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Life lessons from Milton Wong

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A desire to bridge cultures 

There was always an "intersectionality" in Milton's work, recalled Habacon. He viewed many projects from a holistic viewpoint and excelled at connecting the dots between people and ideas from seemingly unrelated fields. 

One of the prime examples of this is the Dragon Boat Festival, a hugely successful annual event. 

"Dragon Boat wasn't just about bridging cultures -- for him, it was also about promoting health. You could do something that was bridging culture but also promoting active lifestyles ... it didn't have to be so 'multi-culti'," he said. 

"Even then, Milton was sensing that the paradigm of multiculturalism was kind of shallow. It celebrates more dance and food and costumes -- things that we don't necessarily even do on a daily basis anymore. What made Dragon Boat relevant was that it was a physical activity, and subversively, he was introducing Chinese culture." 

Todd Wong, a regular Dragon Boat participant and organizer the annual Gung Haggis Fat Choy dinner, said that there was more to the Dragon Boat Festival than met the eye. 

"When you think about the mid-eighties, there was a lot of racism, a backlash against Hong Kong immigrants, and people from Taiwan," he said. "All of a sudden, the Dragon Boat created something where everyone can participate and get to know each other." 

Fighting discrimination through understanding

In addition to the Dragon Boat festival, Wong also co-founded the Laurier Institution, a think tank that examines social and economic implications of cultural diversity. But what fueled his lifelong desire to help dialogue between different cultures?

"Milton's two brothers, Bill and Jack Wong --  the ones in the CBC documentary 'Tailor Made' -- went to UBC. They finished their engineering degrees, but they were not allowed to practice," Habacon said, speaking of discriminatory laws in the 1940s that barred Chinese from working in certain professions.

Not being able to use their post-secondary education, Wong's older brothers took on the family business in Chinatown, Modernize Tailors, founded in 1913 by the Wong family. Although both brothers went on to live full, rich lives, Habacon said that the experience left a strong impression on Wong's views. 

"That always haunted him," Habacon said. "Milton's brothers were a symbol, for him, of a generation. They had finished school and were as smart as everyone else. It's nothing short of racist that his brothers had limited opportunities based entirely on ethnicity." 

He said that was why he was so determined to change things ... rather than just being anti-racist, he saw bridging cultures as a solution."

Joanna Wong said that was only part of the reason. As he said in previous interviews, she said her uncle believed everyone had a "duty" to "speak up" about discrimination and injustice. 

Mentoring for the future

A voracious reader, the philanthropist always had books to share with people: both Todd Wong and Habacon both remember that he would share his favorite reads with other people. Sometimes, he would even buy 20 or 30 copies of the same book to give to others for inspiration.
"As a mentor, Milton was always teaching us how to mentor," said Habacon. 
"There was nothing he was doing that wasn't duplicatable."



"I've picked up a lot of things from Milt over the years," said Rubin. "One of the biggest things I learned is that it's not about the big moments. It's about the little things that lead up to them. That tenacious effort and not giving up no matter what gets in your way. Focusing on just one step at a time and getting things done."

"Milt was absolutely tremendous at doing that."

Lessons learned from the great philanthropist: 

  • Go with your gut: invest if you have a good feeling about somebody.
  • Do something because it's the right thing to do. The money will come later.
  • Don't neglect family.
  • Rest, but don't quit.
  • There is no such thing as infinite growth.

One of the last big ideas that Wong talked about, Habacon recalled, was a concept which he called the "era of stewardship."

"If you understand humanity as being part of biodiversity -- it's in fact just one system -- all the things around diversity, such as managing conflict, intercultural understanding -- they are actually part of a larger piece of sustainability," he said.

"As much as we care for the planet, we need to extend compassion toward one another. Therefore, the era of stewardship. We're not just taking care of the planet and future resources."

"We are actually responsible for each others' well being." 

Joanna Wong and Alden Habacon are in the process of finishing a book about Milton Wong's life and projects. 

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