Imagine you lived in a country where you were not only taxed $500 per person to have your family join you (equivalent to $10,500 today) but also denied the right to practice your profession, vote or become a citizen.
Where you knew that others from your community had travelled outside their home province just to be allowed to volunteer to fight for this country in its previous war, and had still been refused citizenship.
Where you, as someone born and raised in Canada, would be listed as an “‘alien’, with ‘ally’ in brackets‘” when you joined up.
Would you still want to help them defend what they so clearly thought of as their land?
For an estimated 600 Chinese Canadians at the onset of WWII, the answer was yes.
Six of those 600 recruits were women. Of these six, only three are featured on the Canadian government’s Veterans Affairs website: Mary Ko Bong, Peggy Lee and Mary Laura Mah (listed elsewhere as Marion Laura Mah). Four more, Helen Hoe, Edna Silaine Lowe, Lila Wong and Jean Suey Zee Lee, are mentioned on the Chinese Canadian Museum Society’s website.
You may have noticed that the numbers don’t add up. Welcome to History Lesson #1: There is no single version of any story.
These incredible women joined the non-combat Canadian Womens’ Army Corps (CWAC) and the St John’s Ambulance Brigade, training in everything from mechanical repairs to nursing to teletyping.
“I sort of surprised them.”
Meet Mary Ko Bong. The website lists her name after her brother John’s, but the truth of the matter is that Mary was the first in her family to enlist, followed by all three of her brothers. “Somebody let the cat out of the bag,” she tells her interviewer, “I wasn’t telling them ’til I was going, you know.” The interviewer calls her “plucky”, which feels like a massive understatement for a woman who leapt at the opportunity to sign up for the CWAC the moment that visible minorities were permitted to do so, and completed a rigorous training program in optics instrument mechanics from which less than 17% of each training group graduated. She didn’t just fix essential equipment like binoculars and compasses, either- she used her previous training in singing, dancing and jazz to entertain the troops as well. At a time when being a woman in uniform already upset social conventions, Mary was also unsettling gender and cultural stereotypes of the quiet Asian female.
“I was so glad to be in it.”
Peggy Lee was already part of a church group that entertained the soldiers in her native Prince Rupert, when she found out about the newly-formed St John’s Ambulance Corps. Like Mary, she wasted no time in joining the cause. Her platoon was unique, in that it consisted entirely of Chinese women. (Another instance of the numbers not adding up.) Peggy and her platoon were drilled at the Seaforth Armoury in downtown Vancouver, and became all-in-one nurses, firefighters and stretcher-bearers. They were being prepared for the invasion on Canadian soil. While that attack never came, the lively Lee is proud to have served her country. “I am a Canadian first and proud to be a part of Canada, and I’ll do anything for Canadian [sic].”
“I had a dream that I should join the Forces.”
It’s hard to imagine a more charming laugh than Salmon Arm-born Marion Laura Wong’s as she goes on to confess that she joined the CWAC because the Air Force’s quota of women had been filled and she hated the black stockings worn by the Navy. The petite nineteen-year-old was refused at first, because the recruiting officer didn’t believe that she was old enough. Undeterred, she returned the next day with her birth certificate and proved him wrong. She became a teletype operator, stationed at the Hotel Vancouver, with the Royal Canadian Signal Corps. Despite being the only Chinese Canadian woman there, Marion insists that she was never targeted for racial discrimination. Instead, this woman who regularly facilitated key communications between senior officers and Ottawa cheerfully recalls being “very spoiled” by the candy department.
Historian Arlene Chan writes that, after leaving the CWAC, Mary became the first Chinese woman in the watch-making industry, while Marion became one of the first three Chinese women to receive Canadian citizenship in 1947. (Chan adds that, in 1945, “all enlisted Chinese Canadians received the right to vote”, so it is unclear why Marion did not become a citizen until two years later.)
There is very little information available on Lila Wong, Edna Silaine Lowe, Helen Hoe and Jean Zuey See Lee. The latter was the only one to join the Royal Canadian Air Force- if Marion had had her way, the two of them would have flown side by side.
Today, on Wednesday, November 11th, I will remember them. Long before the term ‘intersectionality’ was coined, they enthusiastically defied racial discrimination and gender-based conventions to help their beloved Canada recognize their worth.
We owe these women (and men) more than most Canadians, because without them, we might never have been accepted as Canadians at all.
*Filmed interview clips of these women, as well as several of their male counterparts, are available here.