Hundreds of Chinese Canadians volunteered to fight in the Second World War for a country that denied them the vote and further marginalized them with an ingrained system of racial discrimination. Many from British Columbia were trained as commandos to operate behind Japanese lines in the Pacific. Theirs was a story of bravery and courage. Yet few in Canada – not even in the Chinese Canadian community – knew much about it. As the vets grew older, Howe Lee decided that had to change.
In the mid-1990s, along with a few others, the long-time Burnaby, B.C., teacher and military reservist set his sights on a way to preserve and celebrate their exploits, which also played a major role in finally securing the vote for Chinese Canadians in 1947. With Mr. Lee as its driving force, the group raised funds, whipped up support beyond the Chinese Canadian community, and pushed and prodded the veterans, many of whom were reluctant to publicize their wartime experiences, to back the idea. Their efforts paid off. The Chinese Canadian Military Museum opened its doors in Vancouver in the fall of 1998, the only institution of its kind in the country. Mr. Lee was the museum’s first president, a position he held for 12 years.
Today, just a handful of Chinese Canadian war veterans survive. But their stories, photos and memorabilia are now in no danger of disappearing. In fact, there has been a resurgence of interest in what had been a hidden chapter of Canada’s war effort.
“He had a vision, as a proud Canadian of Chinese descent, to honour the Chinese Canadian veterans, to make sure they were given the due they didn’t receive after the war, when all the focus was on the white soldiers,” said filmmaker Alison Maclean, who came to know Mr. Lee through her documentaries about Chinese Canadian military history.
The museum was far from the only legacy of Mr. Lee, who died at the age of 88 on March 10, after a lengthy illness. His modest demeanour belied a meticulous, steely determination to see things through, to honour the past. Over the years, he became a veritable Johnny Appleseed, planting seeds of Chinese Canadian military history whenever and wherever he could.
In 1988, he was among those who lobbied successfully for changing the name of Lake Okanagan’s Goose Bay to Commando Bay, reflecting where Chinese Canadians had trained for their dangerous, special forces missions in the Pacific.
In 2010, as a member of a Corrections Canada regional, ethnocultural advisory committee, Mr. Lee was on a visit to the William Head institution near Victoria to talk to inmates about Chinese Canadian military history. While being shown around the site, he noticed a disheveled cemetery with a few old gravestones scattered about.
Mr. Lee learned they were the remnants of another little-known military episode – the secret transport of as many as 80,000 labourers from China across Canada to Halifax (on trains with blackened windows) and over to the First World War front in Europe, where their manpower was desperately needed. Before they headed east, however, and on their return journey to China, they were quarantined for a time at William Head. Some died and were buried there.
Mr. Lee set to work to peel back the shrouds of this forgotten history. On Nov. 6, 2014, a large cairn was unveiled at William Head, jointly commissioned by the Canadian Chinese Military Museum, to commemorate members of the Chinese Labour Corps, who passed through the quarantine station.
His initiative spurred the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to take on the task of identifying Corps members who died, and five years later, with official Commonwealth headstones in place, they were remembered at a special ceremony. Mr. Lee and a contingent of Chinese Canadian war veterans stood and saluted as the Last Post was played.
“He wanted more formal recognition of our past, and it took on a life of its own,” said William Head’s acting deputy warden, Anthony Baldo. “He gave life to that history and put a face to it.”
Earlier, Mr. Lee was among those who pushed hard for a Chinatown Memorial Monument, depicting a Chinese railway labourer and a Second World War Chinese Canadian soldier, representing the sacrifices both groups made in building Canada. The monument is now the scene of separate Remembrance Day ceremonies for Vancouver.
Howe Yet Lee was born Nov. 2, 1932, in the rural, North Okanagan community of Armstrong. His father, Lee Bak Bong, a farmer, pioneered the growing of produce aimed predominantly at Chinese consumers in distant cities who had difficulty securing vegetables that suited their cuisine. Packed into large crates, the vegetables were loaded onto boxcars for shipping to the West Coast and as far east as Winnipeg. Howe was one of 11 siblings – seven boys and four girls.
While finances forced his three older brothers to leave school early and work, Howe Lee was able to graduate from the University of British Columbia with a bachelor of science degree in 1951. After securing his teacher’s degree, he taught math and science for many years at various Burnaby high schools. At a professional development day, he was seated beside teacher Hilda Pon. Mr. Lee boldly asked her to lunch. They were married six months later. Their son, Richard, was born in 1977.
Besides history and teaching, Mr. Lee’s third passion was Canada’s military reserve, where he had a lengthy, distinguished career, highlighted by numerous promotions and high-ranking positions, rare achievements in those days for Chinese Canadians. In the 1960s, he was the major in command of 156 Company Royal Canadian Army Service Corps. Subsequently, he was deputy commanding officer of the storied Royal Westminster Regiment, then moved to Vancouver’s 12 Service Battalion, where he served as commanding officer. In retirement, he was named Honorary Colonel of the 39th Service Battalion, a rank that delighted him.
Said his friend of many years, Edmund Wu: “He was, indeed, an officer and a gentlemen.”
He was awarded a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 and a Meritorious Service Medal from the governor-general in 2017.
Mr. Lee leaves his wife, Hilda, and son, Richard (Elena).