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Tracing the past: Dr Joseph Yu-Kai Wong’s mission in remembering forgotten histories of World War II

Endlessly, civilisations and thinkers have clashed in the debate over the value of peace, the viability of pacifism, the necessity of warfare, and the divide between conceptions of so-called “good” and “evil”. Reinventing the “Other” as different from the “Self” has been a recurrent technique of early anthropologists and inherent in universally held cultural attitudes, observable inter alia in the discourses adopted in Ancient Greece and China; Britain’s assertion of the “civilised” and “uncivilised” dichotomy in regions such as India; and more recently, the attitudes towards the Middle East in light of the illegally-sanctioned Iraq War.

By Yinsey Wang 

“Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding” – Albert Einstein

Understanding how war is justified and legitimised is only one of the lessons in which we need to educate our children. The desire for peace is instilled in the hearts of men, women and children everywhere across the world; yet it seems that apathy is still so rampant and few are willing to learn or revisit the reasons why we should find warfare so repulsive in the first place. The reasons are easy to recite but nonetheless underappreciated or their respective gravities are undermined: the brutal usurpation of individuals’ ways of living; the colonial domination and subjection of people’s cultures; and ultimately, irreversible death and destruction. 

When I met Dr Joseph Yu-Kai Wong in Toronto as a rather ignorant undergraduate studying East Asian Studies and Economics, little did I know how much this extraordinarily humble and modest man would reshape my view to peace, reconciliation and the feasibility of adopting a “global citizen perspective”. Born in 1948, Wong was born amidst impoverished Hong Kong under the iron rule of the British; little opportunities were available to promote equity or participation in the political sphere for locals and free speech and thought were restricted and discouraged. Today, his resilience to aid others and love for humanity continue to instil inspiration in fellow Canadians for which he has been awarded many honours, including the Order of Canada. Amongst his various achievements, he has served on and/or founded various committees and organisations such as Chinese Canadian National Council; United Way; Canadians for North Korean Famine Relief; Elizabeth Lue Bone Marrow Foundation; and Yee Hong Centre For Geriatric Care. I was touched by his story and am honoured to share his vision for world peace, mutual understanding and the importance of recognising equality amongst peoples. It is my honour to share his insights and his mission through ALPHA (Association of Learning and Preserving the History of Asia in WWII) with you.

Discovering the Holocaust

At 19-years-old, Wong began his studies in electrical engineering at McGill University in Canada.  Talented and extremely capable, he enrolled in the Albert Einstein College of New York to study medicine. There he became aware of conflicts in the Middle East at the time and other problems facing the world. At the time, learning about the Holocaust had started to become increasingly important in Western history. The words of the Jewish community and their efforts to ensure that such horrors would “never again” occur touched him deeply. Their wish was that such atrocities would never happen again to anyone and anywhere in the world.

Dissatisfaction with Injustice

After the completion of his studies, Wong returned to Canada. He learnt of the deep respect that Canadians felt for their veterans; for them it was important to recognise the sacrifices others made for their country. Valuing these memories, Canadians educated the nation on those who had perished during the atrocities of WWII. Wong revealed:

“What shocked me was that Asian lives had been valued so cheaply than those of the West. When people die in the West, we remember them because they died for the West. We remember them for protecting values such as freedom and democracy. Yet the millions that died in Asia, they seem to have been forgotten in the narratives purveyed in WWII history. At the time, Asian suffering was overlooked in the Western world and barely mentioned even in our own lands such as China, Hong Kong or other South East Asian countries.

I felt a great sense of injustice and that we did not learn the lessons we needed most to confront. Particularly when Japanese educators rewrote the history that happened in WWII, continuously denied certain events in their official historical records of atrocities committed in China, Korea, South East Asia and other countries, I felt that Asia had not come to a point of proper closure. I felt that yes, we should remember those who died. Hence, I started the Association of Learning and Preserving the History of Asia in 1997.

We were shocked with our initial findings; in Ontario at the time, history was a compulsory course up to the Grade 10 level. Although World War II was a crucial part of the curriculum, we found that over 95% of teachers did not know much about the incidents in Asia. So, we began a Peace and Reconciliation Study Tour in 2004, bringing educators and teachers to Asia. We enlarged the number of participants and invited Canadian, American, Australian, British, German and Japanese educators to teach.

In 2004, we found that awareness of the atrocities and history of World War II in Asia significantly increased. Speaking to University graduates in 2004-5, we asked about whether they knew about the subject and only 1-2 hands out of 30-40 students would be raised. Now, around 20-25% of students would raise their hands. I think that to a large extent, our efforts to fundraise which culminated in the production of a film on Iris Chang’s Rape of Nanking had a profound impact on North Americans. We also raised awareness of events by working together with local school boards to promote the teaching and knowledge of WWII in Asia in high schools across the Greater Toronto Area through the writing of textbooks, creating DVDs and the provision of audio visual teaching aids. Additionally, we support playwrights, directors, and writers.

My vision is that we should remember these atrocities so that eventual peace and reconciliation would prevail in Asia. I advocate that we look at the history in the lens of a global citizen yearning for eventual peace and reconciliation, without recourse to hatred or blame. What I hope to achieve is to bring greater awareness of the history and the facts, so that the truth can be brought to the surface rather than be buried underneath the rug of ignorance. Such gross injustices should not be tolerated and it is our responsibility, as members of humanity, to recognise this”.

Study Tour

The Importance of Education

Wong consistently emphasises the importance of learning and working towards peace:

“We are reaching a state of global consciousness like never before and becoming a global village. Asia is already rising and becomes more significant in world affairs, particularly China and India. Westerners who know only about their own history will be unable to understand other societies and countries. Furthermore, we are all interlinked and dependent on each other. We cannot exist in isolation. Interacting with other nations is an inevitable part of our future and our present. It is imperative that we respect each other. Within this perspective, we should learn about each of our respective histories. My respect for the North American Jewish communities that I have been touched by is so great; they would put incredible amounts of human and financial resources so that all can remember the history of what happened in the past. I was utterly hurt when I realised what happened in Asia and how peoples can have such little regard for human life. 

We should not teach history from a nationalistic perspective. We should approach this subject in a globalised lens and understand from different perspectives as to why such atrocities happened, what we can do to prevent its reoccurrence and develop mutual respect amongst peoples regardless of their backgrounds. I think that so far, Canada has provided a great example for other countries to follow; we value global citizenship, multiculturalism and coexistence. After all, respect for the freedom of others and the recognition of human dignity are core human values”. 

The Future

“Toronto ALPHA would like to open the first World War II Centre in Asia. Currently, there is no centre in China dedicated to the dissemination of knowledge to the public; most centres tend to concentrate on one issue rather than looking at the issues in a comprehensive manner. We are hoping to create a museum and a teaching centre. We are hoping to inspire others in different parts of the world to do the same”.

Peace and not Hate

Peace, above all, is the goal of the organisation. Wong asserts: “the importance of the global citizenship perspective that I advocate is not to hate and blame the actions of others. I did not set up ALPHA to promote hatred towards the Japanese as an enemy of the victims in WWII. If any organisation starts this way, then it is doomed to fail. This is because hatred will never get you anywhere. It is love, reconciliation, and most importantly, the aim to promote justice and truth that promotes a better tomorrow”.

How can British Chinese get involved? 

Dr Joseph Wong warmly extends an invitation to all that share his vision to promote peace and understanding about the history of WWII in Asia. He welcomes all people, of all backgrounds and all stages of their career to volunteer. Currently the ALPHA board of directors consists of non-Chinese (5) and Chinese (5) which includes an educational trustee and historians from the University of Toronto.

Wong has stated that for those British Chinese that are willing to take up the challenge, representatives from ALPHA are happy to fly over to Britain to engage and connect with them to assist them with their own independent organisations or set up respective chapters. Furthermore, he hopes that educators from Britain will consider joining the July study tours to East Asia which bring approximately 30 individuals to Hong Kong, China, Japan and Korea to visit historical sites.

Mission of the Association for Learning and Preserving the History of WWII in Asia:

* For the facts of the history of WWII in Asia to be known knowledge to be learnt so that we can stop atrocities from happening again to anyone.

* Justice for victims to have proper closure for this horrific chapter in history.

* Education to be a key channel in promoting the awareness of WWII history which should be learnt by everyone.

Information about the Association for Learning and Preserving of the History of WWII in Asia’s Accomplishments:

The world’s first organised effort to promote Iris Chang’s book ‘The Rape of Nanking – The Forgotten Holocaust of WWII’. Selling 2,000 books sold across Canada, the book then became a Best Seller in the New York Times;

Canadian province Ontario incorporated the History of WWII in Asia as a compulsory part of the Grade 10 history curriculum in 2005. This is the first western jurisdiction to do so;

From 2004 to 2011, 180+ educators from around the globe have participated in ALPHA’s study-tours to China, Korea, and Japan;

Publishing the teaching resource guide ‘Search for Global Citizenship: Violations of Human Rights in Asia 1931 – 1945’;

Provision of teaching packages, including books and CDs and DVDs, to 900 public, catholic, and private high schools in Ontario in 2006;

Lobbied the Canadian Government to pass Motion 291, with a 50,000 signature-petition and testimonials of victims from China, Korea, the Philippines, and the Netherlands given to parliamentary hearing (The Motion condemned Japan for its lack of acknowledgement and admission of responsibility for ‘Comfort Women’ atrocity, and urged Japan to make a sincere apology to the victims. It was passed unanimously in the House of Commons on November 28, 2007);

‘Iris Chang -The Rape of Nanking’, a Docudrama, 2 years in the making, was made in time for the 70th Anniversary of the Rape of Nanking, premiered in Toronto on Nov. 10, 2007. Toronto ALPHA raised $1.5 million Canadian to tell Iris Chang’s story. It has won many awards;

Following the success of ALPHA Toronto and BC, the formation of ALPHAs in Ottawa, Edmonton, Halifax and Japan were formed.

To find out more, please visit www.torontoalpha.org

Recommended reading: Kim, H.J. (2009) Ethnicity and Foreigners in Ancient Greece and China, London, Duckworth; Cohn, Bernard (1996) Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge; and Hirsch, Afua (12 January 2010) Iraq invasion violated international law, Dutch inquiry finds, The Guardian

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