Chinese people have faced a long history of intense discrimination, racism, and hatred in Canada. Many early Chinese immigrants were recruited in the 19th century as railway workers to build the Canadian Pacific Railway through the Rocky Mountains. Chinese people received much lower pay (often less than 50% of the White wage rate) and worked longer hours in significantly more dangerous working conditions than their White counterparts. Many Non-Chinese workers felt Chinese workers undermined their labour position, which further fueled “Yellow Peril” and other racist attitudes. Anti-Chinese sentiment was extremely popular at the time. Legislation aimed at curbing Chinese immigration and limiting the political power of existing immigrants received substantial support. The Chinese Head Tax, imposed in 1885, initially charged every Chinese person $50 to immigrate. The tax was raised to $100 in 1900, then $500 in 1903. The tax was removed in 1923, when the Chinese Immigration Act, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, banned Chinese immigration. During the 38 years the head tax was in effect, around 82,000 Chinese immigrants paid nearly $23 million in tax – around 400-600 million in 2023 Canadian dollars. The Chinese Immigration Act remained in place until 1947.
Chinese people living in Canada were not considered Canadians, even if they were born here. They were unable to vote, practice certain professions, such as medicine or law, or own property. Due to the heavy restrictions on Chinese immigration, a substantial number of Chinese people in Canada were male. Chinese men came to Canada for work, leaving behind their families and communities. In 1911, the ratio of Chinese men to women in Canada was 28 to 1. By the late 1920s, it was estimated there were only 5 married Chinese women in Calgary and 6 in Edmonton.
The hardships faced by all Canadians often hit Chinese communities particularly hard. During the Great Depression, the Chinese unemployment rate in Vancouver was as high as 80%, compared to the city’s overall rate of 30.2%, and relief payments to Chinese people in Alberta were only $1.12 per week, less than half of what was given to other Albertans.
The outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and subsequent occupation of parts of China further isolated the Chinese community in Canada. After the Japanese captured Hong Kong, a major communication hub between China and North America, it became impossible for Chinese people in Canada to exchange letters and send remittances back home.
World War Two marked a turning point in Chinese Canadian history. By volunteering for service, many Chinese people hoped to prove their loyalty and patriotism to Canada and gain the right to vote. However, some Chinese people did not believe it was right to serve a country that did not want them – “no vote, no fight.” Either way, racial discrimination barred Chinese people from enlisting. The Chinese community helped where they were allowed, purchasing some $10 million worth of Victory Bonds. Eventually, losses suffered by Canadian forces and the declaration of war against Japan in 1941 forced the Canadian government to accept Chinese recruits. An estimated 600 Chinese people enlisted, serving in all three branches of the Canadian Armed Forces. Of those, about 150 served in Force 136, an elite branch of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE).
The SOE had successfully trained and dropped secret agents into Nazi occupied countries in Europe, such as France and Belgium, during the first few years of the Second World War. Agents organized and supported local resistance fighters, helped with espionage, and sabotaged German infrastructure, equipment, and supply lines. Hoping to replicate their success against Japanese forces in Southeast Asia, the SOE realized they needed different recruits – White people stuck out too much. The brutal history of colonialism in Southeast Asia also meant many locals resented and distrusted their European colonizers. Enter Chinese Canadians; previously denied the ability to serve, desperate to prove their loyalty, able to blend in with local populations, and speakers of English and Cantonese – a common language in Southeast Asia. Recruits were sworn to secrecy and warned that, if caught by the Japanese, they would not be viewed as ordinary soldiers: they would be deemed a spy and most certainly interrogated, tortured and killed.
The first batch of recruits consisted of 13 hand-picked Chinese Canadians. Viewed as a test to determine whether Chinese Canadians could become commandos, the men were brought to a secret location on Okanagan Lake (now known as Commando Bay). Here they trained in interpretation, silent killing, wireless operation, demolition, stalking, and rolling out of moving vehicles. One of the more difficult tasks for the recruits was swimming in silence while carrying a 50lb ruck. Prior to this training, few of the recruits knew how to swim because Chinese people were banned from most public pools. They were then sent to Australia to learn parachuting, how to lose a tail (i.e., an enemy pursuer), surveillance techniques, and how to survive in the jungle by eating insects and plants.
Once the recruits completed their training, they were to embark on Operation Oblivion. Operation Oblivion was a British led plan based on similar SOE operations conducted in Europe. First, the newly trained commandos would use small submarines to infiltrate Japanese-occupied regions of China. Their mission after arriving in China? Go behind Japanese lines – surviving in small teams with no outside support – seek out and train local resistance fighters, sabotage Japanese forces and conduct espionage. However, Operation Oblivion was cancelled after Allied High Command decided that operations in the Pacific theatre north of New Guinea would be controlled by American forces. Most of the original 13 stayed in Australia for the remainder of the war and helped train both incoming recruits and Australian forces, but several requested deployments on new operations.
Most Chinese Canadian members of Force 136 were stationed in India by January 1945. While the majority had not been deployed when Japan officially surrendered in August 1945, a couple dozen operated for several months in Burma (now Myanmar), Borneo, Malaya, and Singapore. Often deep in the jungle, the men battled through extremely harsh conditions while completing their missions. Incredible heat, humidity, monsoons, malaria, dysentery, broken bones, and exotic snakes and insects were only some of the threats faced by operatives.
On June 22, 1945, Henry Fung and his team parachuted just outside of Japanese-occupied Kuala Lumpur, Malaya. They disabled telephone lines and blew up railways before joining forces with Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army. Another group, led by Roger Cheng, dropped into Borneo hoping to contact the Dyak indigenous peoples who lived deep in the jungle. By August 1945, Cheng’s team joined a British team gathering information about Japanese troops and POW camps – approximately 25,000 British troops were being held in POW camps in the Pacific at the time. After the surrender of Japan, Fung’s team secured the city of Kajang until the arrival of Indian and British forces. Cheng and his men helped transfer British POWs to Australia but faced resistance from Japanese units that refused to surrender.
Several Chinese Canadian operatives stayed in Southeast Asia well into the fall of 1945, assisting with the liberation of POW camps, preventing revenge massacres, and maintaining order and security during the chaotic post-surrender environment. All Chinese Canadians in Force 136 survived the war, although some faced ongoing health issues from diseases and conditions that developed while in the field. Fung arrived in England on his journey back to Canada afflicted with malaria and jaundice, which delayed his return by several months. Norman Low, another Chinese Canadian member of Force 136, suffered complications due to contracting malaria during his deployment. As a special force’s operative, Low was not at liberty to discuss his wartime activities and at first doctors did not believe he could have contracted malaria during the war. He would remain in poor health for the rest of his life, passing away in 1960 at only 37 years old.
Members stationed in India or in Southeast Asia sailed back to Canada through England. However, the soldiers in Australia were abandoned and left to find their own way back to Canada. Always resourceful, they approached cargo ships heading to North America and offered their services as deckhands as payment for passage.
The efforts and sacrifices made by the Chinese Canadians of Force 136, and those who served in other branches of the military, were instrumental in challenging racist attitudes and legislation towards Chinese people in Canada. Following the end of the war in 1945, BC extended the franchise (i.e., the right to vote) to Chinese Canadian veterans. 2 years later, in 1947, the franchise and other citizenship rights were extended to Chinese Canadians by federal and provincial governments in Canada. This is known today as the “double victory” of Chinese Canadians during the war: securing victory for the allies and winning full citizenship rights in Canada. However, the fight for full equality in the eyes of Canadian institutions would last many more years.
Although the Chinese Immigration Act was repealed in 1947, Chinese immigrants were still treated inequitably due to Order-in-Council, P.C. 2115. This order stipulated that entrance was limited to only the spouses and children (under the age of 18) of Canadian citizens at a time when only 8 per cent of Chinese-born residents were naturalized citizens. There were no such restrictions for immigrants from other countries. Delegations of Chinese and Non-Chinese individuals made annual visits to Ottawa to lobby for an immigration policy that would ease family reunification. In 1967, they succeeded. Immigration restrictions on the basis of race and national origin were finally removed. Now Chinese immigrants could apply for entry on equal footing with other applicants.
Additional Information & Further Reading:
Heroes Remember — Chinese-Canadian Veterans – a series of interviews with Chinese Canadian veterans
Peggy Lee – A Chinese Canadian women who served in an all-Chinese St John’s Ambulance Corps unit during the Second World War.
Main photo: The first Chinese Canadian Force 136 recruits in Darwin Australia. (Credit: Chinese Canadian Military Museum)
Chan, Arlene. 2016. “Chinese Head Tax in Canada.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed August 2023. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/chinese-head-tax-in-canada.
Chan, Arlene. 2017. “Chinese Immigration Act.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed August 2023. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/chinese-immigration-act.
Chinese Canadian Military Museum Society. n.d. “Force 136.” Special Projects. Accessed August 2023. https://www.ccmms.ca/features/the-story-of-force-136/.
Clement, Catherine. 2019. “Chinese Canadians of Force 136.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed August 2023. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/chinese-canadians-of-force-136.
 At $500 the Head Tax was equal to about 2 years salary or the purchase of two homes.
 Many early Chinese immigrants came from Cantonese speaking regions in China (particularly Hong Kong and Guangdong province). Today Mandarin has passed Cantonese as the most common language spoken by Chinese Canadians, excluding English and French.