When Bing Wong was growing up in the small, northern Vancouver Island community of Alert Bay, like most kids of the day, he loved to play “Cowboys and Indians” with his friends. One of them was Alfred Scow from the nearby Kwicksutaineuk First Nation and later B.C.’s first Indigenous law school graduate and provincial court judge. Despite his First Nations status, Alfred forever wanted to be the “Cowboy.” “They had better guns and horses and the Indian always got killed,” Mr. Wong recalled years later. Mr. Wong always agreed to be the “Indian.”
His ready agreement proved an early measure of the great generosity of spirit that characterized Mr. Wong throughout his remarkable life. It also masked a steely determination to steer his own path through the shoals of anti-Chinese racism and follow the dictates of his heart. That led him to enlist during the Second World War to fight for a country that denied him the right to vote, prevented further Chinese immigrants from coming to Canada and discriminated against him and other ethnic Chinese people in myriad smaller ways. Having been born here, however, he felt it was his duty to take part when Canada was under attack.
Beyond his wartime service, Mr. Wong also made a mark as the first Chinese accountant in Vancouver and by his unflagging efforts to reach out to Indigenous veterans. Chinese-Canadian veterans and those from the First Nations, with their shared history of discrimination, began marching together in Vancouver, in large part because of Mr. Wong, on both Remembrance Day and Aboriginal Veterans Day, on Nov. 8. Aboriginal veterans became regular participants in Chinatown’s New Year’s festivities and Chinese-Canadian veterans are guests at the Aboriginal Friendship Centre for its annual Nov. 8 feasts, even as their numbers dwindle.
When Mr. Wong died on Aug. 5 at the age of 95, he was remembered with fondness and appreciation by members of the Indigenous community who came to know him well. “He was our champion,” said Joy Dockrey, co-ordinator of the Lower Mainland Aboriginal Veterans Association. “We made him an honorary member.”
Bing Chew Wong was born in Vancouver on June 7, 1924, into a different world. The Chinese Exclusion Act was barely a year old. Mr. Wong’s father, who paid the head tax to immigrate and first worked as a house boy, had two wives and many children with each. When he tried to purchase a home outside Chinatown, he was told that city bylaws prevented its sale to someone of Chinese descent.
Fed up with Vancouver’s entrenched racism, Chew Ping Wong packed up both of his families and moved to Alert Bay, where he hoped to make a better go of it. He opened a general store that quickly developed a reputation among the village’s Indigenous residents for treating them fairly, willing to extend credit and barter goods for fish and abalone. Most of Bing Wong’s playmates were Indigenous.
Since the remote community had no high school, Mr. Wong returned to Vancouver to attend Vancouver Technical Secondary School. Before he could graduate, he enlisted, following his older brother, Frank, who landed with Canadian forces on D-Day. In training, the young recruit, weighing barely 115 pounds, struggled to lug around the Bren machine gun. “The officers wouldn’t let anyone help me,” Mr. Wong told The Memory Project. “Imagine, on a 10-mile route, carrying about a quarter of my weight.” Yet, nothing could hold him back. In short order, he mastered the Bren and other firearms, winning a special medal for marksmanship.
He enjoyed his time as a soldier. "For the first time in my life, I didn’t face any discrimination,” he once told an interviewer.
As war in the Pacific intensified, strategists proposed parachuting Chinese volunteers behind Japanese lines to stage guerrilla raids. Mr. Wong wasn’t keen on that, preferring to be with a group, but he was nonetheless anxious to fight in the Pacific. “Most of us didn’t want to go to Europe,” he told a Chinese-language newspaper in 2015. “We wanted to fight [against] Japan for China.” Eventually, he volunteered for Canada’s contingent in the huge, U.S.-led force being prepared to invade Japan. Mr. Wong knew that heavy casualties were almost certain. “I didn’t really want to go, but when they asked me, I decided, because I didn’t want to let them think the Chinese [guy] is a coward. … And, if we didn’t fight, maybe we would never get the vote.”
The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced Japan’s surrender, without an invasion. Two years later, shamed by the wartime service of Chinese-Canadians such as Mr. Wong, Canada finally granted them equal rights, including the vote, and repealed the notorious Exclusion Act. Mr. Wong prepared for civilian life by taking bookkeeping courses at his old school, Van Tech. But when he went looking for a job, he found little had changed. While his white classmates easily found work, no one would hire Mr. Wong. When one firm did offer him a job, other staff said they would not take orders from an ethnic Chinese person and the company withdrew its offer. He went to the employment office every day for months, without success.
His fortunes turned at last when a former officer said he had heard a Chinatown café needed accounting help. Although not a chartered accountant, Mr. Wong took it on and found he was good at it. As word spread, scores of other Chinese restaurants sought him out.
By 1950, he had established a thriving accounting business with hundreds of clients in the heart of Chinatown. It was the first of its kind in Vancouver. (Not until 1954 did the city have a Chinese-Canadian chartered accountant.)
The business is now run by his son Glen. As recently as this past June, Mr. Wong was still doing the company payroll.
Mr. Wong met May Quong during his teenage years at Van Tech. She was a student at a private Chinese-Canadian Catholic girls’ school. The two remembered each other from mixer dances they attended. After the war, they got reacquainted and married in 1952.
In later years, Mr. Wong was a tireless supporter and fundraiser for the Chinese Canadian Military Museum. The museum was established in 1998 by Mr. Wong and other Chinese-Canadian veterans, concerned their wartime service was being forgotten. Further, they saw the museum as a political reminder that their willingness to fight for Canada was instrumental in winning the vote. “Besides the history, it was to explain to the younger Asian population the trials and tribulations that they had to overcome, and were able to do it,” Glen Wong said. “He considered that his legacy.”
Mr. Wong rarely expressed bitterness about the discrimination he faced in life. Rather, he dedicated himself to embracing fellow soldiers who were also shunned by society but joined up nevertheless. In addition to Indigenous veterans, he helped reach out to the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American Second World War fighter pilots. In 2015, the two groups marched together in Vancouver’s first Rights and Freedom March, united by their common history of perseverance against racism.
At a celebration of Mr. Wong’s life, Indigenous representatives paid tribute to his reconciliation efforts with songs and prayers in his honour. At the end, they presented his son with a beautiful handmade blanket. “He was one of us,” Ms. Dockrey said.
Mr. Wong leaves his wife, May; sisters, May Eng and Frances Lim; brother, Tommy; sons, Glen and Darren; daughter, Lisa; and four grandchildren.