Gordon Quan in uniform in London in 1945.
By Tom Hawthorn
Boulevard MagazineOctober, 2015
Late on the evening of October 19, a worker will tip over a box to pour out folded paper ballots. These will be carefully opened and stacked. They will be counted and recounted.
A similar scene will unfold across the city, the island, the province, and, indeed, all across this vast land. Election Day is a time when we take a brief pause in our daily activity to offer an opinion on the future direction of the country.
One of those boxes will include a ballot cast by Gordon Quan, who will celebrate his 90th birthday in January. In an age when barely more than half of us cast a ballot once every four years, Quan votes in federal elections and provincial elections and municipal elections. He is among the dedicated few who never miss a chance to do their civic duty.
“I always vote,” he said. “To vote is to get your idea into the system.”
Quan votes because there was once a time when the country of his birth said he could not. He returned from active service in the Burmese jungles at the end of the Second World War to a Canada that would still deny him the franchise solely because of his ethnic heritage. In British Columbia, the restrictions on voters were removed slowly and over time with Chinese Canadians and Hindu Canadians granted the franchise in 1947, Mennonites and Hutterites in 1948, Japanese-Canadians and First Nations in 1949, and Doukhobors in 1952.
Quan had earned the right to vote since he had fought in the war, but he vowed never to skip an opportunity others had once sought to deny him.
He was born Juy Kong Quan in Cumberland, where his father was a Chinatown merchant. His father died when the boy was five, so his mother took the boy to her ancestral village in Canton for four years. He returned to Victoria at age nine, attending North Ward School and, after school, taking lessons at the Chinese school on Fisgard Street.
He remembers a Victoria where people were expected to know their place and boys who looked like him were not permitted to swim at Crystal Pool. It was also a time when their parents were barred from such professions as teaching and the law.
At 18, he enlisted in the war effort. He did basic training in Saskatchewan before being seconded to the British Army where he was to join others of Chinese descent in Force 136 of the Special Operations Executive. A good pupil, he showed promise and received further training in the dark arts of sabotage and demolition. Midway through 1945, he was dispatched to the jungles of Burma where he was to blow up bridges and fuel depots to harass the occupying Japanese forces.
He was under no illusion as to his likely fate. “A suicide squad” is how he describes the assignment today. Despite that, he was willing. Lucky for him, the destruction of two civilian cities by atomic bombs brought a quick end to the war.
He returned to civilian life, got married, and took a job washing dishes at the Mandarin Chop Suey restaurant in Victoria's Chinatown. After taking an 18-month vocational course, the cost covered as a veteran's benefit, he qualified as an automobile mechanic. He joined the militia in 1952, retiring from the Canadian Army after 35 years for which he was awarded the Order of Military Merit for his exceptional service. In his civilian life, he became the first person of Chinese ancestry to work for the City of Victoria's public works department.
To mark a ballot with a checkmark or an X — the sign of the cross, a child's scratch, a mark so simple it is used as a signature by illiterates — is the easiest of tasks.
What would Quan say to the millennials and others who don't bother to vote?
“You have the right to vote,” he said. “You're not going to help the country. When you grow older you're going to regret you didn't vote when you had the opportunity.”
There is one other reason to vote, he added.
“If you don't vote,” he said, “you can't do any squawking.”
So, he will cast a ballot on election day. Three weeks later, on Remembrance Day, he will wear his beret and his uniform as he lays a wreath at the cenotaph in front of Saanich Municipal Hall, as he has done for years.
On election day, I'll be remembering the most basic of rights and the simplest of actions are easy to take for granted. Others were once dropped into unforgiving jungles to ensure we'd have this chance. To go mark a ballot is the least we can do.