Meena Wong, the Vancouver mayoral hope with Hong Kong roots

Meena Wong draws on Hong Kong experience by putting housing affordability centre stage in her bid to become the city's first Chinese mayor

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 September, 2014, 11:35am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 November, 2015, 1:28am

Hong Kong emigrant Meena Wong has launched a bid to become the first Chinese mayor of Vancouver, one of the world's most Chinese cities outside Asia.

Wong, the daughter of doctors who fled mainland China for Hong Kong during the Cultural Revolution, on Sunday was declared the mayoral nominee of the left-leaning Coalition of Progressive Electors (Cope).

Hong Kong has over 50 per cent housing built by the city … why can’t Vancouver?

She formally announced her candidacy on Friday with a speech on the steps of City Hall, in which she described Vancouver as a "city of immigrants", and pledged to make housing affordability a key platform of her campaign for the November election. Despite having among the lowest incomes in Canada, Vancouver has by far the nation's highest property prices, making it the world's second most unaffordable housing market, behind only Hong Kong, according to Demographia's* study of 378 cities in nine major markets.

The city, which is 28 per cent ethnic Chinese, has become a magnet for wealthy mainland "investor immigrants", yet it also has a large homeless population. The average price of a detached house in Greater Vancouver is more than C$1.2 million (HK$8.54 million).

"I believe that every single resident of Vancouver … deserves respect. To build a healthy community, respect is a fundamental ingredient, no matter who you are - whether you're a millionaire or living on the street. Respect means that everyone's voice is heard," Wong, 53, said.

Cope, which was once a leading force in city politics and won the mayoralty in 2002, has suffered years of decline, triggered by a party split in 2005 that resulted in the establishment of the centre-left Vision Vancouver team. Vision's Gregor Robertson has been mayor since 2008.

Cope has not run a mayoral candidate since Vision's creation to avoid splitting the city's left-leaning electorate, a tactic which has helped Robertson crush rivals from the right-leaning Non-Partisan Association (NPA) in the past two elections.

However, Vision's close relationship with the city's wealthy property developers has fed discontent among Cope members and leftist activists, with coalition stalwart Tim Louis deriding Vision as "the NPA with bicycle lanes". Robertson was criticised in March for taking part in a lunch organised by property marketer Bob Rennie, who asked invitees to donate C$25,000 to Vision for the privilege of breaking bread with the mayor.

Robertson and Vision have favoured an industry-led approach to tackling homelessness and unaffordability in Vancouver, with developers required to create or fund social housing to get their projects approved.

Wong - also hoping to become Vancouver's first female mayor - said she would listen to the community. "If a community gives input about condo development, like in Marpole or Grandview-Woodland [neighbourhoods facing major rezoning to accommodate increases in housing density], it will be my job as mayor to ensure that their input and wishes are respected," Wong said.

Cope and Wong advocate the creation of a Vancouver housing authority to build social and affordable housing. In April, Cope's housing committee looked to Hong Kong for ideas. "The Hong Kong experience shows that public housing benefits other social, economic and political aspects of the city, and that cultural embeddedness of high density public housing can be normalised," said a report by the committee.

Wong cited Hong Kong to the Georgia Straight newspaper last week as she addressed housing unaffordability. "Hong Kong has over 50 per cent 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?"

She has pledged to improve child-care affordability and availability, boost public transport and impose a living-wage policy for jobs within the city's remit.

Wong - who speaks Cantonese, Putonghua, Shanghainese, English and French - was born in Beijing but moved to Hong Kong in the 1970s at the age of 11. Eight years later, she moved to Vancouver as a student, then to Toronto where she became an assistant to Hong Kong emigrant Olivia Chow,. who is running for the mayoralty of Toronto.

[Update: this story has been updated to include a link to the latest Demographia study and to describe its scope]


Rivals in Vancouver mayor contest

Gregor Robertson: A founder of the successful Happy Planet brand of organic fruit juice, Robertson has been Vancouver's mayor since 2008. A distant relative of Chinese revolutionary hero and pioneering physician Norman Bethune, Robertson, 48, had also intended to become a doctor but reportedly failed to gain admission to medical school. He travelled the world before settling in New Zealand where he became a farmer. He returned to Canada in his mid-20s and resumed farming before co-founding Happy Planet. Robertson entered politics as a lawmaker in British Columbia's provincial legislature in 2005, before winning overwhelming victories in the 2008 and 2011 mayoral races, representing the centre-left Vision Vancouver team. As mayor, he has pledged to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world.

Kirk LaPointe: LaPointe, one of Vancouver's most prominent journalists, entered the mayoral race in July after being nominated by the Non-Partisan Association, the city's main right-leaning grouping. The 56-year-old has held a range of senior positions in the media, including managing editor of the Vancouver Sun, head of CTV News, and ombudsman of the CBC. He also teaches journalism and ethics at the University of British Columbia. NPA mayoral candidates were soundly beaten by Mayor Gregor Robertson at the last two elections, but LaPointe could benefit from the candidacy of Cope's Meena Wong, if it splits left-leaning voters. The NPA, which has elected 11 Vancouver mayors since 1937, describes itself as a "big tent coalition of liberals and conservatives". It has called for a more transparent government.