Red Guards set Meena Wong, Vancouver mayoral candidate, on path to politics

Raid on parents' Beijing home when she was seven was painful first lesson about democracy's vital role for Vancouver mayoral candidate

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 September, 2014, 7:19am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 September, 2014, 8:17am

Meena Wong received her first lesson in the importance of representative democracy sitting in the dust outside her family home in Beijing as Red Guards hunted for evidence of her parents' bourgeois lifestyle.

She was seven years old.

"Our photos were burned, our camera gone, my mom's clothing even," said Wong, 53. "Our neighbour kept me out. And I was worried, playing on the dirt ground outside, worrying about my parents inside, wondering what was going on."

In an interview with the Sunday Morning Post, Wong recalled how the Red Guards' raid set her on a path she hopes will lead to Vancouver City Hall. Wong, a community health worker and long-time activist, was endorsed last Sunday as the mayoral candidate for the left-leaning Coalition of Progressive Electors (Cope). She hopes to become the first ethnic Chinese mayor of one of the most Chinese cities in the world outside Asia and its first woman mayor.

Wong's family fled to Hong Kong when she was 11. Eight years later, she was on her way to Vancouver as a student. But the impact of the Cultural Revolution never left her or her family.

"There was that fear," said Wong in an interview on the banks of the Fraser River. "I remember waking up in the middle of the night, and I saw my parents sitting under this one light bulb, writing self-criticism and quietly asking each other 'do you think that is good enough?', afraid that they were not doing enough self-criticism. That affects my parents to this day, that emotional trauma. But they survived."

Her parents, both doctors, knew their children had no future in Mao's China.

"They left, of course, because they wanted to give my brother and I a chance in life," she said. "Because if we stayed in China under that system, at that time, there would have been no school, no higher education, no university. We'd have been sent God knows where."

The experience has compelled her to make the most of her opportunities, though she expressed wonder at her own rise.

"Now, to be able to come to Canada, a free country, that allows me to do what I want to do. Look at me: who am I to have been asked to run as mayor of the city of Vancouver? I asked the party, why did you come and look for me?" she said.

Wong's first stop in Canada was Vancouver, but it was in Toronto that she found politics. She studied fine arts there and wanted to be a museum curator but ended up as a graphic artist at the Toronto Star. Volunteer work in the city's Chinese immigrant community eventually drew her into the orbit of Jack Layton and his wife, Olivia Chow, central figures in the city's left-wing movement. Layton eventually became the leader of the federal opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), but he died of cancer in 2011. Wong's fellow Hong Kong emigrant Chow, a former federal MP, is now running for mayor of Toronto.

After working as an assistant to Chow for a few years, Wong moved back to Vancouver in 2002 and works in mental health recovery at the Vancouver Coastal Health authority. But she remained active in politics, unsuccessfully standing for the NDP in the seat of Vancouver South in the 2011 federal election.

Wong is now running for the city's mayoralty on a platform focused on narrowing the great disparities in Vancouver, which has a median income ranked among the lowest in Canada, but one of the world's most expensive housing markets. Improving housing affordability is a key focus for Cope, which has advocated creating a local housing authority to take charge of the construction of affordable homes and monitor the usage of current stocks.

Cope was once a leading force in city politics, but Wong is its first mayoral candidate since 2002. That was when the party enjoyed its greatest electoral triumph, with the election of a charismatic mayor, Larry Campbell. But just two years later, Campbell, now a Canadian senator, walked out on the Cope caucus, taking three Cope councillors with him.

The split led to the formation of the more-centrist Vision Vancouver team. Despite initially being mocked as "Diet Cope", Vision is now the well-funded powerhouse of city politics under incumbent Mayor Gregor Robertson, who trounced his conservative rivals in the last two elections. Cope sat out the mayoral race for more than a decade rather than risk splitting the left and centre-left vote to the advantage of the business-oriented Non-Partisan Association (NPA).

But Wong and her party now believe that there is little philosophically to separate Vision and the NPA. Both, she said, are defined by their often too-cosy relationship with the city's wealthy property developers.

"The government and the previous government, the NPA and then Vision, they are developer influenced," said Wong. "Most of their funding came from developers. Our party is the only party, I believe, that has not accepted developer money."

Wong said Vision had given real estate developers too much say in the reshaping of the city, citing what she said were flawed "window-dressing" consultation exercises for high-rise projects that defied community wishes. "When you accept money from certain people, you have got to do their bidding," said Wong.

Her two rivals, Robertson and NPA candidate Kirk LaPointe, would dispute her assessment that there is little to distinguish their policies.

But they are visually cut from the same cloth. Both are telegenic men, tall, polished and broad-shouldered. The mayor has been dubbed "His Handsomeness"; journalist LaPointe is a former TV host.

By contrast, Wong is small and somewhat frail-looking - she has the minor version of thalassaemia, a common blood disorder among Chinese people. She is not forceful and admitted finding it difficult to tell strangers "hey, vote for me".

"I am just an ordinary person," she shrugged, when asked to describe herself.

She and her partner live modestly, in a 900 square foot apartment they own on the city's Eastside. Asked how much it's worth, she reluctantly guessed C$300,000 (HK$2.1 million) to C$350,000, but opined that Vancouverites' obsession with asset values was unhealthy.

"A property's main usage should be a roof over your head… Investment should come in second," she said.

Wong regularly travels to Hong Kong to visit her parents, who live in North Point. They migrated to Canada too, but returned because they couldn't stand the winter weather. Both are in their 80s, and she says they fret about the mud-slinging she faces as a candidate.

Asked if she supported Occupy Central, Wong said: "I support anything that supports democracy and human rights in a non-violent and a public way. I don't know how Occupy Central will operate or be organised, but I believe in the principle of people standing up and speaking out."

Wong said she was "very disappointed" by Beijing's recent ruling on Hong Kong's chief executive nomination process. "My understanding of democracy is that of a true democracy, where people have freedom to choose their representatives in government," she said.

She said the lesson of that moment in the dirt outside her Beijing home was universal.

"When a government has absolute power, it's a danger," she said. "And any government that is in power too long can become arrogant. Even in a democratic country."