Environmentalist Kimberley Wong embraces her Chinese queer identity through "cultural reclamation"

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      In the lead-up to the Vancouver Pride parade (which takes place on August 5), we’ve compiled profiles of LGBT community members that, together, offer just a brief view of how multiple identities overlap, interplay, and interact to make up each individual’s totality. To see more of our Pride 2018 coverage, click here.

      What does it take for a visible minority to be regarded as Canadian?

      That’s a question Vancouver-born Kimberley Wong has wrestled with.

      On her first trip to Asia, in 2017, when she went to study village life and 19th-century migration from the county of Kaiping in China as part of UBC’s Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies, she found the experience “very unsettling”. With only “dim-sum level” fluency in the Taishanese dialect, she found her linguistic ability was questioned and she became acutely aware of her differences.

      “I was taller and darker-skinned, and spoke more obnoxiously, and I felt really, really protective over my English-language speaking ability and I didn’t want to blend in because I wanted to assert ‘I am Canadian,’ ” she confesses in a chat at the Straight offices.

      Wong, you see, grew up socializing with white peers in her Arbutus neighbourhood and didn’t want to be Chinese, due to the prevalence of anti-Asian ridicule at school for being too Chinese or too Asian or “one of those Asians” (i.e., “fresh off the boat”).

      Her predecessors also contended with persevering in white-dominant societies. Her mother and grandmother grew up in Kamloops, running a Chinese restaurant and often serving customers who called them racial slurs. And her lineage includes Canadian Pacific Railway workers who endured the hardships of the Chinese head tax.

      However, her trip to China was part of her ongoing “cultural reclamation”, an effort that overlaps with her other identities.

      As she had previously seen only white gay men represent LGBT communities, Wong says that seeing an Out in Schools presentation about Love Intersections’ Jen Sung and David Ng shattered her misconception that only white people could be queer, allowing her to come out “peacefully” as a femme queer at age 19.

      Propelling her further was a life-changing friendship with a local drag queen. She recalls “heaving crying” when she first saw Maiden China perform in a celebration of beauty, elegance, queerness, gender-bending, Chinese culture, and sparkles.

      “It was this magical world of possibilities that opened up,” she says.

      As this year’s Georgia Straight Pride cover model, Wong says she developed the persona Cantonese Rebel Girl for a photo shoot with her chosen-family sister, photographer Jenny Xu, because she regards Cantonese opera as a means to reclaim her Chinese queer identity. (“Cantonese opera is like the original drag,” she says.)

      She has also overcome another childhood discomfort. Although she previously loathed trips into the wilderness with her field-geologist father, she has since become a UBC geography student in environment and sustainability who relishes rock-climbing, cycling, camping, gardening, and other outdoor activities. As if that’s not enough, Wong also cofounded the nonprofit City Hub Initiative to support youth engagement, has been a codirector of Kids for Climate Action and an organizer for the Vancouver School Board Sustainability Conference, and won the 2016 City of Vancouver Greenest City Leadership Award of Excellence. Underachiever is clearly not on her CV.

      In 2016, she and Steph Glanzmann launched the Climate Feels workshops to address experiences of people of colour within climate and environmental movements. For instance, the local Stand Up to China campaign against shark-fin soup made Chinese-Canadian activists feel conflicted because of its Sinophobic elements. In response, the Shark Truth program  arose within the Chinese-Canadian community in 2009, later becoming the Hua Foundation. Wong was one of the foundation’s community-development directors and is currently involved with the foundation’s Chinatown Today project.

      “The more and more I learn about Chinese culture, the more and more beautiful I see it being,” she says.

      That statement appears to ring true for all the facets of her life that she formerly overlooked but now embraces—and takes pride in.