British Columbia

Chinese Canadian WW II veteran recalls fighting for Canada

On the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Chinese-Canadian veteran Neill Chan tells of his wartime service in the Canadian Army as a spy in China.

Neill Chan was 18 and couldn't vote when he was recruited to join the army and fight against Japan

Force 136 veteran Neill Chan flips through photos of his days in the army as a spy fighting against Japan in World War II. He and other members of Force 136 are being honoured in Vancouver to celebrate the 70th anniversary of World War II's end. (Elaine Chau/CBC)

Today marks 70 years since the conclusion of the Second World War when Japan surrendered to the Allies.

In Vancouver, one way the anniversary was being remembered was at the Chinese Cultural Centre, where officials honoured members of Force 136, Chinese-Canadian operatives who worked behind enemy lines to stop the march of Japanese soldiers.

"In 1944, everyone in Canada, immigrant or national, had to join the army," recalled Neill Chan, a member of Force 136 who grew up in Vancouver's Chinatown.

"At that time the British Army sent two generals to recruit Chinese for a different kind of training."

Chan and other members of Force 136 were chosen because the British generals believed they could pass for Japanese, and trained them as scouts to work behind enemy lines.

And while the reason they were recruited was based on racist assumptions, it was par for the course for most of the men of Force 136: they had no citizenship, and faced racism in every facet of life in Canada.

Dangerous wartime duties

Some of the wartime documents of Force 136 veteran Neill Chan. (Elaine Chau/CBC)

Chan served in South-East Asia, doing the dangerous work of a scout while also serving as an interpreter. He would go out in advance of a main force, assess the enemy's situation, and report back to command.

His service ended shortly after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and he was glad to be done with the war when that happened.

"I thought, 'thank goodness, we don't have to go into war [against the Japanese islands],'" he says about the relief he felt when he heard about the atomic bombings.

Once his service was finished, Chan returned to Vancouver, got married and, like thousands of other Canadians, made the transition back to civilian life.

No regrets for Chan

Chan has no regrets about serving with the British Army today, and he says he had no regrets 70 years ago, either.

But for many Chinese Canadians, serving with the British Empire was controversial; Chinese people worked hard in the countries they immigrated to, but were often denied basic rights — including the right to vote — and were targets of discrimination from other Canadians.

"When we joined the army, many societies in Chinatown were against it. They said, we should fight for China, not pour our hearts into other national armies," Chan says.

"I had none of those feelings at all. I was brought up in a multicultural society … mixed with all nationalities. So I thought I was Canadian."

On Saturday, August 15, Chan and other members of Force 136 were honoured at the Chinese Cultural Centre on Pender Street in Vancouver during a remembrance ceremony for the end of World War II. The event began at 10:45 a.m. PT

To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: 70 years after WWII, Chinese Canadian vet recalls service