When Gim Foon Wong decided, at the age of 82, that he was going to motorcycle across Canada to press for redress on behalf of those who had to pay the Chinese head tax, the silence of support was deafening. No one thought it was a good idea, least of all his worried family.
But Mr. Wong, fired by a deep sense of injustice, could not be deterred. This was to be the defining mission of his long, extraordinary life. After all, he argued, if his hero Terry Fox could go all that way on one leg, he could do it sitting on the back of a motorcycle.
The Victoria-to-Ottawa trip began in early June, 2005, and it was not easy. There were falls, scrapes, a bout with fever and, on Parliament Hill on Canada Day, Mr. Wong was bundled away by security as he tried to join those on stage to publicize his cause. When he arrived back on the West Coast, he wound up in hospital, spent and dehydrated from his month-long ordeal.
Mr. Wong thought he had failed. The media interest that marked the beginning of his heroic Ride for Redress had disappeared, and Paul Martin’s Liberal government remained unmoved by demands for an apology and compensation over the exorbitant head tax imposed on Chinese immigrants until 1923.
“He had this empty feeling,” says Mr. Wong’s son, Jeff, who accompanied him on the trip in a camper van. “He thought he might have changed a few minds, but that was it.”
Unbeknownst to Mr. Wong, however, the tide was turning. The Chinese-Canadian community, which had been divided over the issue since the campaign began some 20 years earlier, started to rally behind it. Politicians scrambled to get on board. A year later, newly elected Prime Minister Stephen Harper rose in the House of Commons to apologize for the “grave injustice” forced upon immigrants from China, including Mr. Wong’s own parents.
Many pointed to the Ride for Redress as a tipping point that energized the movement. “People had been on the fence, but one by one, they began to change their minds,” Jeff says.
When Mr. Wong died July 29 in Vancouver at the age of 90, former multiculturalism minister Jason Kenney spoke of his “inspirational” Ride for Redress in a statement. “His contributions to Canada will not be forgotten and his legacy will live on,” said Mr. Kenney, adding how honoured he had been to meet Mr. Wong “and to hear his inspiring story.”
Mr. Wong’s life, like the man himself, was cut from a different cloth. A self-described “tough old bugger,” he rarely failed at the diverse challenges he took on, even if his combativeness and fierce independence were not always appreciated.
“One day, I got this call from someone with the Chinese Canadian National Council in Toronto,” recalls community activist Sid Tan, who helped drive the head-tax crusade. “She complained to me that Gim was ‘off message.’ ”
Mr. Tan still laughs heartily at the memory. He told the woman: “Look, I’ve been working with this guy for 20 years. He’s never been on bloody message.”
Herb Lim, like Mr. Wong a Second World War veteran, was a close friend for more than 50 years. He remembers him as “a bit of a wild guy” who fought against anything he thought was wrong. “He was outspoken. He didn’t get along with too many people.” Yet hundreds of mourners packed Mr. Wong’s memorial service, a tribute to his achievements and community presence.
Mr. Wong’s battle to enlist in the war, a legendary tale among Chinese-Canadian veterans, was typical of the manner he went about things.
Weighing no more than 110 pounds soaking wet, but obsessed with flying, he had visions of being a fighter pilot. “I want to fly Spitfires,” the scrawny young man told the wartime recruiting officer. The officer roared with merriment, noted that it was difficult to tell Chinese from Japanese, and sent Mr. Wong on his way.
At a time when Chinese-Canadians were denied citizenship and the right to vote, Mr. Wong refused to accept this further humiliation. He applied again and again until finally, in 1944, with casualties rising, someone said “yes.” Mr. Wong was informed he would be trained as a tail gunner.
He excelled in training, including a test that required prospective gunners to identify enemy and allied fighters from split-second silhouettes flashed on a screen. Mr. Wong stunned his instructors with a perfect score.
They decided he was too skilled to waste on the dangers of tail gunning. He became a flight engineer, then, at 22, one of the youngest Chinese-Canadian commissioned officers in the air force, chuckling to himself every time a non-Chinese person had to salute him.