The year was 1939. Germany had launched an attack against Poland; two days later, France and Britain declared war on Germany, spurring the start of the Second World War.
Thousands of miles away in Cumberland, B.C., then-teenager Gordon Quan dreamed of joining the Canadian Army. But, there was just one problem: he is Chinese-Canadian.
Up until 1944, those of Chinese ancestry were not allowed to serve in the military. Even folks like Quan, who were born in Canada, were often rejected by local recruitment officers because of their race or ethnic background.
At the time, Chinese-Canadians and Chinese immigrants were considered lower-class citizens, who were not allowed to vote and were subject to a head tax, which had started at $50 in 1885 and by 1903, it had jumped to $500 per person.
The head tax was created to discourage Chinese people from entering Canada, even after many had been brought over by the Canadian government to help build the railroad. Chinese immigrants were also restricted from practising in professions such as law and medicine.
After the Second World War broke out, and once war against Japan was declared, Canada and China became allies against the perceived enemy, uniting the two countries, helping to change perceptions of Chinese-Canadians. And so, in 1944, the National Resources Mobilization Act reversed the policy of barring Chinese recruits to the Canadian military.
At the same time, British Forces sought recruits outside of Europe to infiltrate Japanese-held territories in southeast Asia. Quan, who had recently headed to train with the Canadian Forces in Saskatchewan, was transferred to the British Army for special service in the Southeast Asia Command.
“Everyone around here wanted to join the forces but they would not allow that until 1944. So when that happened, a group of us said, ‘Let’s go and join up,’” 93-year-old Quan told HuffPost Canada from his retirement home in Victoria. “We were then told to volunteer to serve in Southeast Asia because they said we were more adapted to that region than Europeans. So, 150 of us Chinese people all signed up.”
Quan was recruited to Force 136, a secret service branch. Almost all of these Chinese-Canadian recruits were from British Columbia, descendants of those were brought over to help build the railroad. Quan was sent to India to join other Chinese-Canadians serving in the Burma campaign to fight against the Japanese.
“When I was in the jungle, I was assigned to special Force 136 and took intensive training in demolition work. I became a demolition expert,” said Quan. ”And then I was shipped into the jungle to Malaya area. A bunch of troops, maybe 15 of us were there, some of us, we’re jumping behind lines, some of us were going to another area. I always carry a couple grenades, carry a pistol.”
“I got to do the job as demolition expert, go in there, blow it up. We have to size that area, where the enemies are, make sure that timing is more important, how to get in and how to get out,” said Quan, noting that since they were stationed in the jungle, they didn’t know that the war ended after the Americans dropped the bomb on Japan, ending the mission.
Many of the Chinese-Canadians who volunteered to serve did so with the hopes that their efforts would translate into fostering a better perception of the Chinese in Canada. However, the government still had not granted Chinese-Canadians the right to vote when they returned home from the war, so soldiers from Special Forces 136 banded together to fight for that right, said Quan.
Watch “Force 136: Chinese Canadian Heroes.” Story continues below.
“At that time, we were always British subjects. We had no rights to go into the profession of our choice, it was only restaurants and laundry for the Chinese people. When we come back, the regiment group went to Ottawa to fight for the right to be Canadian.”
Even before the Second World War had begun, Chinese-Canadians had launched protests and petitions requesting the right for Chinese-Canadians to vote.
After the war, Chinese-Canadian vets led “a coalition of churches, unions, civic groups and veterans’ associations into pressuring the government to end the exclusion of Chinese-Canadians” from voting, according to “Beyond Being Other: Chinese Canadians National History,” a journal written by Lisa Rose Mar.
And their efforts did serve them as much as it served other countries. The racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923, which banned most forms of immigration to Canada for 24 years, was finally repealed in 1947. That same year, for the first time, Chinese-Canadians were allowed to become Canadian citizens and were granted the right to vote in federal elections.
These changes also meant Chinese-Canadians could also now be recognized as doctors, lawyers and engineers.
Quan, who spent 30 years in the reserves stationed in Canada, went on to marry after the war and have five children, who gave him five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. And after a long life well-lived, he wouldn’t change a thing.
“When I was in the army, no discrimation I face. I was the first Chinese person who worked for the city of Victoria,” said Quan. “If I wasn’t a veteran, I’d never get that job back then.”
“Today, I speak at schools and tell young people to join the army. You get your education paid for, you learn many things and now, today, because of what we went through, the Chinese have the right to enjoy life in Canada.
“To be Canadian citizens, to be equal now.”