Victor Eric Wong, president of the Victoria Chinese Canadian Veterans Association, remembers what Chinese veterans accomplished for themselves and future generations of Chinese Canadians.
In 1939, there were approximately 41,000 Chinese in Canada with the largest population in British Columbia. At that time, Orientals and Aboriginals were not recognized as Canadian citizens.
"A few Chinese were allowed to join the military," says Victor. "Most were from provinces where the Chinese population was very small."
British Columbia's premier, Thomas Dufferin Patullo, was strongly against allowing any Chinese or Japanese to enlist for fear they would lobby the Canadian government to give them franchise - recognition as a Canadian citizen with all its privileges. Prime Minister Mackenzie King agreed.
In 1941, Japan attacked the United States by bombing Pearl Harbor. By 1942, they had occupied all of Southeast Asia, which was part of the British Empire. The British government, under Winston Churchill, began searching for people who could blend into these areas and be trained for guerrilla warfare. They looked to Canada as it had the largest population of young men who fluently spoke Chinese and English, plus the ability to blend into the general population of Southeast Asia. Canada reluctantly changed its policies.
In September 1944, all Chinese men 18 years and older were sent enlistment letters.
"We were just out of high school," Victor recalls. "There were town meetings to decide whether or not to enlist. Many people felt if we weren't recognized as Canadian citizens, why should we fight for a country that didn't recognize us? But if we did enlist, then our service would be a positive boost for getting the franchise."
The young men enlisted.
British officers interviewed and selected suitable candidates, on loan to Britain, for further training in espionage and guerrilla warfare. They were initially told they would be going into China. China had been fighting with Japan since 1931 and many of the Chinese Canadians still had relatives there.
Without hesitation, 600 Chinese Canadians signed on for overseas training.
"Six hundred doesn't seem like a lot, but according to population and ratio size, this was very impressive," says Victor.
They were destined for the China-Burma-India area.
Briefly stopping in London, England, Victor remembers, "A group of us decided to look around this part of London while it was still daylight. As we were looking around, an English gentleman came up to us, noticing the Canadian badges (insignias) on our uniforms. He asked me, 'Which tribe are you from?' And without skipping a beat, I replied, 'Iroquois.'"
Victor chuckles at the memory of arriving in Poona, India for intensive training.
"We had to climb a 2,000-foot mountain to get to our training camp. I remember that a few of us, myself included, did the climb without stopping. When we got to the camp, the colonel and the cooks gave us a hardboiled egg and a cup of tea. It was great getting a hot cup of tea because it was cold climbing up that mountain!"
The Chinese Canadians became part of an elite unit known as Special Force 136 of Special Operations Executive (SOE) and South East Asia Combat (SEAC) under Lord Mountbatten. Victor remembers many of his friends going on dangerous missions, and some not returning.
"Then the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, ending the war with Japan," he says. "We had arrived in India in March 1945, and didn't return home until December 1945."
As president of the Victoria Canadian Chinese Veterans Association, Victor is also active in the "Memory Project."
"There were a lot of Chinese fighting in Europe, as well as Asia, but not too many left to leave an oral history or written account of their experiences. In Victoria, some of the Chinese veterans were Harry Fong, Dick Lam, Paul Chan, Gordon Quan. Andy Wong, former merchant marine, was recently recognized as a veteran for working the supply ships. They had a dangerous job dodging the enemy ships and planes to bring supplies to the Allies."
When the Chinese people were officially recognized as Canadian citizens in 1947, Victor remembers it was a wonderful feeling.
"We already had the franchise earlier because we fought in the war and earned it."
Today, Chinese Canadians set their sights high. Adrienne Clarkson was Canada's first Chinese Canadian Governor General, and there have been two lieutenant-governors so far (David Lam for B.C. and Norman Kwong for Alberta), plus numerous members in both provincial and federal governments.
For new Canadians, Victor advises, "You have a lot of freedom. You can be whatever you want to be; to do whatever you want to do; to go wherever you want to go. Just remain a good person, obey the laws and follow your dreams."
Senior Living Magazine is distributed throughout Vancouver and the Lower Mainland
in Victoria, BC and across Vancouver Island.
NOVEMBER 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND
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