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Chinese-Canadian veteran from Victoria relishes opportunity to connect past with present

Gordon Quan trained to operate as a demolition expert behind Japanese lines
Gordon Quan, who turns 96 in January, is among 26,300 or so surviving veterans of the Second World War (as of March 2020). (Wolf Depner/News Staff)

Their numbers are getting smaller and smaller, but for the 26,300 or so surviving veterans of the Second World War (as of March 2020) like Gordon Quan, each Remembrance Day offers another opportunity to serve as a living link to a past becoming increasingly distant.

Despite his age of 95, Quan remains involved in the Royal Canadian Legion as a lifetime member and the Chinese Canadian Veterans Association.

A presence at Remembrance Day commemorations across Greater Victoria for six decades, Quan also speaks at private and public occasions about his experiences in the jungles of Southeast Asia during the Second World War, be it at Ross Place Seniors Community or as part of government delegations travelling abroad.

“I was lucky,” said Quan during an interview outside Veterans Health Centre, where he visits regularly, of his time in the jungles of Burma during the Second World War. “Every time, I make a speech to a group of young people (about) how lucky we are today to live in Canada.”

Quan’s appreciation for Canada did not come as easily for Chinese-Canadians. According to the Chinese Canadian Military Museum, few Canadians of Chinese descent volunteered for the Canadian armed forces with the start of the Second World War in 1939.

For one, the conflict in Europe was a long way away and to some degree, ancillary to the events that had been unfolding in China since the early 1930s, when Japan first occupied Manchuria (modern-day northeast China) in 1931 before staging a larger invasion in 1937 during which Japanese forces committed atrocities against civilians. Born 1926 in Cumberland, Quan still remembers how Victoria’s Chinese community raised money for the fight against the Japanese, without being fully aware of the larger context.

Members of the Chinese communities in Victoria and Vancouver also split over the question of whether to fight for a country that had first charged their ancestors a tax to immigrate to Canada starting in 1885, then replaced said tax in 1923 with a law that virtually banned all immigration from China for 24 years until 1947 explicitly on the basis of race, all while denying them the right to vote as part of a long list of humiliating rules and regulations providing legal covering to daily discrimination.

And yet, Quan volunteered when turning 18. “At that time, you don’t think about that,” said Quan. “You just think about the war. I wanted to help out.”

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Part of Force 136, a branch of British Special Operations Executive during the Second World War, Quan trained and supported local resistance movements to sabotage Japanese supply lines and equipment in Southeast Asia.

Conscious of the treatment awaiting him in the event of capture, Quan carried cyanide pills with him while in the jungle.

According to the Chinese Canadian Military Museum, Quan was among 150 Chinese Canadians serving in Force 136 between 1944 and 1945. Serving as a private, Quan trained and lived with members of the Indian Army as well as the famed Gurkhas, Nepalese soldiers.

“We travelled together, we lived together like a family,” he said.

Quan said during this time he never experienced any discrimination by virtue of his background. In fact, the entire unit was premised on the idea that its members could easily blend into the local population while performing dangerous, almost suicidal acts of sabotage behind enemy lines.

“One of the British officers came over (during basic training in Maple Creek, Sask.) and asked whether I would volunteer for Southeast Asia due to the fact that we are more adapted to the area than the Caucasians,” said Quan.

Quan never blew up anything during the war and he credits the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan by American forces for his survival. Following his discharge from the army in 1946, Quan remained in civilian life for several years, before re-joining through the Canadian militia in 1952.

While holding civilian jobs in private construction and municipal services, Quan would serve another 35 years in uniform, finishing his career as a regimental sergeant major.

Turning 96 in January, Quan finds himself at the average age of a Second World War veteran. He still sees his friend and comrade Victor Wong and continues to see life as a series of learning opportunities.

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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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