Exhibit marks the 100th anniversary of the ‘culmination of anti-Chinese racism’

photo supplied Veterans Affairs Canada

John Ko Bong was an old man when he reached for a memory from 60 years earlier.

In the early days of the Second World War the Canadian military was signing up all the recruits they could get. But in Vancouver’s Chinese community there was a split, Ko Bong recalled.

“Are we going to fight . . . side by side with the Canadians? Or are we going to sit on the fence and let the Canadian boys do the fighting for us, eh?” he asked with a chuckle in an interview recorded by Veterans Affairs Canada.


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Ko Bong was part of a generation of Chinese Canadians who grew up with the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Passed in 1923, the act prohibited Chinese immigration and is now viewed as: “the culmination of anti-Chinese racism and policies,” by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

By banning spouses and children from joining the population of Chinese labourers in Canada, the act kept families part, slowed community development and hampered economic equality.

photo supplied Markus Fahrner

On Thursday, Coquitlam Heritage is set to hold a curator’s tour of their exhibit on the Chinese Exclusion Act at Coquitlam library’s City Centre branch.

Telling the story

Presented in English and Mandarin, the exhibit is a story of racism but also of resilience, explains Coquitlam Heritage exhibits manager Markus Fahrner.

It was important to “show the agency” of the Chinese community, Fahrner explained.

“I thought it would be really important if it was centred around someone’s story,” he said.

The exhibit features accounts from the descendants of Chinese Canadians affected by that policy as well as the head tax certificates from six local Coquitlam families.

The Chinese Exclusion Act required all Chinese Canadians, including people born in Canada, to register with the government and carry certificates with photo ID or risk “fines, detainment, or deportation,” according to the federal government.

Chinese residents – including very young children – were forced to carry ID cards, Farhner noted.

photo supplied Markus Fahrner

“I think it’s almost to make them aware that you are tolerated, you’re not really welcomed,” he said.

That atmosphere of intimidation could extend to dealings with police, Fahrner said, noting Port Moody police would often confront young Chinese workers over the suspicion they were gambling.

“The police there frequently, very frequently, checked up on them and not in a really super friendly way,” he said, noting those checks were sometimes in the middle of the night.

Inspired by the Paper Trail exhibit at the Chinese Canadian Museum on Pender Street in Vancouver, Fahrner said he hoped the exhibit emboldened more people to add to the discussion.

“People also want to tell their stories, he said.

After the war

Ko Bong ended up serving in the military, including a stint with Operation Oblivion – a special unit trained to wage guerilla warfare and to infiltrate the Japanese defence of Hong Kong, according to the Chinese Canadian Military Museum. That mission was called off following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

photo supplied Chinese Canadian Military Museum Society

After the war, Ko Bong was waiting for transport back to Canada when he met and married a Chinese Australian woman. He wanted to bring his new bride home but, because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, that wasn’t initially allowed.

When Ko Bong got home, he petitioned for the act to be repealed. The act was struck down in 1947.

When he was in his 90s, Ko Bong reflected on his service and on “getting the job done.”

“We are, we are Canadians because we earned it, we made it; we helped to create it for the Chinese people here,” he said.


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