Canadian Genealogy · Canadian laws · Chinese Culture · Chinese Genealogy · Stories of WWII

An uncertain homecoming, Part I: WWII, the Chinese, and the fight for civil rights 1939-1967


[Updated Sep 2023] Like all (Chinese) Canadians, I have been given a gift of priceless value: the gift of civil rights. I have not worked for this gift. I doubt I’ve earned it. Worst of all, I haven’t known who to thank for it, nor how much it cost. I’ve just taken it all for granted – my birthright as a Canadian. This series is my attempt at bridging the gulf of silence between those who paid the price and those who reap the rewards, and work towards a greater understanding of what happened, and why.

As I write this piece, it seems that civil rights are under threat, and so it seems topical to explore this subject through the lens of the Chinese in Canada, from just before WWII to present day. Not too many people know about how WWII affected Chinatown, about the hopes and dreams of those who were called up, or about the sequence of events that eventually led to 1967’s shift in immigration policy from a system based on race to one based on merit. I invite you to come with me as I go back, walking in the shoes of my family, exploring the recent past.

A note of warning before we go: you may find some of the story and the language shockingly painful and racist. I do, too. I suffer few overtly racial insults these days. My thick skin has grown thin from lack of use. What was it like for them, the Chinese in Canada who lived in a world of daily racial intolerance? If your family didn’t want to talk about it, who can blame them?

Background: pre-1945

Cumberland Islander Jun 1931 excerpt showing segregated classes (1)
Segregated classes: regular and Oriental. The Cumberland Islander, Vancouver Island, BC. June, 1931

It’s been a long time since anyone tried to implement school segregation, or corral off the front seats of movie theatres, or set White Only days at the swimming pool, or tell white women they couldn’t work at businesses owned by men who were the wrong colour.

It hasn’t been very long since the law prevented some people from buying a house in the places they wanted to live. If you think this is somewhere far away, think again. This is prewar British Columbia, Canada. Conditions are overtly hostile for all Asians. Reflecting on that time, WWII veteran Private Alex Louie said:

Every one of us wished that we weren’t Chinese. We all asked ourselves, why were we born Chinese? It’s tough.

Veteran Gunner Victor Eric Wong echoed Louie, saying:

I did feel some discrimination because when my friend Darryl can go swimming at the Crystal Pool and I couldn’t go… even in theatres, we were segregated.

US Merchant Navy Veteran Andy Wong worked for the CPR Steamships before the war:

…in those days, if you were Oriental, you were automatically put in the galley. You were either cook, ‘messman’ or something.

The Chinese community actively participated in fundraising for the war, oversubscribing to its Victory Loan quota and distinguishing itself by being the group with the highest per capita contributions. This is even more remarkable given the Chinese laboured under restrictions limiting all potential means of earning an income: laughably subpar wages, laws constricting business locations and types, laws preventing Chinese (men) from hiring white women, capricious Chinese-only fees and taxes, and incomprehensible licensing requirements.

One Bowl Rice Drive, 1939
Fundraiser to aid refugees in China, 1939

Hundreds of Chinese men (and women) enlisted for the war effort. Few were called up, with the authorities clearly citing race as the reason for disqualification. The Royal Canadian Air Force specified their recruits be of “pure European descent”. The Royal Canadian Navy specified recruits be “a British subject and of the white race”. The Canadian Army stalled on calling up the Chinese generally until September, 1944. The government’s concerns were twofold: they feared the consequences of “racial mixing” in the armed forces, and they feared giving the disenfranchised a good reason to claim the franchise. The argument was clear: if they allowed the Chinese to risk their lives supporting Canada in the war, Canada would have to allow them to vote. With the tacit agreement of Prime Minister King’s federal government, British Columbia did its best to block or stall the Chinese from being called up.

The majority of Chinese lived in BC.

For those that made it through the barriers, the sudden shift in status was life changing. Alex Louie was working at the pulp mill before being tapped to work for Britain’s ultra-secret Special Operations Executive (SOE). He said:

…the first day you don the uniform you went down, a bunch of us went and walked down Granville Street. You know, we were just a bunch of rookies, don’t know what we’re doing.

It was quite the feeling.

It’s the feeling of being free. That’s what. You feel like you’re a free man. You’re a free man walking down the street with your uniform and with the active service insignia on your sleeve… That means a lot. People part the way for you, and you just walk down the street like you own the street.

WWII Chinese in Canada
Three men of Chinese descent called up for WWII, 1945

In all, some 400 Chinese men and women from British Columbia served in WWII. The community had been divided on the issue of volunteering for the war effort. Should the Chinese wait for the vote before enlisting, or enlist first in hopes of gaining the vote later?

Remembering the argument, WWII veteran Sergeant Roy Mah said:

…far better, now is our golden opportunity, far better to enlist now, go and serve – prove to the Canadian public, prove to the Canadian government that we are loyal Canadians, that we were born in this country, that we deserve equal rights, we deserve equal status.

And then, when we come back from the war we would have full credentials to demand for our rights.

Mah was optimistic.

Private Wee Hong Louie could have warned him it wouldn’t be as straightforward as that. Louie, a twice-decorated war hero of the previous world war, returned to N. America in 1918 [Update: 26 May 1919] and immediately planned a life of solid respectability. He studied engineering at the University of Chicago [Update: the Milwaukee School of Engineering], and planned to open a business in Orillia, Ontario. Gunner, wireless operator,  Victory Medal recipient, and veteran Louie was still denied a business licence on the grounds he was Chinese. But Louie had survived WWI – he wasn’t going to let something as small as a law get in his way. He packed up his medals and his uniform and sent them to Prime Minister King in protest. To his credit, the Prime Minister responded with an apology and a business licence. He also returned the gifts. [Update: this story appears to have originated with the Chinese Canadian Military Museum. It is yet to be proved.]

WWI veteran Private Louie was lucky. King wasn’t always in a generous mood.

King reviews troops in QC 1940
Prime Minister W.L.M. King reviews military base, 1940

September 2, 1945: the End of WWII

Fast forward 27 years to the end of WWII. The Chinese veterans returned home, to be greeted by silence, and a country largely indistinguishable from the one they’d hoped to leave behind. There were no parades. Canada hosted no celebrations. The proud veterans, mindful of the Official Secrets Act, kept silent themselves. The silence created a deep divide, separating men from their community, husbands from wives, fathers from children, and veterans from non-veterans. That silence extends to today, as most Chinese families have little to no idea of the part their forebears played in the war.

Canada expressed its gratitude towards its Chinese soldiers by giving them a double edged sword. They, and they alone, now had the right to vote, but not the families they left behind, nor the communities who supported them, nor the leaders to whom they looked for guidance. The statute now said:

Members of prohibited groups, if otherwise qualified, allowed to vote if they served in either World War (SBC 1945 c.26).

The men who’d been given intensive military training as soldiers, gunners, submarine corps, spies, wireless operators, and countless other valued positions – who had learned Japanese, who had learned to swim for covert underwater operations, who had attained their pilot’s licences, who could handle a bowie knife and a rifle, who had rebuilt army truck engines – returned to their menial prewar jobs at the laundries, sawmills, fish canning plants, and restaurants.

Iron Chink BC Salmon cannery 1909
The “Iron Chink,” a fish processing machine. From the BC Bureau of Provincial Information, Fisheries of BC, 1910

For the Chinese, the small door to pride and self respect, prised open for a brief time, swung shut. The enveloping silence swallowed the humiliation.

At least they could go swimming. In November, 1945, Vancouver’s Crystal Pool reconsidered its White Only swimming days policy and declared that from now on, anyone could swim, regardless of race, creed, or colour.

Vancouver Crystal Pool 1929
Crystal Pool, 1929. Photo Credit: City of Vancouver Archives; Stuart Thomson, photographer

What they certainly still couldn’t do was travel freely. The Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 continued to bar all but a tight list of Chinese people from entering the country. Those old men that Canada had forced into bachelorhood and exile continued to pine for their families. Fathers died without ever seeing their children again. Maintaining  tight immigration controls was like a cottage industry for the government, overseen by the Chief Controller of Chinese Immigration.

Next chapter: Fight the enemy overseas, then fight the government at home: the missing vote


See the sources for this series here.

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