An article which appeared in the Vancouver Sun newspaper, written by their reporter Mai Stainby:-
That`s how Vancouver-born filmmaker Jari Osborne met her dad Alex Louie, at least the part of him she never knew. That`s how she found a hero in her family.
And that`s what eventually led her to make Unwanted Soldiers, a National Film Board documentary currently showing at the Vancouver Film Festival.
On one level, it`s the story of a top-secret British Special Operations Executive military commando unit during the Second World War. Force 136, in which Louie served, was composed of Chinese-Canadian men-mostly from the Vancouver area—who went behind Japanese enemy lines in the Southeast Asia to gather intelligence information as they could blend into the local population. (Force 136 was the demolition team portrayed in the movie Bridge on the River Kwai.)
It took “courage beyond belief” to volunteer for these jobs, a military officer in the film says. The casualty rate was 80 per cent.
On another level, Unwanted Soldiers is a life-changing voyage of discovery for Osborne, who found, at the end of it, gifts of strength and inspiration from her father.
The more Osborne dug, the more she was stunned by this pearl of unsung history. Her father trained as a morse code operator in Force 136, was preparing to be dropped behind enemy lines—but before that happen, the war ended.
“I started out looking for action heroes,” Osborne says. “ What I ended up with wasn`t a conventional war story. It rendered more like a parable. These guys were asked to make a leap of faith and they did it without question.”
Until the British government made a special request for Chinese-Canadian soldiers to join this elite unit, racist policies banned them from joining the Canadian armed forces.
“As family mythology has it,”Osborne laughs, “my dad`s a guy who you basically don`t want organizing a family dinner because we`d all end at different restaurants, This is the guy who inadvertently cancelled the reservation for his 70th birthday party.
“Here`s a guy who couldn`t figure out what buttons to push on his cell phone, but I discover he was highly skilled and valued as this undercover soldier.”
“He chooses” she realizes, “to be hapless now, but he was`t then. I had to face the fact I had preconceived notions of who he was, but he was another person before I knew him. I needed a fresh vision to appreciate him.”
Osborne knew her father was a veteran, that he proudly polished his medals for Remembrance Day every year and marched to the cenotaph. “At best I was indifferent to what I thought was a meaningless and vain ritual. I spent childhood years enduring this and vaguely embarrassed by it. Whenever I asked what he did, he never had stories that fit into the usual heroic mode. He was never wounded and he didn't get to go in [across enemy lines] because he was one of the next wave set to go in when the war ended.”
In the course of excavating his history, she found he was indeed wounded deeply and scarred by racism. And even though as a soldier, he didn`t make a big difference, he helped to change the course of Chinese-Canadians such as herself.
Louie, who kept his past from his four children (a filmmaker, a pharmacist, well-known classical composer Alexina Louie, and a lawyer), open the doors of emotions for Osborne.
Pre-war Vancouver was a place and the time when he would walk into a nightclub and hear: “I don`t want to set next to a f***in Chinaman.” He`d drive his father`s car down the street and be afraid that it would be damaged. He sat in a segregated section of movie theatres and he knew better than to go into the White Lunch restaurant, meant for whites only. For the Chinese. Vancouver of the 1930s and 40s was not unlike the Deep South for the blacks.
“What can you do?” Louie says. “you have to ignore it. You shrivel up to nothing. You let them do it.”
There was, he says, no hope, no future—until the war. “We wanted to better our lot, and order to better our lot, you had to do something extraordinary—something you can be proud of.”
I was shocked when dad told me he didn`t want to talk about that stuff because it`s so sad. Osborne says. “He`s a fun loving, generous, exuberant, active guy who loves his life, love to do things and cook for people. He`d had a life so sad that he didn`t want to talk about it.
“He told me he woke up every day like someone was physically kneeling on his chest, like a crushed person, like a slave who couldn`t dream of being free. When he put on his soldier`s uniform for the first time, he felt like a free man—it broke my heart.”
As Louie says in the film: “When we put on our uniforms, we walked down Granville street it was a feeling of ‘Free.’ People made way for you like you owned the street because we were fighting for our country. That`s what it was. That`s what it meant to us.”
“All these stories about shuffling Chinamen, turning the other cheek,” Osborne says, I never understood why they shrank into themselves. I didn`t know just how crushing their circumstances were and how much they had to find it in themselves to overcome it.
“They endured and changed things not by confronting things head on, but by another path. When the opportunity came along to prove themselves, they didn`t say ‘We won`t fight until you give us the vote.’ They did what they thought was the right thing. They said they`d fight for their country and invited society to do what was right in return.”
Two years after the war ended, Chinese Canadians were given the provincial franchise, and thereby, the federal vote as well. Force 136`s participation in the war gave Chinese Canadians full citizenship rights.
And Louie`s mother (who under the Exclusion Act, was barred from Canada after a visit to China) was allowed to returned to her family in Canada after 15 years.
“I didn`t expect the government to take care of my mother,” says Louie, who as a 13 year old had to work as a cook in a bunkhouse. “But her three sons served with the Canadian armed forces. We got her to return to Canada.”
“There was so much he never told me,” says Osborne, “My father`s a fabulous cook—I learned why. He`d been cooking from age of 13 for himself and the adult men he lived with in the Chinatown ghetto.
“My father concealed things from us because he didn`t want us to feel the shame that he felt. He didn`t want to burden us with any sad stories or feelings of inferiority. But I think it`s a kind of relief to tell these stories now and to know that I care. “There was a time when he rightfully thought I wouldn`t. Now he knows I`m strong enough to bear these stories.”
(Louie went on to become a successful businessman, operating several wholesale and retail grocery businesses, as well as, for the time. The Marco Polo supper club, a well known Vancouver landmark in the 1960s.)
Unwanted Soldiers has been a lesson in humility for Osborne. “It`s not often you come across a story that inspires you to be a better human being, a better daughter and a better mother. But here, I have it by example.
“It makes me want to try to be more patient, more tolerant, more understanding. Maybe my daughter might not appreciate that now, but maybe some day she will. It`s part of a cycle.”
Submitted by W. Chong ex-Force 136