It seems Robinson (Rob) Mah is not the only Mah brother of Port Alberni with a reputation for firsts in Chinese Canadian history. His brother Douglas made a name for himself both in the Second World War and working in the sawmills back home on Vancouver Island.
Both brothers passed quite a number of years ago, but I wrote last week about Rob Mah’s legacy as a teacher and former disc jockey with CJAV Radio (now 93.3 The PEAK FM). The PEAK is celebrating 75 years on the Alberni Valley’s airwaves.
My column led to a lot of discussion amongst the Mah family, and several members kindly passed on information about Rob’s brother Doug. (Both of them had been known as “Mar” when they were younger because their name was Anglicized from Mah when they were in school).
Doug Mah was a soldier in the Second World War, serving with Force 136—a branch of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). There were 150 Chinese Canadian soldiers recruited by this special force, which conducted covert missions in Japanese-occupied Southeast Asia.
They were referred to as a “secret guerrilla unit” and when they returned to Canada at the end of the war they were initially instructed not to talk about their military activities, according to a 2005 Vancouver newspaper article by freelance writer and historian Chuck Davis.
Doug Mah’s name is apparently acknowledged on a plaque in Vancouver’s Chinatown for being part of the first Chinese Canadian commando unit in the Second World War.
That wasn’t the only fight Mah helped wage during the Second World War. Not only did he have to fight with others to even serve in Canada’s military, but he came home to a battle on Canadian soil too.
At the same time the Second World War broke out, there was controversy over the fact Chinese Canadians did not have the right to vote in Canada (They weren’t alone: South Asian Canadians, Japanese Canadians and Indigenous People were also denied voting). At the time, there were perhaps 7,000 people of Chinese descent in Vancouver, according to historical records, and 30,000 nationwide.
Lori Gassner is a niece in the Mah family. She explained the fight Doug Mah engaged in on his return: “My other uncle, Doug Mah, served in the Second World War and was among the Chinese Canadians who marched for the vote when they got back,” she wrote.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed at the end of the Second World War when Canada signed the United Nations Charter of Human Rights, and Chinese Canadians were finally allowed to vote in federal elections in 1947.
Both Rob and Doug Mah worked in the sawmills back in Port Alberni when they were home.
“Uncle Dougie was famous in the family for quitting a job in a sawmill because Chinese workers were paid less than everyone else, and getting a job at another mill that paid equally,” Gassner said.
The Mahs are just two of a number of Chinese Canadian residents who have left their mark in the Alberni Valley. Jan Peterson’s The Albernis and Twin Cities: Alberni-Port Alberni include stories of others, and the Alberni Valley Museum’s online digital archives are searchable by the public seeking more information about the region’s photographic history. Go online to https://portalberni.pastperfectonline.com.
— Susie Quinn is the Alberni Valley News editor. May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada.