Louey King

WWII Chinese commandos fought for equality at home

Mount Martha, Victoria, August 1944. Photo: Burma Star Association

Five decorated for bravery in secret Borneo mission

“We presented a voice the government could not ignore. We just didn’t go and make a request. We went up and demanded our rights. We earned it.” – Sgt. Louey King.

“Today, nobody questions whether Chinese Canadians can become lawyers or chartered accountants or engineers. Prior to 1947, that was not possible. We just worked in laundries and restaurants.” – Sgt. Louey King.

EDMONTON – There were no victory parades for Chinese-Canadian veterans like Sgt. Louey King when he came home at the end of World War II.

Nor did he really expect any.

King, like his four fellow compatriots – Sgt. Jimmy Shiu, Sgt. Norman Mon Low, Sgt. Roy Chan, and Capt. Roger Cheng – did not even possess official records of their military service in the war.

Loaned to the British army, they were specially selected to serve in Britain’s elite clandestine intelligence unit called Special Operations Executive (SOE). Operating in Asia, the commando unit was sent behind Japanese enemy lines in secret missions to help end the war for the Allies.

King, an Edmonton resident until he died in 1989 of emphysema, recalled in his only interview before his death that his family didn’t even know what he had done when he first returned from the war.

“We were sworn to secrecy for 30 years under [Canada’s] Official Secrets Act and could not say anything,” said King.

The secrecy directive was partially lifted in 1946 when four of the five Canadian-born Chinese men were awarded the Military Medal for “gallant and distinguished services” in the field.

Vancouver’s Chinese came out to celebrate on Aug. 15, 1945 “Victory in Japan” and the end of the Second World War. Photo: City of Vancouver Archives

In Vancouver, local newspapers picked up the story and described how the four young men – Chan, Low, Shiu, and King – parachuted behind enemy lines to organize guerrilla resistance in the jungles of Borneo. For months, they helped drive the Japanese out of Sarawak, one of Japan’s last military strongholds in the South Pacific. Shortly after, the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan surrendered, ending the war.

The four men expressed surprise with the decorations and the army-initiated publicity surrounding them. They were cited for their bravery in establishing and maintaining wireless communication with Australian headquarters as King and the unit organized a native group of Dyak headhunters, who sought revenge for Japanese attacks on their tribe. The commandos supplied the natives with parachuted rifles, ammunition, food, medicine, and clothing and taught them to shoot. They led groups of 60 or more natives in attacking and killing Japanese units. During the assault at the Rejang River, they learned that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The unit then continued to monitor Japanese movements intercepting their communications, specifically eavesdropping on changing conditions at a prisoner of war camp, which held about 2,500 British and civilian POWs.

Capt. Cheng was also cited for his work coordinating the commando unit. Cheng came from Lillooet, B.C. while Shiu was a student at Berkeley, California, and Chan worked in his father’s Victoria grocery store before signing up.

King and Norman Mon Low were the best of friends, residing in Vancouver where Low’s father ran a grocery store while King’s father ran a butcher shop. Sadly, Low would die of his injuries later in life. He contracted pleurisy of his lungs, then tuberculosis. “He was so weak when he got back. He just wasn’t going to make it through [later]. It wasn’t going to be,” said King, ruefully. For years, on November 11, King would remember his friend but would not don his uniform on Remembrance Day. “I couldn’t see the point of parading like that, when so many never made it back.”

For the next 35 years, little was known about SOE until 1981 when Toronto Member of Parliament, Roy McLaren, wrote about the exploits of the unit in a book titled Canadians Behind Enemy Lines.

With information gleaned from declassified documents, McLaren detailed how Force 136 (as SOE was known in Asia) relied on the use of Canadian-born Chinese to move about in Japanese-occupied countries, passing themselves off as civilians.

“For clandestine operations requiring disguise, the answer was to employ those who could pass unnoticed: overseas Chinese offered an immediate prospect,” McLaren wrote. One hundred and twenty-six Chinese Canadians were trained in the Okanagan in jungle warfare to work as spies behind enemy lines: learning how to detonate explosives, interrogating the enemy, intercepting wireless communications, and organizing locals to resist and sabotage the enemy.

The intelligence army, comprised of men from most of the Allied countries, was co-ordinated by master Canadian spy Sir William Stephenson, later to be identified as “the Man Called Intrepid.”

“I think today, Sir William Stephenson’s job made a difference in the war. He was credited by Winston Churchill and the President of the United States as having made a true difference in winning the war,” recalled King.

In 1943, the British Army went to Canada to recruit men for what is now known as a suicide mission dubbed “Operation Oblivion” by army intelligence. The mission was designated to have Cantonese-speaking spies organize communist guerrilla troops in China to fight against the Japanese who had invaded in 1937.

Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, leader of China’s Kuomintang armed forces announces the surrender of Japan in China.
Photo: Associated Press.

Louis King was one of the original thirteen Canadian-born Chinese who were secretly trained in the interior of B.C. for the mission. But the Chinese-Canadian SOE unit never made it as far as China. In 1944, the Americans took over responsibility for infiltrating the Chinese mainland and the British directed their intelligence operatives to areas like Malaysia, Singapore, and the South Pacific, where King and three of his compatriots spent the remainder of the war as spies behind Japanese lines.

King and his other compatriots had their own personal reasons for wanting to go to China in 1943.

In 1923, the Canadian government had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese from entering Canada. Less than 50 would be allowed into the country over the next 24 years.

King’s youngest brother was born in China when his parents returned there for a visit, but he was forced to remain as a result of the legislation.

“Almost every Chinese in Canada was affected by this (legislation) because we all had relatives there,” noted King.

For King, like other Chinese Canadians who volunteered or were conscripted into the war, many also still felt an allegiance to China – the country which their families had emigrated from.

“I had gone to school there as a boy. I saw the bombing of my school there in 1937 and I came back with my oldest brother in 1939. So, you had an affinity for the suffering that went on in China.”

But King believes that for himself and the over 500 Canadian-Chinese volunteers, fighting for Canada was a means to an end.

Not only were the Chinese subject to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which had forced local Chinese into isolation, but rampant discrimination and racism against the Chinese continued unabated, especially in his home province of B.C. Provincial statutes prevented the Chinese from gaining the vote, and in effect, branded Chinese third and fourth-class citizens.

This law, in effect, automatically barred Chinese people from voting in federal, provincial, and municipal elections in a number of provinces. They were also barred from entering professional associations such as law, medicine, and pharmacy because they were classified as “aliens” in Canada rather than British subjects. With no citizenship, King’s father’s generation was left with limited opportunities except to operate laundries, groceries, and restaurants.

“When I came back from the war, my army counselor quite apologetically told me not to waste my time entering law school because I couldn’t practise law, even though I was a veteran and served. The reason was because I was Chinese,” recalled King, ruefully.

Subsequently, King and other Chinese Canadians who had fought in the war formed Pacific 280 of the Army, Navy and Veteran’s Association and lobbied for repeal of the discriminatory legislation that had faced the Chinese community for so long.

King said: “We said to the government – if we were prepared to lay our life on the line for our country, then how are you going to deny me my rights which I’m entitled to, like all other Canadians?”

King says the veterans’ group went directly to Major-General George R. Pearkes, who was commander of the Allied troops in the Pacific during the war, and who had many talks with their SOE unit. Pearkes had pledged his support to help remove Canada’s discriminatory legislation against the Chinese people.

In 1947, the federal government repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act. British Columbia followed suit by drafting legislation which allowed the Chinese to vote, as did other provinces.

Although historians are divided over which groups were responsible for eliminating discriminatory legislation against Chinese Canadians during that time, they generally concur that it was the veterans’ organizations which spearheaded the battle. And it was the veterans’ service in the war which could not be ignored, King maintains.

He credits much of that to Major Pearkes, Minister of National Defense in the post-war Mackenzie King cabinet, as the one politician with integrity in the Liberal government who believed in ending the discriminatory laws against Chinese people in Canada.

“I think the greatest personal triumph I felt was our ability to apply pressure on the provincial and federal government. And we were able to back it up because of our record in the war,” he recalled.

“It was the only thing he had and the only weapon we could use to make the government listen to us,” he said. “We presented a voice the government could not ignore. We just didn’t go and make a request. We went up and demanded our rights. We earned it,” declared King, citing the Canadian Legion for its steadfast support.

These young Chinese boys were out with their fathers to mark “VJ Day” on August 15, 1945.
Photo: City of Vancouver Archives

“I just wanted to be free to do what I wanted to do without somebody telling me I can’t do it. I think that’s the most we could all ask for.”

While the Chinese community was very divided over whether to join and fight for Canada when war broke out, King believes in retrospect the decision by a minority of young Chinese men to fight for Canada turned out for the best.

“In Vancouver, where many of us joined up, there was a very strong feeling in the Chinese community that while there was a war on, there wasn’t too much sympathy. Before the war ended, they thought we were a bunch of bloody fools. Why should we shed blood for this country when people had no consideration in recognizing our rights as citizens of this country? And I think they were justified in feeling that.

“But some of us believed if we chose to sit back and not fulfill our basic obligations in a time of emergency, we would only prolong and intensify the hatred. We felt that volunteering was a way in which to prove were worthy as receiving the same recognition as all other Canadians.” King also said the rampant racism on the West Coast motivated him to sign up. “I just couldn’t believe what was happening and I felt I had to help change that by signing up and proving our loyalty.”

Japanese leaders sign a treaty of surrender with Allied commander General Douglas MacArthur to end the Second World War.
Photo: Associated Press.

“Today, nobody questions whether Chinese Canadians can become lawyers or chartered accountants or engineers. Prior to 1947, that was not possible. We just worked in laundries and restaurants.”

King did not live long enough to hear the Canadian government apologize to the Chinese community for its racist legislation in the past. But before he died, he said a new generation of Chinese Canadians should try and appreciate the tremendous sacrifices made to gain them the rights of equality as citizens. “If they don’t understand the history and the significance of what we did, then they won’t be able to defend our rights in the future if they are taken away again.”

“It’s not a birthright, believe me. Somebody paid for it.”

In 1947, King met his younger brother again, after 11 years of separation. The reunion was typical of many in the Chinese Canadian community since 1947.

Louey King Faceshot 1944

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