanted us to know some­thing about China and say to our­selves, ‘Hey, we’re Chi­nese,’” Lee said. “So while we stayed in China we saw where our mother was born, where our fa­ther was born, where we came from, and I learned some Chi­nese.”

But Lee said that it was not un­til he joined the army that he got to ex­pe­ri­ence the world be­yond just his own bi­cul­tural Chi­nese and Cana­dian her­itage.

As a wire­less op­er­a­tor with Force 136 in Burma, Lee would go on dan­ger­ous mis­sions be­hind en­emy lines. While other op­er­a­tives were re­spon­si­ble for de­mo­li­tion, Lee’s only task was to send mes­sages back to In­dia about Ja­panese move­ments and lo­cal re­sis­tance.

“The only way we could get into en­emy ter­ri­tory was to para­chute, and I knew the only way I’d ever be get­ting out again was if the war ended,” he said.

Once at the train­ing camp in In­dia, Lee said he had the “very in­ter­est­ing” ex­pe­ri­ence of learn­ing codes to com­mu­ni­cate with the of­fi­cers and had to com­plete a crash course in parachut­ing in four days.

“We started with do­ing some tum­bling, and later we went up a very high tower where we parachuted down,” he said. “In the same af­ter­noon, they took us up in an air­plane about 1,000 feet and that was our first jump. We did three more af­ter that, in­clud­ing one at night.”

“In the air­plane, there was a line of us with para­chutes on and when the green light came on that meant we were ready to jump. If any­one hes­i­tated, they were pushed,” he said. “But it’s amaz­ing, we never hes­i­tated, we all went out.”

“The minute I went out, I re­mem­ber I didn’t feel a thing un­til the para­chute opened and gave a jerk. That’s when I re­al­ized, I was float­ing,” he added. “In less than 20 sec­onds, I landed. We all made it.”

Lee was at an air­port ready to take off on a mis­sion when news came that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima.

“We waited [ at the air­port] for a few days un­til they dropped the sec­ond bomb, and the op­er­a­tion was can­celed,” he re­called. “They wanted to send us to In­dochina af­ter­wards but we re­fused since we’d signed up to fight the Ja­panese.”

Though he never got to use any of the skills he trained in, Lee is as en­thu­si­as­tic about the ex­pe­ri­ences he had abroad as he is about the ac­tual places he vis­ited.

“I re­mem­ber when we were bil­leted in Lon­don and we would just watch V1

When I walked in, there were so many men ready to join, but only one or two Chi­nese.”

rock­ets fly to­wards us and won­der where they would land — luck­ily, it was never close to where we lived,” he said.

“And of course, it was all new to us and in the month we were there, we would go ev­ery night to Cana­dian and Amer­i­can en­ter­tain­ment ar­eas. As long as you were in the armed forces, you could go in and lis­ten to the mu­sic and ev­ery­thing, have danc­ing lessons. Ac­tors and ac­tresses used to serve lunch and din­ner to the sol­diers.”

Ac­cord­ing to Cather­ine Cle­ment, cu­ra­tor at the Chi­nese Cana­dian Mil­i­tary Mu­seum, the rel­a­tive lack of hos­til­ity to­ward the Chi­nese in Europe would have felt like a re­lief and a thrill to many Chi­nese who grew up in Canada, es­pe­cially in prov­inces with strained racial re­la­tions like BC.

Af­ter be­ing dis­charged, Lee re­turned to busi­ness, again mov­ing away from Van­cou­ver. He did not play an ac­tive part in the as­so­ci­a­tions formed by Chi­nese-Cana­dian vet­er­ans in the re­gion, which hosted monthly get-to­geth­ers and lob­bied the gov­ern­ment for recog­ni­tion of their com­mu­ni­ties’ rights.

Still, he said he feels ca­ma­raderie with the vet­er­ans for hav­ing faced sim­i­lar dis­crim­i­na­tion be­fore the war and sim­i­lar mo­ti­va­tions for join­ing the fight.

“We all thought there might be a fu­ture for the Chi­nese if we fought and none of us re­fused,” he said. “I think my most im­por­tant achieve­ment is con­tribut­ing to [open­ing up] immigration af­ter the war, so that the Chi­nese could bring their fam­i­lies, and the peo­ple from China could come and make them­selves use­ful in Canada.”

Lee said his ex­pe­ri­ence in the war broad­ened his hori­zons in two ways. “The [Chi­nese] com­mu­nity as a whole got to have more op­por­tu­ni­ties, and now we’re in a po­si­tion to gen­er­ate the good things we know in Van­cou­ver. And of course for me, I did so much trav­el­ing, and that helped me un­der­stand the world.”


Ron­ald Lee at the Sec­ond World War me­mo­rial plaque in Van­cou­ver’s Chi­na­town.


Ron­ald Lee dis­plays his ser­vice medals, badge and a let­ter he re­ceived from his MP in hon­our of his 96th birth­day in 2015.


Ron­ald Lee at the Chi­nese Cana­dian Mil­i­tary Mu­seum in 2015.


Ron­ald Lee’s Cana­dian Gen­eral Ser­vice Badge (left) and ser­vice medals (left to right): the Cana­dian Vol­un­teer Medal, the Burma Medal for ser­vice in South­east Asia Com­mand, and the 1935-1945 War Medal.


A por­trait of Ron­ald Lee taken circa 1944.

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