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Hank Wong is the last surviving member of an elite group of Chinese-Canadian soldiers who, according to the government, never existed




Sandi Wong was driving her father — a refined gentleman already in his 90s — through the Ontario countryside near London a few years back when he eyed a line of hydro towers.

Surveying the metal forest, the retired auditor blurted: “I know how to take those out.”

Henry (Hank) Wong, 99, is the last surviving member of Operation Oblivion, an elite espionage team of Chinese-Canadians who were trained to parachute into Japanese-occupied China during the Second World War.
Henry (Hank) Wong, 99, is the last surviving member of Operation Oblivion, an elite espionage team of Chinese-Canadians who were trained to parachute into Japanese-occupied China during the Second World War.  (Andrew Francis Wallace / Toronto Star)

Hank Wong then went into detail about where best to place the dynamite and how it was possible to disable an entire power grid with one strategic detonation.

“Ah,” thought his daughter after recovering her breath. “I guess that’s what you were trained to do during the war.”

Silent assassination? Wong learned that too. Blowing up trains, jumping out of moving trucks, parachuting, he was proficient in all that. But his specialty, one that earned him the nickname The Trigger was small arms. Beretta, Luger, Japanese Nambu, name the pistol and he could efficiently dispatch an enemy soldier with any of them.

Wong, who will turn 100 next year, is the last surviving member of Operation Oblivion, a covert military mission devised by the British secret service for 13 Chinese-Canadian volunteers during the Second World War.

A photograph of Operation Oblivion team taken in 1944.
A photograph of Operation Oblivion team taken in 1944.  (Family Handout)

Essentially, the plan — one that sounds like a Hollywood action movie — was for that hand-picked crew of 13 to be trained in guerrilla warfare and then dropped behind enemy lines into Japanese-occupied China.

Once in place, those soldiers were to connect with the Chinese resistance and subvert the Japanese by any means, including destroying communication towers, bridges and railway lines. It was considered a suicide mission. The men were issued cyanide capsules to be swallowed in the unlikely event they were taken alive.

Wong didn’t see the need for cyanide.

“If they captured you, you were dead anyhow,” says Wong, who moved from London into the Veterans Centre of Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre this year.

Second World War veteran Hank Wong, 99, poses at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto in November. Hong joined the army in 1940 after being rejected by the navy because of his race.
Second World War veteran Hank Wong, 99, poses at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto in November. Hong joined the army in 1940 after being rejected by the navy because of his race.  (Andrew Francis Wallace / Toronto Star)

An Omni Television documentary, Operation Oblivion, outlining the planned espionage and its historical significance, was released five years ago and it introduced many Canadians to the little-known 1944-45 spy story. The men were sworn to secrecy for 25 years but even after that only partial details emerged. Hence, Sandi Wong’s jolt of surprise when her father detailed his efficiency with explosives. And it was only when she and her dad sat down together to speak with the Star recently that she learned her father had done wartime surveillance with a mini camera.

“We were divorced from the Canadian army; it was all completely secret,” says Wong, who uses a walker, one of his few concessions to age.

“When I was recruited, even I didn’t know what it was for. They don’t tell you anything. You don’t have a name, you have a number.”

Before the war, Canada, particularly in British Columbia, was largely inhospitable to those of Chinese heritage. They weren’t recognized as citizens and they weren’t allowed to vote. The Chinese Immigration Act, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, along with a punitive head tax stemmed the flow of arrivals from China. Culturally too, those of Chinese heritage were barred from some jobs and public amenities such as swimming pools.

Some Chinese men in Canada believed serving in the war would earn them respect and eventually lead them to have full rights as citizens. The majority of the men volunteering for Operation Oblivion were from B.C.

Another of the Oblivion members was Victoria-born Douglas Jung, who went from having no legal status to becoming the first Chinese-Canadian elected as a member of Parliament. He was later Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations.

In an interview available on the Veterans Affairs Canada website, Jung — who died in 2002 — spoke to why Chinese-Canadians signed on to serve despite the lack of respect from their birth country.

“Some of us realized that unless we volunteered to serve Canada during this hour of need, we would be in a very difficult position after the war ended to demand our rights as Canadian citizens because the Canadian government would say to us, ‘What did you do during the war when everybody else was out fighting for Canada? What did you do?’ So a few of us volunteered to serve,” he said.

Someone like Wong, who was born in London, and spoke none of the Chinese languages, was not considered a Canadian national. When he and four buddies, all white, tried to join the navy in 1940, his friends were accepted but Wong was rejected because of his race. He then went downstairs to volunteer for the army and was offered a job as a steward in the officers mess.

Persistent, Wong travelled to Chatham and joined the Kent Regiment, only after the commanding officer there learned he’d studied auto mechanics in high school. Initially, he became that man’s personal driver. Relieved of that duty for speeding, he was trained as a weapon’s specialist and deployed with his unit at various locations on the B.C. coast, and in Halifax and Niagara Falls. When his sister’s husband died in 1944, Wong was granted compassionate leave to help her run her restaurant in Palmerston, Ont.

That’s where a rather straightforward soldier’s life took a dramatic twist. One day at the diner a mysterious stranger with a British accent ordered fish and chips and then lingered at his table waiting for the other customers to leave. Finally, he identified himself as representing British intelligence and he asked Wong if he was interested in returning to active duty. Wong was told to report to Wolseley Barracks (now part of CFB London). From there he was flown to the west coast where, after a week of waiting and still with no idea why he was there, he was ordered to the Vancouver Hotel for an interview.

Even though recruiters were surprised Wong spoke only English — he’d been raised mostly in a London orphanage — he was taken on to the special force because of his expertise as a weapons instructor.

Wong and the 12 other Asian men recruited by British Special Operations Executive were all anointed as sergeants — a rank, Wong says, “didn’t mean a damn thing” and wouldn’t draw attention — and began an odyssey that would first see them train clandestinely for five months on the shores of Okanagan Lake near Penticton, B.C. There, they lived in tents, practised rolling out of moving vehicles, learned hand-to-hand combat and did gun manoeuvres with live ammo.

In Wong’s case, he was also taught to speak Cantonese; some of the men learned how to swim. They were all then shipped to Melbourne, Australia, on a circuitous route that included a lengthy stop in New Guinea. Once down under, there was more intense commando instruction. Wong earned his paratrooper’s wings in Australia.

It was there, in 1945, where the operation was suddenly scrapped. American general Albert C. Wedemeyer had been given control of the Allied efforts in China. In the documentary, it is speculated that he had no interest in sharing glory for liberating the area.

After Wong's operation was suddenly scrapped in 1945, Wong and the other members of his team were abandoned in Australia. They had to make their way home on a freighter.
After Wong’s operation was suddenly scrapped in 1945, Wong and the other members of his team were abandoned in Australia. They had to make their way home on a freighter.  (Andrew Francis Wallace / Toronto Star)

While Wong and his small detachment awaited other deployment — five of the men did see action in Borneo — the Americans bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki leading to the surrender of the Japanese. That left Wong’s crew in limbo. Because they were not officially Canadian soldiers — and weren’t expected to return alive — no plan was in place to get them home. They were abandoned in Australia.

“We just sat there,” Wong says. “Nobody owned us and we couldn’t get home. We had to work our way home on a freighter.”

When those men did get home, they faced another battle as Chinese-Canadians were still fighting for citizenship. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1947 and they were given full rights.

Jung, in that online interview, said he believes that wartime sacrifice helped pave the way for this to happen. Several hundred Chinese-Canadians ultimately served.

“We’re very proud of that record and all this was done, bearing in mind, at a time when we did not have to serve Canada, but we thought in our guts that unless we did something like that, we could (not) show to the Canadian people, and to the Canadian government, that we were willing to work for everything that we wanted, which was no more than the rights of Canadian privileges, the rights that every other Canadian enjoys,” he said.

In 2006, then prime minister Stephen Harper apologized for the “the racist actions of our past” in regards to the head tax on Chinese-Canadian immigrants.

Because Operation Oblivion was a clandestine British initiative, it isn’t in the Canadian military records that Wong or the others participated in it. Sandi Wong says her dad didn’t receive some of the medals or recognition other Chinese-Canadians who served were awarded. She said she is going to try to rectify that through Veterans Affairs Canada this year.

After the war, Wong worked for General Steel Wares in London, as a heating and cooling lab technician. He then became an auditor for the steelworkers union.

After the war, Wong worked as a heating and cooling lab technician and later became an auditor for the steelworkers union.
After the war, Wong worked as a heating and cooling lab technician and later became an auditor for the steelworkers union.  (Family Handout)

Wong, in his understated way, now says doing all that training for a mission and then not seeing action is just how it goes in the service.

“In the army, you do what you’re told. You take what you get,” he says matter-of-factly. “We were all ready to go. Then it was no go. As soon as they dropped the atomic bomb, they didn’t want anything to do with us.”

Paul Hunter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @hunterhockey


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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal




MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow




Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise




Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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