Cowichan stepped up to help Chinese ‘warphans’

“China’s fight is the United Nations’ fight.”—Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Chinese soldiers in house-to-house fighting in the Battle of Taierzhuang, March–April 1938. (Wikipedia photo)

Chinese soldiers in house-to-house fighting in the Battle of Taierzhuang, March–April 1938. (Wikipedia photo)

“China’s fight is the United Nations’ fight.”—Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

War, like politics, makes strange bedfellows. Certainly this was the case in August 1943, in the middle of the Second World War. That’s when Cowichan residents were implored to assist China in its resistance to Japanese invasion.

What made this such an about-face for many in the Valley was the sad fact that local Chinese citizens had long been discriminated against, many of them since their arrival with the building of the E&N Railway in the ’80s.

But Japan’s entry in the Second World War changed all that. Overnight, the attack on Pearl Harbour meant that the war was no longer ‘over there’ in Europe and North Africa, it was here — on our very doorstep.

For those who may have had doubts, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill — whose own nation’s history with the Chinese was less than exemplary — put it in context: “China’s fight is the United Nations’ fight. Great Britain is determined to give China every material, moral and spiritual help in our power.”

Now China was an ally. Now Canadians were being urged to contribute to the Chinese War Relief Fund. Heralded a front-page story in the Cowichan Leader: “Canada Looks to Cowichan For Speedy Response to Call For China’s Helpless Millions.”

Mayor George H. Savage had agreed to serve as honorary chairman and two prominent members of the local Chinese community were assisting a handful of well-known volunteers.

To start, subscription lists had been placed in Duncan’s two banks, the Cowichan Merchants Store and at the newspaper office. Lists were also being distributed to outlying districts and a tag day was planned for the end of the month, with Chinese women and girls doing the tagging. (This, unquestionably, was a first for Cowichan.)

All donations over $1 would be noted in the Leader which was pleased to report that, in just two days, the fund had taken in $67 in seven donations ranging from $2-20. It was the Leader’s view that “all Canadians must do their share to relieve the suffering of China. Through this relief fund appreciation of their courage can be shown.”

Of great benefit was the fact that, despite rampant inflation in China, the Canadian dollar had “tremendous” purchase power. Examples given included: 20 hospital beds for a year, $500; 5,000 days of labour for a work-relief project, $200; emergency treatment for 100 air raid victims, $100; equipping a field medical clinic, $50; training a worker for active service, $25; keeping one refugee alive for one year, $20; providing clinical care for 100 refugees, $10.

Missionary Lillian Russell who’d retired to Duncan after 23 years teaching in China, had been fortunate in being able to flee the country ahead of the Japanese invaders, as one of the 11,000 refugees who daily sought refuge in India. She believed that no fewer than 30 million Chinese had been driven from their homes. That said, she declared that the Chinese government continued to carry on and to expand education, determined to eliminate illiteracy by 1945! Co-ed education was a priority, she said, because China desperately needed “leaders, teachers and trained workers such as nurses”.

Trade schools were another priority as were care centres for an estimated two million ‘warphans’ (war orphans).

Leading the charge was the Leader, a subsequent issue of the weekly newspaper carrying a three-quarter-page ad with headlines big enough to be read on a billboard. Parroting Churchill — CHINA’S FIGHT IS THE UNITED NATIONS’ FIGHT — the appeal noted that “China has given blood, sweat and toil and tears for more than six long years”. Far longer than the Allies and the Americans had to date.

Canada’s proposed share of the international fund drive was $1 million which sounds puny today. This represented a much larger sum in 1943, particularly when its purchase power in Chinese funds was taken into account. (Canada’s total war expenditure for that year was projected to be $5 billion, incidentally; a paltry million would keep the Canadian effort going for 105 minutes!)

“The purpose of the Chinese War Relief Fund — to provide food for the starving — medicine for the diseased and wounded — hospital beds for the bomb victims — training for war workers — shelters for refugees — and to keep up the morale of our long-suffering ally.

“…To keep China a strong, friendly ally means not only the assurance of ultimate victory, but also the shortening of the war by many months or years! The import and export trade of China has meant much to British Columbia. Let us be the first province to exceed our quota!”

I’m pleased to report that the money flowed in, from individuals, businesses and municipalities. What it was able to accomplish in a land so war-torn as was China is beyond knowing at this point. But there were downstream benefits. For perhaps the first time, Chinese at home and abroad were accorded full respect and compassion. Within two years the war would be over; a few years more and Chinese Canadians would be granted the right to vote.