Vancouver's Canadian-born Chinese in their 30s and 40s make their mark, no small thanks to Milton Wong
Vancouver resident Ken Sim has a life that many would envy. As the cofounder of Nurse Next Door, the self-made entrepreneur oversees a thriving Canadian home-care company with 50 locations. This year, he and his business partner, John DeHart, expect to generate $26 million to $30 million in revenues. Sim, a married father of four, and DeHart have been profiled in magazines and spoken at their alma maters, and are regularly courted by investment bankers who want to turn Nurse Next Door into a public company listed on a stock exchange.
In an interview in the company’s modest Kerrisdale office, Sim explained that they run a values-based business. Their idea of home care isn’t just dispatching staff to perform household chores for seniors; it also involves helping their clients achieve their goals. And rather than zeroing in on revenue and profit targets and achieving a certain number of new locations each year, Sim said their objective is to improve a million lives a year within the decade.
“We focus on celebrating aging for the seniors and treating people like our moms and dads—and figuring out what they want to do in their lives, because they still have a lot of life left,” he commented.
Sim, 41, is one of numerous Canadian-born residents of Chinese heritage who’ve moved into leadership positions in this region. Several were mentored by recently deceased financier and philanthropist Milton Wong, who last year was given Vancouver’s highest honour, Freedom of the City. Their number will likely increase as members of this group—which is significantly younger than the population as a whole—move into the prime of their careers.
But things weren’t always so sunny for Sim. He recalled that as a child, he attended five elementary schools in seven years in Vancouver, and he was usually one of only three or four students of Chinese origin enrolled. His family didn’t have a lot of money, and he was sometimes called a “Chinaman” or a “Chink” in school yards. His brother was once called to the principal’s office after fighting back.
“I didn’t want a lot to do with my Chinese heritage,” Sim revealed. “I wanted to be like everyone else. I resisted, to my regret now, learning Cantonese and Mandarin.”
After graduating with a business education from UBC, he sought advice from Wong, the well-known Vancouver money manager. They stayed in touch and, eventually, Wong brought Sim and DeHart together and provided them with an early investment so they could launch their company in 2001. Wong continued as a mentor, chairing the Nurse Next Door board and offering Sim invaluable life lessons.
Sim had no hesitation acknowledging that after he learned of Wong’s death from cancer, he started “bawling hysterically” in front of the staff in his office. “He was like a second father to me,” Sim said. “That’s not the amazing thing. The amazing thing is there are probably 200 people in this city who say ‘Miltie was like my second dad.’ He was such a giving, caring person that he made everyone feel welcome. I get goose bumps thinking of him now.”
Robert Fung, whose company specializes in redeveloping heritage buildings, was also mentored as a young adult by Wong. Sitting in his impeccably tidy second-floor office in the Alhambra Building in Gastown, Fung, 45, described Wong as “incredibly compassionate”, “very wise”, and “cerebral”.
“I met him early in my career, before I really knew what I was going to be,” Fung, president of the Salient Group, recalled. “He spoke about making choices about what excites you, what intrigues you, what’s important to you—and making sure it’s not all about money, because there’s a bigger picture.”
Fung took this lesson to heart, serving on several boards, including those of Covenant House, which helps street kids, UBC, and the Vancouver dragon-boat festival, which Wong created to promote cultural harmony. Fung pointed out that there are now teams of people who are blind, had organ transplants, and survived breast cancer. “It’s a great example of how things grow on that initial seed from Milton,” he said.
Wong also raised funds to create Science World, led a $100-million campaign for the B.C. Cancer Foundation, and was one of the first major business leaders in the province to support negotiating land claims with B.C.’s First Nations.
“I don’t think he ever looked at things as the white guys and the Chinese guys,” Fung declared. “It was more like, ‘Let’s all sit at the table and understand how to build our community.’ He had an amazing talent for inspiring people to do things that weren’t their first thought.”
In addition, Wong helped finance SFU’s move into the Woodward’s complex, where there’s a new theatre named after him and his wife, Fei. He also bought and refurbished the 104-year-old Chinese Freemasons Building at 5 West Pender Street, which includes 81 units of social housing and his brothers’ company, Modernize Tailors.
Andy Yan, a planner at Bing Thom Architects, worked with Wong on trying to support housing initiatives in the Downtown Eastside. In an interview with the Straight in a Japanese restaurant on Denman Street, Yan recalled Wong taking him to Modernize to pick a new suit so he could be more successful in his efforts.
“He helped me choose the fabric,” Yan said with a smile. “He was like, ‘No, no, you don’t want dark suits; you don’t want a blue suit. This is about working in the community. You shouldn’t do this corporate-suit look. You should consider a nice brown. It blends in a little bit: that has a certain softness, a certain type of sensitivity, to the community.’ ”
Yan, 36, said that Wong taught his generation that they have a responsibility that goes beyond simply obtaining impressive degrees, building a sterling career, or succeeding in business. “It’s about how do you do good in your community,” Yan stated. “The measure of a community is how well it serves its most vulnerable. I think that’s something he taught in action as opposed to just words.”
Sim, Fung, and Yan are all members of a demographic profile that doesn’t get a lot of attention in the media: people of Chinese descent who were born in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, in 2006 there were 381,535 residents of Greater Vancouver who described themselves as belonging to the “Chinese visible minority”. Of those, fewer than 25 percent—90,440 local residents—were born in this country.
A few years ago, Yan conducted demographic research on people of Chinese ancestry who were born in Canada. He learned that they are much younger on average than the rest of the population in this region. There aren’t many Canadian-born seniors of Chinese heritage because a racist immigration law prevented Chinese people from immigrating to this country between 1923 and 1947.
The 2006 census reported that just over 70 percent of those who identified themselves as being Canadian-born in the “Chinese visible minority” category were under 25 years old. Another 12.9 percent were between 25 and 34. Only 8.6 percent were 35 to 44 years of age, and just 4.7 percent were 45 to 54. Fewer than four percent were 55 years and older.
Among this Canadian-born Chinese population, Wong was a towering figure—a “giant”, according to Yan—who elevated himself from a humble childhood at Strathcona elementary school to become one of the city’s greatest philanthropists.
Larry Wong (no relation to Milton), author of the recently published Dim Sum Stories: A Chinatown Childhood, was a classmate of Wong’s for eight years at Strathcona in the 1940s and 1950s. During a recent speaking event at the Vancouver Public Library central branch—which was sponsored by the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia—he read a story about how kids of Jewish, Russian, Ukrainian, African, Italian, and Chinese descent were all part of a single class of 15 students at Strathcona. He described Wong, the eighth of nine children in his family, as a shy, sincere kid who was eventually elected as school president and won a citizenship award.
“This previewed his potential, as demonstrated when he was chancellor of SFU,” Larry Wong noted. “He was a multimillionaire but, in the end, he was very loyal to his friends.”
As more Canadian-born people of Chinese ancestry move into their 30s and 40s, they’re helping to transform the region. It’s not only happening in business, where Fung has played a leading role in restoring some of Gastown’s old glory, or in community activism, where Yan, with Milton Wong’s support, campaigned to stop a new downtown casino from being built. You can also see it in civic politics.
During the 1990s, political parties often focused their candidate-recruitment efforts on Chinese immigrants because they could speak Cantonese. In recent years, Canadian-born politicians Raymond Louie and Kerry Jang have become key members of council, taking on some of the most challenging responsibilities.
Meanwhile, local film director Julia Kwan, Vancouver poet laureate Evelyn Lau, novelist and broadcaster Jen Sookfong Lee, Global TV news anchor Sophie Lui, and UBC historian Henry Yu are just a few other examples of Canadian-born residents of Chinese heritage in their 30s and 40s who are making a mark in their fields. Vancouver’s 52-year-old police chief, Jim Chu, wasn’t born in Canada—he immigrated from Shanghai when he was three—but in some respects, he also epitomizes how the fulcrum of power is shifting more to people of Chinese descent who spent their formative years in Canada.
Louie, 47, was the first Canadian-born Chinese politician elected to Vancouver city council. Now in his fourth term, he recently became vice chair of Metro Vancouver and continues to chair the city finance and services committee.
In an interview with the Straight in his office at Vancouver City Hall, Louie acknowledged having concerns about being pegged as an “ethnic councillor”, saying he strives to represent people from across the spectrum. This was evident in his 2008 campaign to become Vision Vancouver’s mayoral nominee, which attracted a great deal of support from within the local Vietnamese, South Asian, and Filipino communities.
“I haven’t really come across any racism at all,” he stated. “It comes as a result of people like Milton helping other people set aside that bias that used to exist.”
At the same time, Louie said he doesn’t believe that we’ve moved yet to a postracial society, noting that a “glass ceiling” still exists in some areas. Then he took a philosophical turn as he reflected on Wong’s life. “Are we a better society on a whole than when Milton started his journey, today, when he’s ended his?” Louie asked. “As we move past that, are we doing what we can to continue on that path? What can we do as individuals? The key is to learn always from our history.”
Global TV’s Lui, 37, spoke to the Straight in the Starbucks coffee shop at International Village. She was born and raised in Port Moody at a time when there were very few residents there of Chinese origin. Like Louie, she doesn’t want to be reduced to some sort of ethnic caricature.
“We certainly ate Chinese food,” Lui said, recalling her childhood. “We went to Chinese restaurants. I had a bigger exposure to Chinese culture than my white friends, but there’s that sort of weird space where you’re not quite white, not quite Chinese. You’re not Chinese enough. I always had a little bit of a complex that I don’t speak Chinese.”
Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen, who received an honorary degree last year from UBC, has written extensively about the danger of reducing a person to one aspect of their individuality, whether it’s their race, religion, occupation, class, birthplace, educational level, parental status, sexual orientation, or even hobbies. He pointed out in his 2006 book Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny that human beings have a multiplicity of identities, which is a sentiment shared by many of the Chinese Canadians interviewed for this article.
“I don’t think people look at me and think: ‘That’s Sophie Lui, the Chinese person,’ ” Lui said. “I think people look at me and just see that that’s Sophie Lui.”
Like some other members of the Canadian-born Chinese community, Lui takes great pleasure in promoting local charities. She regularly hosts events—sometimes six to eight a month—including some that have raised money for those with HIV/AIDS. There have been times when she’s been an emcee well into the evening even though she had to wake up at 3 a.m. to anchor the morning news.
“I am proud that I have Chinese heritage and that there are Chinese Canadians like Milton Wong who do great things for this community,” she said.
One of the city’s most successful Canadian-born people of Chinese ancestry is Paul Lee, the 47-year-old managing partner of Vanedge Capital and former president of the video-game giant Electronic Arts. In an interview with the Georgia Straight in his spacious office on West Broadway, Lee revealed that Wong had a “tremendous influence” on him as a friend, mentor, and business partner. The video-game kingpin grew up in a working-class area of Burnaby, where his immigrant father owned a restaurant. After Lee graduated from UBC, Wong took him to dinners to introduce him to people in the business community and provided advice when he started a small gaming company with Don Mattrick.
“I’m another one of the many who looked to Milton as a second father,” Lee said. “He was so dynamic. He was a clear statesman. He had great personal and people skills.”
Wong certainly was a trailblazer, though he’s not the only Chinese Canadian of his generation who distinguished himself with his philanthropic efforts. Henry Yu, the principal of St. John’s College at UBC, told the Straight that real-estate mogul Bob Lee, former lieutenant-governor David Lam, and H. Y. Louie Co. Ltd. chairman and CEO Brandt Louie (a very distant relative of Raymond Louie) were part of a group who opened up their wallets in the 1980s and 1990s to dispel any impression that Chinese Canadians didn’t give back to the community. In one example, brothers Tom and Caleb Chan donated $10 million to help create the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at UBC.
Yu, 44, said that it’s no coincidence that these leaders and benefactors made their fortunes in the real-estate and grocery businesses, where there weren’t as many barriers to entry. He also pointed out that many of their efforts were focused on the broader community, which is why so many donations flowed into the health and educational sectors.
“They would meet quite regularly for lunch to say, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Yu said in an interview after the speaking event at the library. “If they weren’t going to support something, it wasn’t going to happen.”
So, does the looming large increase in the number of people of Chinese descent in the workforce mean we’ll see a great deal more philanthropy by subsequent generations? Possibly not, according to Yu, who claimed that 18- to 20-year-olds showing up in his classes nowadays aren’t nearly as knowledgeable about Chinese-Canadian history as those he taught 15 years ago. “Strangely enough, a lot of them have only been going to school in Canada for four or five years,” he stated, referring to those who weren’t born in Canada. “They’re much less connected.”
He contrasted this with the example of Brandt Louie, who oversees the London Drugs and IGA grocery empire. “He knows the struggles that his grandfather had and his father had,” Yu commented. “And he will talk about when he graduated from UBC his accounting professors were telling him which firms wouldn’t hire him because he was Chinese.”
Yu suggested that Milton Wong’s awareness of his history and his upbringing—and not ideology—played a pivotal role in his developing a broader view of the world. “The biggest challenge I see is a kind of generational transfer of some of those values that were instilled into Milton Wong by having a family of brothers [and sisters], by being within a community, and going to a school like Strathcona,” he stated. “That’s not necessarily in some sense being created in a lot of our neighbourhoods now.”
A memorial service will be held for Milton Wong at 3 p.m. on Friday (January 20) at Christ Church Cathedral (690 Burrard Street). For more information on the history of B.C.’s Chinese pioneers, see the Chinese Canadian Historical Society website (www.cchsbc.ca/).
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.