It was in the week that a major Hollywood movie had scored an historic box-office hit with an all-Asian cast. In Vancouver’s Chinatown on August 21, retired colonel Mark Hutchings led a ceremony to honour an ethnic Chinese soldier, possibly a first, who had fought and died for Canada that day 101 years ago.
The people and circumstances for both milestones could not be more contrasting in narrating the continuing Chinese search for recognition and acceptance in mainstream North America.
Private Frederick Lee was among a nearly forgotten group of around 300 ethnic Chinese soldiers who fought for Canada in Europe in the First World War. Remarkably, they had volunteered to serve even though they were not citizens and had no chance of becoming one in the anti-Asian milieu that Canada had set in motion with the 1885 Chinese Immigration Act.
“He was of Chinese descent, which puts a Chinese Canadian at the heart of our history at a most critical part,” said Hutchings, referring to Lee’s contribution to the Canadian Corps’ pivotal victory over German forces at Hill 70 in northern France in 1917.
At the ceremony in the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, Hutchings announced the receipt of a $1.5-million donation from Vancouver-based philanthropist Robert H.N. Ho towards the construction of the $2-million Frederick Lee Walkway near the site where the machine gun operator was killed. The walkway forms part of the larger Hill 70 Memorial Project to remember the 1,877 Canadian soldiers killed and thousands others injured in the battle near the city of Lens.
Lee’s participation only came to light when Hutchings, of Kingston, Ontario, chanced upon the Hill 70 story nearly a decade ago. In France to commemorate the end of the First World War, he learned about the "forgotten" battle from an English delegate, said Rob Baxter of the prestigious 75-member volunteers’ group established to honour the Hill 70 soldiers. Headed by Hutchings, it has recruited Canada’s former governor general David Johnston as its patron, and former Supreme Court of Canada chief justice Beverley McLachlin and former astronaut Chris Hadfield among its honorary advisors.
“Frederick Lee became lost in the battle quite literally. His body was never found and Hill 70 was the battle that was almost ‘lost’ to Canadian history,” said Baxter in a phone interview from Kingston.
“We’d forgotten about it, so Lee was the perfect metaphor for a lost man in a lost battle.”
Until Hutchings’ discovery, the 10-day battle from August 15 to 25 was lost to Canadian history mainly because it was fought between the larger, better known clashes at Vimy Ridge in France and Passchendaele in Belgium.
But the Canadian Corps’ surprise assault on the strategic site 70 metres above sea level, hence its name, was crucial to the Allied forces’ victory in the bigger battle at Passchendaele. Forced to divert resources to Hill 70, the Germans failed in the defence of their position in the Belgian village. The three major losses starting with Vimy Ridge contributed to their eventual defeat in the First World War.
Lee’s involvement in both Hill 70 and Vimy Ridge was uncovered when the volunteers’ group that Hutchings had helped set up found his name among the casualties list, said Baxter.
While combing through the record books, they noticed that Lee’s mother had an address in China, suggesting that he was of Chinese ancestry. Baxter said the discovery excited the group as its members had initially assumed that “it was a Lee from England”. A Chinese soldier in the Canadian military in 1917: who would have thought?
Jack Gin’s treasure hunt
The group contacted the Vancouver-based Chinese Canadian Military Museum Society to find out about the mystery soldier who was born in Kamloops in 1895. The society turned to one of its supporters, Vancouver-based entrepreneur and philanthropist Jack Gin, who enthusiastically took up the cause.
While the military’s record and academic archives provided a useful start, Gin said the published information about Lee was sketchy “and arguable”.
He began his journey to “discover Frederick Lee” right after meeting Hutchings in May last year.
“I promised him I would go up to Kamloops,” he said in an interview at the August 21 event. There, he found Lee’s name on the cenotaph dedicated to soldiers from the city killed fighting for Canada in the war.
Gin also found that Kamloops’s Chinese community did not know that Lee was Chinese. Like the Hill 70 project volunteers, they had assumed the machine gun operator from the 172nd Battalion was English by descent.
“We uncovered tremendous information, just astounding historical information that relates to the history of Canada,” said Gin.
“I believe I was the first person in a hundred years to actually go to where Fred Lee was born, to go look for him.”
But the Lees left little record about their own lives, so Gin and his team of researchers had to work to put together a picture of the family. Frederick was one of eight children fathered by a man who had arrived from China in 1861.
“Fred’s father was called Chong Lee. He came to Canada before confederation in 1867,” said Gin. It will likely remain a mystery why Chong Lee’s family would send the young boy to live in a faraway land.
But he proved to be more than just a survivor. Starting off as a miner in Canada, the young man became a merchant and prospered as a rancher who owned 1,000 acres of land in Kamloops.
The Lees were likely to be well regarded in Kamloops, which already had a small Chinese population. Despite rising anti-Chinese sentiments throughout British Columbia, Gin believes Chong Lee had some standing in the city, as his death in 1904 was reported in the Kamloops Sentinel newspaper.
“In the eyes of the of the community, he was a wealthy man. He was also a community man. He was always there to support community causes. I’ll call him a philanthropist,” said Gin.
“I think he was also a much loved man in Kamloops, judging from the tone of the writing in the newspaper about his death.”
Frederick Lee to be mentioned in Parliament
At the event, Senator Yuen Pau Woo announced that he will pay tribute to Frederick Lee and his fallen colleagues at the next sitting of Parliament’s Upper House on September 13.
“Chinese Canadians are very much a part of the fabric of this country,” he said, lamenting the continued lack of awareness of the community’s long history and role in Canada’s development. There was already a thriving Chinese presence in British Columbia long before Canada was formed in 1867.
The memory of Frederick Lee’s sacrifice will help increase that awareness and shape perception of the Chinese community in present-day Canada, said Woo.
Crazy, rich reaction to a movie?
Compared to the quiet modest reception at the Frederick Lee ceremony, the reaction among the Chinese diaspora across North America and parts of Asia to Hollywood’s Crazy Rich Asians movie was overwhelming, even excessive at first blush.
The Globe and Mail’s Cliff Lee wrote that he cried within 30 seconds of the movie’s opening, so overcome was he, an ethnic Chinese, by the recognition that a major U.S. cultural institution had accorded the Asian existence. Even though this was fiction, the Tyee’s Christopher Cheung described himself “pinching myself the whole time” watching Asian characters occupy centre-stage—and looking great—through Hollywood’s often distorted lenses of nonwhite actors and themes.
At a tastemaker screening for a mostly Asian-American audience in Los Angeles, the Hollywood Reporter heard “audible sniffles…throughout the darkened theater as the romantic comedy played out onscreen.”
Boosted by a strong Asian turnout, the movie earned US$44.4 million in its first week of domestic release, and is on course to become one of the most successful Hollywood movies in recent years. Commentators hailed it as a watershed moment for North America’s Asians to find cultural acceptance in the English-speaking world.
Speaking to the Vancouver Sun, Vancouver-based novelist and pop-culture commentator Jen Sookfong Lee said the movie gave Asians the sudden realization that they are no longer “invisible”.
On the back of this unlikely Hollywood hit, the tragic heroism of Frederick Lee and his Chinese comrades might yet find visibility on the big screen about a First World War story that is just waiting to be told.