Her family’s past informs much of Meena Wong’s quest to become mayor of her adopted city.
When she says Vancouver should be “a city for all and not just for people with power and connections”, part of that goes back to the values of her ancestors in China.
“You are responsible to the people in your village,” Wong said in an interview at the Georgia Straight offices.
The 53-year-old community organizer is seeking the nomination of Vancouver’s best-known left-wing party, the Coalition of Progressive Electors, as its mayoral candidate in the November 15 municipal election.
“So when there’s a famine, when there’s a flood, and there’s a lot of refugees flowing in,” Wong continued about her forebears, “they open up their granaries, and they do feed the people, because you have to support the people in need. That’s what they always believed. Because in their way, they say that if you don’t look after the people in need, it’s like the water, people are like water: the water can hold a boat; it can also sink the boat.”
Part of the reason why she wants people to have a say in government is her family’s experience during the Cultural Revolution in China. Her parents—both medical doctors—were persecuted. She recalls feeling terrified when the Red Guards entered her home.
“I saw how a government, when they’re actually in power, what they could do to people, to citizens, and citizens have no voice and no choices,” Wong said.
Wong was 11 when she and her younger brother were brought to Hong Kong by their mother to start a new life. They left her father behind in Beijing. It took seven years before the family was reunited.
She recalled that one day, her mother brought her and her brother outside the health department’s offices when China-trained doctors who’d fled to Hong Kong petitioned to be allowed to practise medicine. They succeeded, and that was how her parents became doctors in the British colony.
“That’s my first experience in a free, democratic country: how citizens can influence government decisions and actually benefit the society,” Wong said.
Wong was 19 when she came to Canada as an international student. She landed in Vancouver and stayed for a while in Alberta, meeting many warm and welcoming Canadians.
Her pleasant experience informs one piece of advice she gives to newcomers: “I always say that when people on the street smile, make sure you smile back.”
Wong later moved to Ontario, where she studied arts. While in Toronto, she met two city politicians who would later be part of the federal NDP’s breakthrough in Canadian politics. Then-councillor Jack Layton was to become New Democrat leader, shepherding his party in 2011 to its first time as the official Opposition in Parliament. From 1999 to 2002, Wong was assistant to Layton’s wife Olivia Chow, then a Toronto councillor. The Hong Kong–born Chow eventually joined Layton in the House of Commons as an MP, and she’s currently running for mayor of Toronto.
Wong eventually returned to Vancouver, where she began her extensive involvement with COPE. In 2011, she ran in Vancouver South as part of the federal NDP’s so-called Orange Crush.
According to Wong, housing affordability is a top concern among people in the city. It’s an issue about which Vancouver may learn a lesson or two from Hong Kong, where Wong spent part of her younger years.
“Hong Kong, even in the ’70s, has its own housing [authority],” she said. “Right now, Hong Kong has over 50 percent housing built by the city, by the government, that’s catered towards affordability, some for rental, some for ownership. Why can’t Vancouver do something like that? That’s what I question.”
In addition to housing, Wong also sees transit as a major issue that needs to be addressed. “I want to see more buses,” she said. “I drive; I ride my bike. I also take public transit all the time. And I can tell you, there’s not enough buses on the road.”
In a city where more than 40 percent of residents are immigrants, Wong is confident that she can effectively engage new Canadians, especially Chinese. She speaks Mandarin, Cantonese, and Shanghainese.
If Wong defeats Mayor Gregor Robertson and the NPA’s Kirk LaPointe, she’ll become Vancouver’s first female mayor and the first mayor of Chinese descent.
COPE members will nominate their candidates for mayor, school board, and park board on Sunday (September 7) at the Japanese Hall (487 Alexander Street, at Jackson Avenue).