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Life lessons from Milton Wong

Businessman and philanthropist Milton Wong, died on Dec. 31, 2011 at the age of 72

The late philanthropist and business leader Milton Wong met local editor and diversity specialist Alden Habacon in 2002. Habacon was still a university student, trying to navigate his place in the publishing world. When the then-27-year-old nervously introduced himself to Wong at a conference at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, he was stunned that Wong already knew about him. 

"When I finally drummed up the courage to talk to him, he said, 'Oh I know you. You're Alden,'" Habacon remembered. Wong then pulled out $40 from his wallet and asked Habacon to renew his subscription to Ricepaper, an Asian Canadian magazine which he was editing at the time.  

In the years that ensued, Wong took Habacon under his wing and helped him come up with the idea for Schema, an online magazine exploring mixed cultural identity in Canada. Wong recognized potential in him and wanted to nurture it: he provided him with an office, and helped Habacon write his business plan.   

Since that brief introduction, Habacon and Wong formed a relationship that lasted nearly a decade until Wong's death. 

Habacon and Wong's niece, Joanna Wong, are working on a book about Wong's work and achievements. It includes stories written by 25 of Wong's closest associates. Their backgrounds are representative of Wong's diverse interests, ranging from the arts, the sciences and business.


Despite Wong's towering achievements -- ranging from his work as the founder and chairman of M.K. Wong and Associates, which was later reborn as the HSBC Bank of Canada, his projects as chancellor of Simon Fraser University from 1999 to 2005 and fundraising for organizations such as the BC Cancer Foundation, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army -- Wong's biggest legacy, Habacon said, may have been his personal relationships and compassion for others. 


When Wong received visitors from out of town, he would invite them to meet him in the city's poorest neighbourhood -- the Downtown Eastside. 


"When people came to Vancouver to meet him, he would actually force them to meet him in the Downtown Eastside," Habacon said. "He would give them a tour of the Downtown Eastside, just to prove to them that it isn't as scary as they think it is."
"It was really amazing, and a real eye-opener for me."


A focus on people

In the various stories told by Wong's associates, Habacon said a common theme was his unwavering focus on people. 

"At a time when social media was exploding, he told me never to forget about socialization," Habacon said. "He said, never forget people actually meeting to get together. In many ways, he got the most excited -- when I'd catch up with him -- when I told him we had a big party (at Schema magazine), more than what kind of content you were making. That was almost an extra."

"He was always very concerned about people, how they felt about their work, about not burning out volunteers. He was always very warm to peoples' partners."

Several people who wrote about Milton for his book mentioned how welcoming he was toward their spouses and life partners.

"Partners, wives, husbands of important people commented that Milton always made a point to acknowledge and include partners in whatever they were doing," Habacon said.

"For him, to get to know a person, you had to get to know their partner. That could be – to have a healthy relationship with this individual, you had to have a healthy relationship with their partner as well."

"Milton would literally go out of his way to make a difference, not just on the business side but on the personal side," recalled George Rubin, president of Day4Energy, a Burnaby-based solar energy company which Wong mentioned as one of his proudest projects in an interview. 

"About two-and-a-half years ago, he came by -- we were working really hard and not really looking after ourselves. He just came to my office, knocked on my door. He said, 'I didn't schedule a meeting with you, George, but you look like heck. You've got to look after yourself.'"

"Then he just left," said Rubin, laughing. 

"I went out, changed a lot of my lifestyle habits and am now in better shape than I've ever been in my life. The way he said it, the way he just showed up out of nowhere -- I've seen him do it over and over again. Milt had a way of putting a really personal touch in all of his relationships." 

"Uncle Milton was one of the first people I would talk to about my ideas. He had an incredible ability to get to the heart of a concept and clarify what made it meaningful to people's lives," said Joanna Wong, who is writing the book on the philanthropist's life.

"Uncle Milton loved that I lived in China, one of the most dynamic countries of our time, where good work could have such a broad impact."

"He was not only my beloved uncle but my most respected mentor."

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