In one of many signs that the Allies were growing desperate in 1944, British Special Operations Executive set up shop at the Hotel Vancouver, hoping to recruit soldiers they would have rejected only a few years earlier.
The Japanese were on the offensive across Asia; they had seized Singapore, Hong Kong and other colonies. British intelligence needed soldiers who could slip behind enemy lines, blend in and sabotage Japanese interests, and who better than Chinese-Canadians?
Yes, there were issues. Widely discriminated against, they were not subjects of the Dominion – even those who were Canadian-born. Many leaders worried that these recruits might turn around and ask for citizenship. If they survived.
At that hotel in June, a dozen soldiers volunteered for a mission whose eventual name had the cyanide whiff of suicide: "Operation Oblivion."
While Oblivion was regarded as a pivotal moment for the rights of Chinese-Canadians, there is a push 60 years later for the country to grant the recruits national recognition for their loyalty and potential sacrifice.
"The war wasn't just about winning over the enemy," said Bradley Lee, who has co-produced a documentary on the group. "It was also about changing the face of Canada. If there wasn't war, the rights of Chinese-Canadians would not exist."
Mr. Lee, MP Rick Norlock and others are trying to enlist the Minister of Heritage and other parliamentarians to create a permanent commemoration for Oblivion at the Canadian War Museum, which makes its own decisions on such matters. The documentary, narrated by noted actor Colm Feore, will air Sunday on various Omni Television stations across the country.
The 800 or so soldiers who enlisted weren't just fighting for the Allied cause abroad. They also were fighting for respect at home.
Subject to the petty prejudices of the time, they were limited to the stifling confines of labour, laundries and restaurants. Conversely, battling against China's ancient foe was a fresh-air adventure. It gave them hope.
From the late 1800s to the middle of the 1900s, Chinese-Canadians were victims of overt and insidious discrimination. Unlike other minorities, all but a few of them had to pay the notorious Head Tax upon entering the country – an amount that could equate to two years' pay for a manual labourer. No other minority faced this penalty – for which Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized in 2006. Nor did any other community face an immigration ban.
In 1923, the government passed the Chinese Immigration Act, or the Exclusion Act, which prevented all but a few Chinese from entering the country. First World War veterans, who had the brief taste of full citizenship as reward for their service, were stripped of their rights, and in the early years of the Second World War, many politicians such as B.C. premier Duff Pattullo cautioned against recruiting the next generation. They would demand their own rights.
Chinese-Canadians in B.C. faced apartheid-like restrictions. They were prohibited from visiting many public pools, and more importantly, they were not allowed to join the professional classes because, alas, they were not subjects of Canada and the British Empire. The bitter irony was that many of them had already assimilated: Most Oblivion recruits had little knowledge of any Chinese languages.
"The major in charge, Kendall, was sitting at his desk but looking out the window," said Mr. Henry (Hank) Wong, the last living Oblivion member, who had grown up in a Protestant orphanage in London, Ont. "He asked me if I was Chinese. I said I was, and then he turned to me and said, 'You don't have an accent.'"
As part of SOE's Force 136, Mr. Wong, another recruit named Douglas Jung (who would become the first Chinese-Canadian MP and later ambassador to the United Nations) and 10 others went to a secret camp on Okanagan Bay and honed the craft of sabotage: explosives training, jungle survival skills and the silent kill. Supplied with cyanide pills, they then shipped out on a meandering path to New Guinea and Australia. But the British lost a turf war with the United States about who would lead the Asian campaign, and Oblivion was cancelled.
Still, some commandos saw action. Some of them dropped into Borneo, where they trained members of the Iban tribe in guerrilla warfare while they themselves learned the dark art of blow pipes and poison darts.
Ultimately, five of them saw action and were awarded the Military Medal for bravery. Others in Malaya helped liberate prison camps. Douglas Jung, who broke his ankle in training, remained in Australia as an intelligence instructor.
"We thought in our guts that unless we did something like that," Mr. Jung later told an interviewer, "we could [not] 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 enjoys."
As it turned out, those early worries about recruiting Chinese-Canadians came to fruition. After lobbying for three years, the veterans and their own allies won the next big war: The government repealed the Exclusion Act and all eligible Chinese-Canadians were granted the right to vote.
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Editor's note: The original print version of this story and an earlier online version incorrectly said four Chinese-Canadian recruits saw action in Borneo and were awarded the Military Medal for bravery. In fact, there were five. This online version has been corrected.