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‘We used to be brave’: Victoria’s Chinese Canadian soldiers tell of struggle, racism and honour in the war efforts
It’s 1944, and Gordon Quan is trekking through the South East Asian jungle with his infantry division. He is surrounded by snakes, snipers, disease, poisonous plants, bombs and man-made death traps. He has seen comrades die. At any moment, he knows, he could be next, but he doesn’t think about this. He pushes through giant leaves and slops through thick swamps with his pistol and grenades in hand.
Quan is fighting for the Canadian Army — an army that cast Quan and other Chinese Canadians aside for the war efforts until nearly the last moment, when men were running out and troops were losing ground in the Asian environment. Later, historians would call this move “overt racism.” They would also call it a suicide mission. For many, it was. But Quan is 18 years old and proud. He is finally living his dream: to fight for his country.
Friends to the end
“We used to be brave back then,” says Quan with a laugh, and his brown eyes sparkle with the mischievousness and innocence of a little boy. “We fought so long to be part of the war effort, that when Canada finally wanted us on her side, we accepted the honour.”
Quan is 85 now and lives in an independent seniors home, but his life is still dominated by his dedication to military veterans, like himself. His life-long best friend Andrew Wong, 86, is one of those veterans.
With Remembrance Day around the corner and poppy sales kicking off well before Nov. 11, Quan and Wong have another heavy mission in front of them: to make sure we never forget. The two are a dying breed. Of all the members of the Canadian and Chinese Veterans Associations, only a handful still survive who fought and made it through the Second World War — without later succumbing to injuries and cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — to tell the tales. And Quan and Wong are perhaps the only set of Chinese Canadian soldiers who grew up through the effort and remain close, even today.
The two men chuckle as they tell their stories, about how they both grew up in Victoria back when Hillside Road was “the dead end of town” and Mayfair Mall was an old brick factory. They resided in the north end of the city, near Princess Avenue, where most of the Chinese were “welcome” back then. From the time they were in elementary school, the boys were fervent about the war efforts. At age 11, they would sneak around and pour tar on pieces of scrap metal to prevent the government from being able to send it off to Japan for weapon creation — something they saw as damaging for Canada.
“When we were young, there was still discrimination. We weren’t allowed to go to the same schools or swim in the same public pools,” says Wong. “It was no surprise that we weren’t allowed to fight for Canada. They didn’t want us; they didn’t trust us.”
But as the war drew to what would become its end, Quan and Wong did get their chance. Wong signed up to join air cadets at age 16, and then the merchant navy as soon as he was out of high school. Meanwhile, Quan volunteered to go overseas, but was first drafted into the British army — as were many Chinese Canadians — before being accepted into the Canadian infantry division.
“By that point in the war, it was hard to find any new recruits. They wanted anybody, and it was finally our chance,” says Quan, who was later discharged in 1946 as the war drew to a close. “When we came back, I think everything had changed. Suddenly, they recognized us. We could vote. It was quite something.”
A new beginning
History books have long recorded that it was the efforts of Chinese-Canadian veterans that paved the rights for many immigrants and Canadian-born Chinese today. But Quan and Wong’s stories don’t stop at a symbolic military involvement — they used their positions as jumping points for even greater change.
After Quan’s time in the South East Asia Command Force, he came back to B.C. highly decorated and earning countless honours, including the Elizabeth II Medal, Canadian Volunteer Service Medal, Burma Star Medal and the Order of Military Merit of Canada, among others. He put his training to use (having earned the title of Royal Canadian Mechanical Engineer) and worked as the mechanical foreman for the City of Victoria for 20 years. He achieved status as a military reservist in 1952, and later as a service member in the 11th Victoria Service Battalion. Quan is now a lifetime member of the Royal Canadian Legion Britannia Branch 7, the Victoria Chinese Veterans Association and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. He is also a founding member of the Chinese Canadian Military Museum Society and boasts that he has attended every Remembrance Day service in Victoria and Saanich for the last 60 years. As a Sergeant Major, he has also lead the parade and poppy campaign.
“We did the dirty work,” says Quan. “So many back then settled for little pay — barely more than $1 a day — and little food — maybe a bowl of rice — to do the hardest job. And we were honoured to do it. But when you’re 18, you don’t know any better, anyway.”
On the other side, Wong was making his own waves. A long-time swimmer, Wong came back from the war effort decorated and successfully challenged the rule that Asians were not allowed to swim at Crystal Pool.
“I was in my 20s the first time I went to Crystal Pool, during the war,” Wong says. “They told me, ‘We can’t allow you in,’ and I showed them my military status and said I was a merchant marine, and finally they let me in.”
From there, Wong became a Red Cross Water Safety Instructor in 1950, and eventually approached the Chinatown Lion’s Club to set up a swimming program for youth — what would later become the Lion’s Swim. He became a member of the Royal Life Saving Society, and also joined the Victoria Chinese Veterans Association, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and other veterans groups.
The honour of war
Quan and Wong spend much of their time now bringing their stories to the community. They volunteer at the Chinese Public School in Chinatown and speak to the children about their experiences.
On Oct. 25, they gave their annual guest lecture to the school to kick off Remembrance Day with the Chinese Veterans Association. Wong was unable to attend for the first time due to health issues. Quan gave a stirring speech, while squirming children sat still just long enough to hear the stories and ask a few pointed questions: Did you ever kill anyone? What kind of weapons did you use? Are we going to have a Third World War?
“When you’ve been trained like we were trained, you’re not scared of what you have to face — you do what has to be done,” says Quan. “Now, all we ask is that you remember us. Remember what we did for this country, and for you.” M