Born in Nanaimo, like many young Chinese Canadian men and women, Dodson Mah was initially rejected by the Canadian Army because he was not white.
In 2004, Mah told his story to reporter Mia Thomas of Burnaby Now newspaper. Read the story below.
The stitching is a little faded and the edges are worn, but the white, blue and red shoulder patches are in remarkably good condition.
Dodson Mah shows them to visitors with pride.
“There’s not too many of these around,” said the Burnaby resident, one of the few remaining Chinese Canadian veterans of the Second World War.
“There’s not too many of us left now.”
Then he brings out the Burma Star, the metal badge presented to those who served under Lord Louis Mountbatten.
In a time marked by unselfish acts, the young Chinese Canadian men who fought in the Second World War were in a class of their own.
Mah was born in Nanaimo in 1920, the son of a man also born in Canada and grandson of a noted pioneer in the mid-Island community.
Shortly after he graduated from high school, the Second World War broke out.
“All the boys in our class joined up,” Mah remembers. “There’s not too many that were rejected.
“I volunteered for the army, but I was rejected because (officially) I wasn’t a Canadian. There was a lot of prejudice and racism going on.”
There were many young Canadian men with a Chinese heritage who tried repeatedly to join up during the war.
This was their country and they were determined to prove their patriotism and loyalty.
“There was so much discrimination at that time, I figured if we joined up, they might change something,” Mah said.
“Our group felt that there was a job that had to be done.”
Older people told them they were “crazy” for volunteering to put their lives on the line for a country that didn’t acknowledge them, but the young men were determined.
Their situation wouldn’t change unless someone made a sacrifice.
They hoped that, above all, their country would recognize them as citizens and give them the franchise.
Their country was just as determined not to let them prove themselves.
Recruitment criteria specified that the men had to be Caucasian.
As the war progressed, official policy was applied with a free hand across the country.
In the eastern provinces, Chinese Canadians were allowed to fight.
However, British Columbian officials were against having anyone of Asian origin in the war.
Things finally changed in 1944 when Pacific Command received orders to call up the people of Chinese origin in British Columbia.
Mah was now able to join the Canadian Forces and trained with the Royal Canadian Engineers in Chilliwack.
Then word came that the British wanted volunteers to join British Force 136 and fight in Southeast Asia.
Mah said there were 400 to 500 Chinese Canadians in the Canadian Forces at that time and everyone volunteered to go.
After the screening process, which included physical and mental assessments, a little more than 100 were recruited for the British assignment – one of them being Mah.
“We were detached from the Canadian army and attached to British Force 136,” he remembered.
“We had extreme training all over India,” Mah said.
“Engineering training in Chilliwack, that wasn’t bad. But the training in Southeast Asia, that was really tough.”
They were trained in demolitions, small arms, high explosives and organizing ethnic Chinese locals to fight against Japanese invaders.
“I was up in the jungle, up in the Himalayas,” Mah said.
Mortality rates were high among troops in Southeast Asia and malaria outbreaks were common.
“It was hot – heat and diseases (made it difficult),” Mah said. “You’re fighting the elements more than anything else when you’re in that country.”
But fate intervened on behalf of some of them.
“Our group was pretty lucky because they dropped the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and that ended the war. So we came back, and they detached us from the British force and attached us to the Canadian army.”
But everyone had been sworn to secrecy about what they’d been doing in Southeast Asia – they weren’t even allowed to mention they’d been there.
“We couldn’t divulge it until 30 years later, so most Canadians didn’t know that there was a Chinese Canadian detachment in the war,” Mah said.
However, those who had joined up did accomplish part of their mission.
Along with First World War Chinese Canadian veterans, they were given the franchise in 1945.
But that wasn’t enough – it wasn’t what they had been fighting for.
“My father, my brothers – they didn’t have that until we sent a delegation to Ottawa.”
By 1947, all Chinese Canadians were given the right to vote and the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed.
“We felt so proud that we were Canadians now,” Mah said.
Before the war, they had been “second class,” according to the veteran.
“You go to the theatre and they send you upstairs. You go to a restaurant and they put you in a corner.”
When the news broke, Mah was nearing the end of a varied career and working for Canada Customs
“The phone rang off the hook,” he said.
Half a century after the war ended, a group of Chinese Canadian veterans was invited to Ottawa to see a memorial.
Now, when those few remaining get together, they don’t look back.
“We don’t talk much about the war because that’s water under the bridge,” said Mah. “We talk about the future.
“We’re interested in what Canada’s doing now. We fought for this country and we’d like to see it advance.”
They were officially on the sidelines of Canada’s past, but they are definitely part of its future.
Mia Thomas, staff reporter, Burnaby Now, 11/10/2004