By David H.T. Wong
It was 3 a.m. when I received a phone call that my dad had passed away.
I had spent the past couple of decades building my architectural practice to be one of the largest firms. For years, Dad had wanted me to accompany him to visit our ancestral village of Kaiping in China. I was always too busy and said, year after year: “Next year, okay, Dad?”.
I grew up in one of Vancouver’s historic neighbourhoods, Strathcona. The 1960s was an interesting time. The U.S. saw Asian and black Americans struggle against injustice and take to the streets to protest. In Vancouver, I watched my family and neighbours rise to protest—stopping the freeway through Chinatown, fighting city hall against restrictions on Chinatown barbecued foods, and keeping school kids safe at a railway crossing, the “Raymur moms”.
As I entered high school, friends who were my best pals in elementary school drifted into various street gangs, myself included. I had mixed feelings when I confronted opposing groups and saw former friends become mortal enemies. It was foolish young-male bravado. At an event at Strathcona Community Centre, I bumped into architect Joe Wai. He said to me: “You think you’re tough? What I do is tougher,” then he walked away. He certainly piqued my interest. Over the years, I aspired to be an architect, just like Joe Wai. My first job was building models for what became the co-op housing community in South False Creek. I was mentored, but I didn’t know it at the time.
Along my path to become an architect, I gained insightful life experience working at the city’s engineering and planning departments. I will always remember the late Roger Hebert, then director of permits and licences, who advised me: “David, be very cautious when developers say to you, ‘We have a job waiting for you when you leave City Hall' ”. This was the culture at City Hall, one of excellence and of integrity. Vancouver became a world-renowned city in the '80s and '90s, thanks to this generation of elected leaders and a first-class civic administration.
After the passing of my father, I honoured him by writing a book on the history of our family (and I’m delighted to say we’ve just welcomed our seventh-generation Vancouverite!). My book eventually became an illustrated narrative on an immigrant-family story to North America, a reflection on racism and on hope.
While researching my book, I rediscovered relationships between the early Chinese and Canada’s First Peoples. I often thought of my childhood Indigenous friends and where they were today. As I wrote my book, I blogged out my feelings of injustice and reminders of the respectful early relationships between First Nations and Chinese. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) read my blogged thoughts and contacted me, eventually inducting me as a TRC honorary witness. It would be a role that has further given me purpose.
Residential schools were institutionalized racism. To this day, the legacy of residential schools manifests itself as intergenerational trauma. I spoke at the 2013 Vancouver TRC event and promised to answer their calls to action. Over the past few years, I have mentored First Nations youth to become the builders and designers of affordable homes in their own communities. As of this year, we’ve delivered approximately 150 healthy and culturally appropriate homes. I’m particularly proud of Jalissa, a young Nuxalk who designed and delivered a number of tiny homes in her community for homeless people.
Equally important, by sharing knowledge and professional resources, young people have hope, reasons to stay in their communities, and continue to learn from their elders. And young ones are the best medicine for their elders, providing joy, love, and purpose. If we provide resources and opportunities for young people, they can continue to thrive in their communities and not leave and go to urban centres.
I have gained much knowledge and wisdom from working with First Peoples. For example, when an elder speaks in a gathering, someone would shout: “Elder speaking!” The entire room hushes down so the elder may speak. During a community feast, young people would serve elders first before they serve themselves. It’s occurred in every First Nation I’ve visited.
I have travelled to Germany, New Zealand, and the U.S., sharing my reconciliation work and learning from their efforts. It has been very meaningful. In return, I have been respectfully acknowledged by First Nations across North America and adopted into over a dozen clans and families.
I am running with the Vancouver Greens with like-minded colleagues: four for city council, three for school trustee, and three for park board. Greens’ six core principles of participatory democracy, sustainability, social justice, respect for diversity, ecological wisdom, and nonviolence make for accountable, good evidence-based governance. This foundation gives Greens the framework to work collaboratively with everyone, across the political spectrum. Everyone has knowledge and ideas that can benefit all. A brighter future.
I sincerely look forward to working with whomever is elected into office, and I wish every single candidate the very best.