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
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.