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They were the worst of the bad: ruthless Chinese who went over to the side of Japan during the Sino-Japanese War that devastated China from 1937 to 1945. With their pistols, black suits, black hats and dark glasses, these turncoats were known as the "Chinese Gestapo," infamous for their brutality.

Late in the war, they arrested William Gun Chong. They beat him. He didn't talk. They beat him again. Finally, in his thick village dialect, the terrified prisoner told his Chinese interrogators he could not understand them, was hungry and needed to look for work. They let him go.

If only they had known: William Gun Chong, who had spent nearly all his life in the heart of Vancouver's Chinatown, was a British spy.

For 3½ frightening years during the Second World War, Mr. Chong, Agent 50, operated behind Japanese lines, rescuing downed Allied fliers, ferreting out vital intelligence and helping to organize a pipeline of life-saving medicine to prisoners of war in Hong Kong.

He never knew, each day he woke up, whether he would live to see another sunset. For his service, Mr. Chong, now 94, received the Order of the British Empire medal in 1947.

Yet today, the remarkable exploits of this B.C. resident remain unknown to most Canadians, as do the courage and determination of hundreds of other ethnic Chinese, born and raised in Canada, who served in the Second World War.

Nearly 150 Chinese Canadians volunteered for dangerous missions in the jungles of Japanese-held territory as part of Britain's legendary Special Operations Executive, which specialized in clandestine warfare.

And they signed on in a country that denied them the vote, refused to grant them citizenship, barred them from law, medicine and pharmacy, and often segregated them in public places.

It was a shameful time in Canada's history, particularly on the West Coast, where the vast majority of ethnic Chinese lived. Racism was rampant. Whenever they ventured out of Chinatown, they felt uneasy.

Years later, Second World War veteran Daniel Lee, 84, recalled, "I was considered an alien back then. When people looked at me, I could sense they didn't like something. You'd have a bitter feeling inside." When they first tried to join the Canadian Armed Forces, most were turned down because they were Chinese. B.C. Premier Duff Pattullo wrote to Prime Minister Mackenzie King, strongly urging that Canada maintain its semi-official ban on Chinese recruits to avoid giving them a good argument for the right to vote. Canadian losses in France and conscription gradually opened the doors to ethnic Chinese, but their acceptance was lukewarm at best.

Then Major Francis Woodley Kendall of the British army arrived in Ottawa.

Canada may have resisted recruits like Mr. Lee because they were Chinese, but that's precisely why Major Kendall wanted them -- to serve as secret agents in Japanese-held Asia, blending in with the local populations. Suddenly, skin colour was an asset, and Major Kendall found what he was looking for in Canada.

Young Chinese were willing recruits; this was a chance to prove themselves and secure the same rights as Canadians. But the issue divided places like Vancouver's Chinatown and split families. Many wondered, why put your life on the line for a country that turns its back on you?

Doug Jung, who went on to become the first Chinese-Canadian MP, quickly volunteered, along with 12 others, for a perilous mission to organize resistance in occupied China, aptly entitled "Operation Oblivion."

They went through months of rigorous training along a secluded shore of B.C.'s Lake Okanagan before shipping out to Australia for further trials. Complete with issued cyanide pills, they were on the verge of slipping into China when a U.S. commander vetoed the operation. Four members of the group who subsequently parachuted into Borneo were awarded the British Military Medal for bravery.

"We did not have the right to be Canadian citizens and we volunteered against hostile recognition because the whites did not think we had the stamina, intelligence or courage to serve," Mr. Jung told a reunion of Chinese-Canadian veterans before he died in 2002 at 77.

Scores of other Chinese Canadians became part of the SOE's ambitious sabotage plans. Parachute in, hook up with local guerrillas and harass the heck out of the Japanese.

Think of the 1957 film, Bridge on the River Kwai. "It was just like that," said Gordon Quan of Victoria, one of those recruited for sabotage and killing in the tropics. "We were going to take explosives into the jungle and blow up bridges."

Many, like Mr. Quan, now 79, were still in their teens. Blurred, fading photographs show them grinning in front of famous London landmarks on their way to Asia, or sitting tourist-style on camels in the deeps of India, where training began in earnest.

Early on, Mr. Quan had to confess he couldn't swim. He had a pretty good reason, though. Victoria's main swimming pool, the famed Crystal Gardens, was off-limit to Chinese.

"Quite a few of us couldn't swim," he recalled. "So the instructor took us down to the river. There was a raft in the middle, and we had to get out there and back with our packs on. He just gave us a boot into the water. That's how we learned to swim."

Young though they were, their planned missions were far from kids' stuff. "I was good with my hands, so I learned demolition," Mr. Quan said. "My job was to blow things up. If you got caught, you were shot. That was it."

There was also the matter of killing, commando-style. Mr. Quan hasn't forgotten: "You go in behind them, choke off their windpipe, and slip the knife in, right between the ribs."

In August of 1945, Mr. Quan was on the west coast of India, primed and waiting with his mates for their first assignment in the jungles of Malaya when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading to the war's sudden end.

"If not for the bomb, I wouldn't be here," he said. "But to tell the truth, I was almost disappointed. I was young and gung-ho in those days."

The wartime perseverance and courage of the ethnic-Chinese volunteers made it impossible for Canada to maintain its legislated discrimination. In 1947, the Chinese Exclusion Act, which had banned Chinese immigrants since 1923, was repealed. That same year, Chinese were finally granted full citizenship rights, including the right to vote.

The war made the difference. Mr. Quan said he noticed it the moment he put on his uniform and went downtown. "In those days, you got kicked out of places. 'You can't do this. You can't do that.' But when I wore my uniform, I got served in restaurants. No discrimination.

"And I was proud to wear it. I was born in Canada and now I was going to fight for Canada."

In recent years, some belated recognition has come to the country's long-forgotten Chinese-Canadian veterans. Books have been written, documentaries produced, monuments erected. The isolated Okanagan cove where Operation Oblivion began has been renamed Commando Bay and declared a heritage site.

On Remembrance Day, Chinese-Canadian veterans, in their grey flannels, bemedalled blue blazers and dark berets, never fail to get a rousing cheer as they march past the cenotaphs.

But William Gun Chong finds it difficult to look back. Memories of his experiences sear, even after 60 years. Now living quietly in Nanaimo, Mr. Chong agreed over the phone to a face-to-face interview, then cancels.

"It hurts me. The last time I did this I cried for two days. There were so many things I did that nobody knows," he said. "I was a young guy who'd never seen a war. I saw so many dead bodies. I hate to remember."

But some details slip out, before he apologizes and hangs up.

Mr. Chong was in Hong Kong when the Japanese invaded in December of 1941. He became enraged at seeing an unarmed Canadian shot dead by a Japanese soldier.

"That's what motivated me. I was full of hate," he said. "I risked my life every day, on my own, in the middle of no man's land. I never stopped. I didn't sleep in a bed for four years, just on the bare ground.

"My only companions were mosquitoes, leeches and bed bugs. There was no bus, no ferry, no bicycle, no horseback, no roads. Everything was by foot. Somehow, I had to survive."

Finally, his commander called a halt to Mr. Chong's hazardous espionage, though there was one last assignment. The Americans were sketching out the possibility of a second-front landing in China, and he was asked to relay information about the water depth and terrain of potential invasion areas.

On his way to scout the areas, the war ended.

"I heard about it in the middle of the night," the old spy said. "I was so happy, but I just sat down on the ground and cried. I don't know why. But I hope I served my country well."

Remembering: The Pacific War

As we approach the 60th anniversary of V-J Day, marking Japan's surrender and the end of the Second World War, this daily series prepared by The Globe and Mail in conjunction with the Dominion Institute and its Memory Project will present an array of stories that illustrate how the conflict changed so many lives forever.

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