Canadian Stories · Chinese Culture · The stories of WWII

Equal rights for all: An uncertain homecoming, Part III

This is the third and final part of An uncertain homecoming. Find Part I here and Part II here.

After WWII, the Chinese gained the vote, but waited a generation for the full suite of civil rights. Regardless, there was a feeling of optimism amongst veterans – that having unequivocally proved the loyalty and worth of the Chinese, the recognition and granting of full equal rights was inevitable. They were right. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms held Canada accountable to the veterans (and all Canadians).

It just took 37 years and a baker’s dozen of Canadian parliaments to make it happen.

A flood of firsts

As I look at the decade between 1947 and 1957, it is as though Chinese Canadians burst through the barriers to enjoy a flood of firsts. For most, the BC election on June 15, 1949 would be the first time they were able to cast a ballot. Among the voters was 88 year old Won Alexander Cumyow, the first Chinese man born in Canada. He’d cast his first ballot in 1890, and then waited 59 years to cast the second.

Now freed to live their lives, the Chinese pursued ordinary achievements that were remarkable only because they were being done by Chinese. They attended university, pursued professional designations, ran for election, and were called as jurors:

  1. The first Chinese Canadian juror, Jack Chan, served jury duty in September, 1950.
  2. The first Chinese Canadian architect, Harry Lee, was registered in June, 1951.
  3. The last Chinese pushcart peddler, Wai Chan, retired his cart in 1953.
  4. North America’s first Chinese Lions Club began in Vancouver in December, 1953.
  5. The first Chinese Canadian female lawyer, Margaret Jean Gee, was called to the Bar in May, 1954. (Maggie Gee went on to become a pilot and a nuclear physicist.)
  6. The first successful Chinese Canadian politician was Douglas Jung, formerly Sgt. Jung of Canadian Military Intelligence, who was elected as a Member of Parliament on June 10, 1957.
An uncertain homecoming
Douglas Jung campaign. By Vancouver Public Library Historical Photographs via Wikimedia Commons.

A.R. Menzies could not have been more wrong about the Chinese when he said, “…it was not generally believed that Asians could ever be assimilated into Canadian society.” It seems to me that once the legal system of chokeholds was removed, the Chinese pursued assimilation beyond Menzies’ fevered dreams.

However, immigration was another matter. Even today, the subject of immigration is contentious. The questions earlier posed by J.A. Macdonald and W.L.M. King about the general composition of the Canadian population – who it should comprise, and what values it should espouse – exist today. In the years immediately following WWII, the hot button race was Asiatics. (The term Asiatics as used in the 1950s was often used loosely and broadly, and came to be a metaphor for all non-white, would-be immigrants from India and Asia.) There is a word for the fear of people who are different and unknown: xenophobia. I think Canada has always had a touch of it. Perhaps that’s why P.E. Trudeau  risked revising the Canadian Constitution to give us the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to look at Canada before the Charter. 

1947-1967 – Canada plays a shell game with immigration
Canada customs, 1951. Photo Credit: H. Chu.

The Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 was repealed, only to be replaced by Order in Council (OIC) PC 2115. The name had changed, but the major barriers to immigration remained in place, like a legal shell game where you have to work hard to find what you seek. 

Prime Minister King was clear in his address to the House of Commons in 1947:

There will, I am sure, be general agreement with the view that the people of Canada do not wish, as a result of mass immigration, to make a fundamental alteration in the character of our population. Large-scale immigration from the Orient would change the fundamental composition of the Canadian population. Any considerable Oriental immigration would, moreover, be certain to give rise to social and economic problems of a character that might lead to serious difficulties in the field of international relations.

In his book The Chinese in Vancouver, Wing Chung Ng wrote:

The restrictive nature of Canadian immigration policy towards the Chinese between 1947 and 1967 is indisputable, and the tendency among scholars to gloss over this period of Chinese immigration history is unfortunate.

OIC PC 2115 sought to navigate the tricky legal and political ground of 1950. As a signatory to the UN’s Charter espousing equal rights for all people, Canada was becoming increasingly embarrassed by the discriminatory treatment of its Asian populations. On the world stage, trade agreements with Asia were hampered by the perceptions that Canada was racist. Even BC-based Members of Parliament argued for less obviously racist policies. However, Canada still wanted to control the makeup of its population in favour of British, Irish, French, and American immigrants, and so continued to restrict immigration from Asian countries.

As noted in a 2003 University of Toronto Law school mock trial, lead counsel Novogrodsky wrote:

Until 1962, Chinese immigration was restricted to sponsored relatives of Chinese Canadians; potential Chinese immigrants were subject to Order in Council P.C. 2115 which restricted Chinese immigration to a citizen’s wife and unmarried children under the age of 18. Thus, between 1947 and 1962, grown children, aged parents, siblings, and nieces of Chinese Canadians continued to be excluded from entering Canada.

To me, it feels as though Canada wanted to grow beyond its old friendships with England and form new alliances, but would have to drop the parochial attitudes it had developed along the way. If Canada was going to be accepted as an actor on the world stage, it would have to adopt some of the social compacts espoused by its more urbane peers.

An uncertain homecoming
Canada sits at the table with its UN partners. From left to right: C.S. Ritchie, P.E. Renaud, Elizabeth MacCallum, Lucien Moraud, Escott Reid, W.F. Chipman, Lester Pearson, J.H. King, Louis St. Laurent, Rt. Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King, Gordon Graydon, M.J. Coldwell, Cora Casselman, Jean Desy, Hume Wrong, Louis Rasminsky, L.D. Wilgress, M.A. Pope, R. Chaput. 1945. Photo Credit: Nicholas Morant / National Film Board of Canada via Wikimedia Commons.

Habits and belief systems die hard. Often, they take a generation of external pressure to change course. And so it seems that while the Chinese veterans had proved themselves worthy of enfranchisement, and the Chinese had donated their limited resources to the war effort and proved their worth as citizens, Canada continued to look upon their family members living outside the borders with overt hostility.

The question that comes up for me is why? King had said that Canada did not want to change the “fundamental composition” of the Canadian population, but didn’t elaborate on the specific aspects he felt were at risk.

Unpacking the xenophobia

Fear. We all know how it feels – how it short circuits the higher level reasoning functions in the brain and triggers the body’s primeval decision-making capabilities. When we make decisions based on fear, we are allowing our emotions – our guts – to assume the driver’s seat. Fear is a great driver in a bear attack. It’s not so great at running the country. When I think about that period of time, roughly 1890-1967, it seems that fear shaped many of Canada’s political decisions. Loosening fear’s grip on the brain is a slow process of unpacking: what am I afraid of, and why? Applying that principle to Canada, then – what was Canada so afraid of, and why?

Fear is not logical. It’s quite possible to hold two opposing fears at the same time. When I look at the interlocking web of systemic fears, I see the Chinese being placed in an untenable position in every instance. This is a hard revelation for me, because I was raised with the idea that if we work hard and don’t argue, we will prove ourselves worthy of change. I now realize that working hard and staying silent does the opposite: it supports the status quo. (It is not lost on me that working hard and staying silent does not support a woman’s fight for equality, either.) So what were those fears, exactly? I will offer my list of 10:

  1. Fear of a shift in social standing. Any change to a system that does not equally recognize its participants installs a fear in the group being unequally rewarded. An upward shift in social status is an external recognition of power, and those who sit at the top fight bitterly to keep all the power they’ve got. This is still true, and can be see in any social grouping, from mean girls to old boy’s clubs.
  2. Racial fear. For a century or more, Canada had convinced itself that the Chinese were an inferior race. Having forced the Chinese to live in slums and in extreme poverty, Canada felt justified in accusing the Chinese of being foreign, alien, and backwards.
  3. Religious fear. Canada feared that the Chinese did not believe in, never mind uphold, Christian values.
  4. Economic fear. Those who profited from their ability to pay Chinese workers less – in many cases, a lot less – than other workers feared any change to a system which made them rich.
  5. More economic fear. Being forced to work for low wages made the Chinese vulnerable to criticism from the workers unable to compete, and so while employers feared any changes that would force them to award equal wages, workers feared any group who was willing to work for less. They’re stealing our jobs. 
  6. Fear of criminal activity. As floridly written by Janey Canuck (real name: Emily Murphy) in The Black Candle, Canada worried that the Chinese supported themselves on the proceeds of drug trafficking.
  7. Legal fear. Having put itself squarely between man and wife, parent and child, Canada worried that the Chinese would try to skirt the laws in order to reunite their families.
  8. Fear of civil disobedience. Canada observed the riots taking place in the US and wondered if it would see similar unrest.
  9. Political fear. Having gone to extremes to bar the Chinese from feeling like citizens, Canada worried that the Chinese would feel closer kinship to other countries: China, Taiwan, or the Philippines.
  10. Sexual fear. Canada’s fears even extended into the bedroom: having prevented Chinese men from reuniting with their families, and marriageable Chinese women from immigrating, thus creating an unintended group of married and single bachelors, Canada feared interracial relationships between Chinese men and white women. (The Women and Girls Protection Act, S.B.C. 1923, c.76 was in effect from 1923-1968, and stipulated that any Chinese business owner was required to apply for a licence for the right to employ a white woman.) There does not appear to have been any laws regarding Chinese women and white men.

1967 – Merit, not race

In 1967, Canada enacted Order in Council (OIC) PC 1967-1616.

OIC PC 1967 represents a major shift in Canada’s goals concerning immigration. Rather than judge future citizens on the basis of whether or not they were born in England, Canada now judged applicants on a set of nine objective criteria:

  • training and education
  • character
  • existing demand for their job skills
  • acquired skills for employment
  • age
  • secured employment
  • facility with English or French
  • existing relatives in Canada
  • potential for work in their preferred Canadian destination

The last remaining barrier to Chinese immigration had fallen.

1982: The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

An uncertain homecoming
By Marc Lostracci [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s hard to overemphasize the impact of the Canadian Charter of Right and FreedomsSince 1982, it has been illegal to discriminate based on race, gender, age, and religion. It is illegal to prevent Canadians from a peaceful protest, or from being judged on the company we keep. All Canadians may vote, or run for office. The Charter made many previous laws illegal or obsolete, such as the law requiring the Chinese to apply for a reentry visa if they wished to leave the country. Canadians are free to live wherever they wish in the country, and pursue gainful employment. There is much more, besides. The Charter lies at the bedrock of Canadian law, is a part of the Canadian Constitution, and fulfilled the promise made by Canada when signing the 1945 UN Charter of equal rights and self-determination of all peoples.

For the Chinese, it has been a long road to achieve a simple goal: to be a Canadian, no hyphens, no explanations. The law has dramatically shifted from a web of restraints and barriers to entry, to a bulwark against inequality.

As Marjorie Wong wrote in her book The Dragon and the Maple Leaf:

Some of the veterans interviewed insist, and rightly so, that they are “plain Canadians” without qualifications.

For some, WWII was an opportunity. Alex Louie returned from the war and opened the Marco Polo, a restaurant-cum-night club, where he wined and dined clients with acts from Las Vegas. Said Louie:

I just can’t think of a better life now; I mean I’m contented and see all my grandchildren grow up

 As long as the Charter is in place, future citizens will never have to endure what the Chinese experienced, even if they’re Chinese. We owe a debt to the largely unknown and unsung Chinese men and women who fought two wars in succession: one abroad, and the other at home.

It’s not a birthright, believe me. Somebody paid for it. – Louey King

Douglas Jung said:

…we thought in our guts that unless we did something like that, we could show to the Canadian people, and to the Canadian government that we were willing to work for everything that we wanted, which was no more than the rights of Canadian privileges, the rights that every other Canadian enjoy.

As Supreme Court Justice Beverly McLachlin wrote:

Canada’s legal responses to this multicultural reality throughout its history can be divided into three general phases. The first phase…is marked by blatant exclusion and subordination. The second phase… was dominated by the goal of “equal opportunity”. The third and most recent phase is characterized by the law positively seeking to enhance the equality and dignity of every individual. This has been called “substantive equality”.

Substantive equality. This is the priceless gift passed to us from our forebears.

An uncertain homecoming
Canadian Museum for Human Rights, The Forks, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada ©2014 Robert David Linsdell, some rights reserved, CC BY 4.0.


I have always been curious about the Chinese men and women who volunteered to fight for a country that so clearly didn’t want them. Why did they do it? What did they dream? Was it worth it? What happened after the war? Even as servicemen, they were not Canadians, but “Allied Aliens.” There are relatively few resources available that focus on this particular piece of history. All but a few veterans are gone, and most took the Official Secrets Act to their graves. My family never talked about it, but I know the following members of my family served, and it is to them that I give my thanks:

  • My second cousin, Gnr Poy Wing Yip, K. 10637, Royal Canadian Artillery, Pacific Force
  • My uncle, Pte. Dake Wing Yip, K. 7853, Royal Canadian Artillery / Canadian Infantry Corps, India
  • My father, Pte Wing See Yip, K. 18793, Canadian Infantry Corp, Pacific Force

In writing this series, I wanted to highlight the authentic voices of the day: from WWII veterans to premiers and prime ministers. This turned out to be ambitious – there are few public sources for the Chinese in their own words. I found a poor substitute for the Chinese voice by trolling hundreds of newspapers, hunting for keywords that became progressively more insulting: Chinese, Asiatic, Celestial, Oriental, chink. Along the way, I encountered a kind of wholesale and casual racism for Asians, Aboriginals, and Africans. In other words, at least from a journalistic perspective, there was little interest in news from the Chinese, only new about the Chinese – a systemic silencing of a race. As I have learned from this series, it is only by working hard and arguing loudly that we will achieve equality. This is my contribution to the fight.

If you’ve hung on with me until now – well done! I know it wasn’t easy. What do you think? Did you learn something new? Drop me a line – I’d love to hear from you.


Please see here for the sources for An uncertain homecoming.


Canadian Stories · Chinese Culture · The stories of WWII

An uncertain homecoming, Part II: Fight the enemy overseas, then fight the government at home – 1945-47

Chinese Canadians enlist in WWII, hoping to prove themselves worthy of civil rights, but find not much has changed after the war.

This is Part II of An uncertain homecoming. For Part I, see here.

Throughout this series, I have been thinking about my family, my friends, and the Chinese community as it exists today. I wonder how they feel about our shared history. I wonder if they understand why the old ones don’t talk about the past. I know I’ve pestered everyone around me, asking my questions, my need to know bulldozing their need to forget. For all of you, I’m sorry. I didn’t know what I was asking. I didn’t know how bad it was.

The Chinese who were there now choose to focus on the positives. Said Veteran and Burma Star recipient Dodson Mah:

We don’t talk much about the war because that’s water under the bridge. We talk about the future. We’re interested in what Canada’s doing now. We fought for this country and we’d like to see it advance.

But for those of us who were not there, let me take you back. It’s not so far, as history goes. Just 72 years.

September 3, 1945 – The missing vote

Canada was still not overly motivated to enfranchise its Asian populations, despite their apparent loyalty. The question in my mind is what made Canada change its mind?

John_A_Macdonald_(ca._1875) (2)
J.A. Macdonald. 1875. By George Lancefield [1] Library and Archives Canada, via Wikimedia Commons
It may have been partly due to a shift in the national vision over the previous 70 years. In the 1800s, Prime Minister MacDonald had conceived of a Canada populated mostly by the white sons and daughters of Great Britain. In 1885, at the House of Commons, MacDonald said:

…if [the Chinese] came in great numbers and settled on the Pacific coast they might control the vote of that whole Province, and they would send Chinese representative to sit here, who would represent Chinese eccentricities, Chinese immorality, Asiatic principles altogether opposite to our wishes; and, in the even balance of parties, they might enforce those Asiatic principles, those immoralities . . . , the eccentricities which are abhorrent to the Aryan race and Aryan principles, on this House.

Those words were shocking in 1885, but MacDonald could not have known how the words “Aryan race” would resonate after WWII.

Canada may also have been influenced by getting a seat at the newly founded United Nations (June, 1945). Canada helped draft the United Nations Charter, which reads in part:

Article 1.2 – To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace

L. St. Laurent signs the UN Charter on behalf of Canada. 26 June 1945. Photo Credit: UN Photo/McLain per Creative Commons Licence at

Canada may even have had the grace to blush in signing a Charter that expressly espoused equal rights and self-determinations of peoples while denying those same rights to its own people.

Perhaps Canada finally took notice of the petitions. Chinese associations were joined by veterans groups in lobbying for a review of the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923, and for the right to vote. They would need to continue to lobby for free immigration until 1967.

Canada may eventually have come to recognize and correct its hypocrisy, in time. For example, Aboriginals gained the right to vote federally in 1960 – fifteen years after WWII, a war in which some 3000 Canadian Aboriginals enlisted. Fortunately for Canada’s Asian populations, the push for social change included two veterans-cum-lawyers: Irving Himel and K. Dock Yip. A movement needs its champions. For their remarkable story, see my post here.

Two Years Later: Postwar Canada, 1947

In 1947, the Chinese Immigration Act, 1923 was repealed. That’s the good news.

How did it feel? Veteran Frank Wong said:

Many veterans came back to Canada and were writing letters saying we should have the right to vote. Finally, they agreed and bestowed upon us all the rights enjoyed by every other citizen of Canada. They also rescinded the Exclusion Act, which did not allow Chinese men to bring their wives over. We were quite happy to finally receive the rights and privileges that we should have had all along.

Established Chinese Canadians (the astute reader will note this is the first time I’ve been able to use the term) were now able to bring over their wives and unmarried children under 18 years old. (Did you notice the age restriction? By setting the barrier to under 18 years old, the Canadian lawmakers were specifically excluding the families they had split apart with the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923. The children affected by the Act were now at least 24 years old, and barred from joining their fathers.)

The not-so-good news is that Canadian borders were still not exactly open for Chinese immigration. Canada wasn’t ready to change its mind on that front.

Prime Minister King, May 1, 1947. Photo: Library and Archives Canada.

As Prime Minister King said in the House of Commons on May 1, 1947:

I wish to state quite definitely that, apart from the repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act … the government has no intention of removing the existing regulations respecting Asiatic immigration unless and until alternative measures of effective control have been worked out.

Although the Act was repealed, the immigration machinery ground on. Canada had fought a war against Germans, Italians, and the Japanese, but only the Asians were considered to still be in need of immigration control. There remained barriers to entry and exit. Until 1953, the Chinese who wished to travel outside of Canada and hoped for reentry had to apply for a C.I.9 Certificate of Leave – like a reverse visa – before leaving the country.

As Prime Minister King said,

…the people of Canada do not wish as a result of mass immigration, to make a fundamental alteration in the character of our population. Large-scale immigration from the Orient would change the fundamental composition of the Canadian population.

So, Canada had a problem. On the one hand, as a member of the United Nations, Canada had sworn to uphold equal rights, and had pursued increased economic ties with Asian countries immediately after the war. On the other hand, Canada doubted that it was possible for the Chinese to assimilate at all.

As A.R. Menzies, of the Far Eastern Division of the Department of External Affairs, Canada said in 1947:

(a) the lower standard of living accepted by Asian immigrants challenged the position of established labour groups (b) the establishment of distinct Asian communities undermined the established moral and social patterns of Canadian society; (c) such Asian communities might (have) become a menace to national security in times of national emergency (d) it was not generally believed that Asians could ever be assimilated into Canadian society.

Chinese Canadians begin their takeover… of university degrees

Also in 1947, BC finally granted the provincial franchise to its Chinese citizens. (Japanese and Aboriginals had to wait until 1949.) Besides the vote, Chinese people were now free to leave the laundries, sawmills, and restaurants and practice as lawyers, doctors, accountants, pharmacists, and all other professional designations.

Prior to 1947, the restriction against Chinese had been the voters’ lists, so if you couldn’t vote, ipso facto you also couldn’t be a professional.

WWII veteran Sgt. Louey King said:

Today, nobody questions whether Chinese Canadians can become lawyers or chartered accountants or engineers. Prior to 1947, that was not possible. We just worked in laundries and restaurants.

Next chapter: An uncertain homecoming, Part III: The borders creak open


Please see here for the sources for An uncertain homecoming.


Canadian Stories · Chinese Culture · The stories of WWII

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


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 and immediately planned a life of solid respectability. He studied engineering at the University of Chicago, 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.

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.




European History · The stories of WWII · Women we love

The hairdresser spy: Andrée Virot

Andree Virot
Andrée Virot

This is a story about Andrée Virot, a woman in the French Resistance. She was personally responsible for saving the lives of over 100 Allied airmen who were shot down over Europe. She was the tail end of several escape lines through Europe, and for 3 years, she operated under the nose of the Gestapo.

I wanted to know so much about her. How did she do this? What was it like for her? Who was she?

Andrée Virot was a hairdresser. Yes, Andrée Virot: hairdresser by day, spy by night. This is a fictional story which imagines a night in the life of this remarkable woman whose work impacted hundreds of people, yet is not well know today.

The hairdresser spy

The time is spring, 1944. D-Day is weeks away. The place is a hair salon in Brest, Brittany, the northern coast of France. France is under German occupation, but northern France teems with the French Resistance. The Germans are increasingly anxious to catch them, and the Allied airmen being secreted from house to house as they try to make a home run – a successful trip back to safety in England. These men were called packages. Mademoiselle Andrée Virot is 34 years old, and running a hair salon.

Andrée Virot was standing behind the chair of Madame Dubois. She didn’t like Madame Dubois, but she was careful not to show it. Madame Dubois was insufferable – she was insufferable when she married the mayor, and she was even more insufferable now as a collaborateur – those French who supported the German invaders. Madame Dubois came in for her weekly rinse and set, and her monthly perm, and every time, she’d talk about how charming the Germans were, and how Andrée really should come to dinner one night, being a single woman, and not very young at that. The German commander was quite handsome, she said, and always brought food and wine.

Oh yes, thought Andrée to herself, I would sell my soul for groceries. But outwardly, she was agreeable. Oh, yes, I must come to dinner, she said to Madame Dubois.

Paris bakery line
Line outside a Paris bakery in spring 1945. (Imperial War Museums, U.K.)

Just then, the door to the salon opened. The baker’s boy had arrived with fresh baguettes.
Andrée excused herself, and went to greet him. She paid for the bread, and then told Madame Dubois she’d return in a moment, after a coffee break.

She always made coffee when the baker’s boy delivered 2 baguettes. It was a special occasion when he delivered 2 baguettes, and worth the coffee rations. She closed the door and torn open the small loaves, chewing quickly. Inside one of the loaves, the baker had concealed a note. The baker was a member of the Resistance, and the intelligence hub of the region. Quickly, Andrée read the few words and memorized the code and coordinates. Then, she rolled the note into a tiny ball with her fingers, and swallowed it, washing it down with the last of her bread and coffee. She had been called on yet again. A package was on his way through to England, and she was needed.

When Madame Dubois’ hair was finished, Andrée closed the shop and pulled her prized bicycle from the back. She cycled over to Mimi’s house.

Mimi, or more properly Madame la Comtesse de la Tour de Montparnasse, hadn’t always been an active member of the Resistance. In a sense, the Germans made her into one when they shot her husband – Le Comte – and brought him to her chateau just outside town. It was an accident, they said, and left. An accident.

WWII escape map - Carl Guderain
Map of WWII escape lines through Europe – Photo Credit: Carl Guderain

Andrée tapped quickly on Mimi’s door and entered. When she saw Mimi, she explained that they were needed that night. But of course, said Mimi, and why not? Everyone wants to visit Mimi. Wasn’t this their hundredth visitor? She should throw a party. She’d almost relish going to prison and putting an end to the hiding and lying. Oh, yes, Mimi had a dark sense of humour.

Andrée cycled back to the salon, and Mimi gathered the things she’d need for the package: some food, a change of clothing, and forged papers. They hoped not to be stopped, but if they were, they would say the name of the man they were carrying was Jean Dupre, farmhand. Mimi would pick him up from the safe house that night. No doubt, the family would be grateful to get rid of him and put an end to the desperate danger they were all in.

Until the next time, of course.

Cross of Lorraine
The Cross of Lorraine, symbol of the French Resistance

Andrée gathered her supplies from the hiding places in the salon: medical supplies and bicycle lamps. She kept them on top of the permanent wave machines – those enormous machines with multitudes of wires hanging down. Oh, she’d been searched – many times – but each time had been tipped off, and so each time had arranged for customers to be in the salon. Perhaps that was why she was never searched thoroughly: was it the smell of the permanent solution, or was it the sight of women having their hair done, like modern Medusas? What a woman did to be beautiful, it was felt, should be a mystery to men. And so the German soldiers, most of whom were boys, and many of whom were married, couldn’t bring themselves to stay in this overwhelmingly feminine, intimate, place for too long.

More fool them. Andrée found the flashlight she’d hidden, and prepared herself for the night ahead.

Much later that night, Andrée met Mimi and the airman in the place they’d arranged, and set off. They were headed for a particularly isolated beach, and they were going to drive across the fields for the most part, avoiding all the roads and the check-stops. The airman lay under a tarp in the back of the truck. His leg wound having been dressed, and his clothes exchanged for those of a French farmhand, they were as ready as they were going to be.

When they reached the beach, they all took a deep breath. The most dangerous part of the mission was ahead. They would either succeed, or be shot. Mimi stayed with the airman in the truck, this wounded fighter pilot, while Andrée – or, I should call her by her proper name – Agent Rose – set out the bicycle lamps along the beach and lit them one by one, and then stepped to the shore with her flashlight. The lamplight helped guide the Allied rescue boat to the shore, and the flashlight signals sent the code that assured the Allieds that it was safe to come ashore.

Standing in front of the light, peering into the inky water, Andrée closed her eyes and began the signalling. FLASH FLASH – FLASH FLASH – FLASH FLASH.

She was so afraid.

Any moment, she could feel the bullets from the beach behind or the sea ahead. Until the boat arrived, she would not know if it was friend or enemy.

There comes a moment in the lives of the very brave when they must confront their fear. Confront it, and let it go.

It’s up to God now, said Andrée to herself, and opened her eyes. In the distance ahead, the answering signal of the Allied boat responded.

The package was going home.

WWII Rescue Boat
RAF WWII Air Sea Rescue boat, 1940


Andrée Virot married John Peel after the war, and so became Andrée Virot Peel. (I have chosen to call her by her maiden name throughout this story, for historical accuracy.) After rescuing 102 airmen, she was betrayed, caught by the Gestapo, and sent to die in a concentration camp. At the last minute, she was rescued when the American troops freed the prisoners at Buchenwald, Germany, in April, 1945. She passed away peacefully, a much decorated hero of the Résistance, at the age of 105.

Andrée wrote a book about her life, called “Miracles Existent!” I’m afraid I haven’t gotten around to reading it, as it is in French, and over my head.

I conceived this story for my storytellers’ group in early 2017 with the theme of “darkness”. I have a fascination for shining a light on the untold stories of history. I’m looking for the people who made a difference, and to a large degree, I’m looking for people to whom I can relate: ordinary people, quite often female, who see a problem that needs fixing and proceed to fix it.

French Resistance to the Germans
An unknown member of the French Resistance opposes a German tank – Photo courtesy of the US National Archives


All great fiction hangs on a wealth of factual details.

Andrée Peel. (2010, Mar 9). Retrieved from the Telegraph.

Childs, M. (2010, Apr 4). Andrée Peel: French Resistance fighter who helped Allied airmen evade capture in occupied Europe. Retrieved from the Independent.

Escape lines of WWII. (2017, Apr 17). Retrieved from Escape Lines. A special thanks to Keith, who sent, unasked, records recommending an award for Andrée Virot.

Goldstein, R. (2010, Mar 13). Andrée Peel, Rescuer of Allied Airmen, Dies at 105. Retrieved from the New York Times.

Nichol, J. and T. Rennel. (2007, Mar 16). Escape or die: the untold WWII story. Retrieved from the Daily Mail Online.

Opar, B. Armed with a smile or a dagger: Women in the French Resistance. (2012, Apr 13). Retrieved from Syracuse University.

Special Operations Executive. (2017, Apr 20) Retrieved from Wikipedia.