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Gim Foon Wong, 83 stands before the Memorial to Chinese-Canadian War Veterans and Railway Workers in Vancouver on June 5, 2005. (LYLE STAFFORD/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Gim Foon Wong, 83 stands before the Memorial to Chinese-Canadian War Veterans and Railway Workers in Vancouver on June 5, 2005. (LYLE STAFFORD/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

OBITUARY

Gim Foon Wong’s motorcycle ride turned the tide on Chinese head-tax redress Add to ...

A proud veteran, Mr. Wong continued to wear his original blue air force uniform and cap on Remembrance Day and other occasions, shunning the beret, blazer and trousers worn by everyone else. He also served as president of the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans Pacific Unit 280.

Gim Foon Wong was born on the edge of Vancouver’s Chinatown on Dec. 28, 1922. His father, Kee Foo (Joseph) Wong, had come to Vancouver from southern China’s Guangdong province in 1906 at the age of 15. His $500 head tax was put up by a remarkable group of older brothers who had immigrated before him. The same three brothers subsequently amassed another $500 to enable him to bring a wife to Canada. “Because my grandfather was so much younger, they figured he had a better future,” marvelled Gim Wong’s daughter, Donna.

Hah Shee Yee did not arrive until 1921, a mere two years before Canada passed the Exclusion Act that barred all further immigration from China.

Mr. Wong had a tough childhood. The family was poor, meals meagre and housing rudimentary, at best. Mr. Wong remembered waking one morning to find a thin coating of snow on his blanket.

There was also the racism of the schoolyard. Once, a pair of Japanese schoolboys beat him up and peed on him. Mr. Wong could never tell this story without weeping, not because of his own humiliation, but for what it did to his mother, who cried for her young son as she cleaned him up in their corner sink.

The incident helped fuel Mr. Wong’s lifelong determination to combat discrimination and do things his way. He was clever, with a growing aptitude for things mechanical. At 13, he built his own go-kart. Two years later, he won the Western Canada Model Plane Flying Championship, using a craft fashioned out of materials scrounged from around home, including some of his mother’s chopsticks.

He left school after finishing Grade 10 to help his family financially as the Depression deepened. He worked in laundries and canneries – where he was paid half as much as others doing the same job – and on local farms for a dollar a day. “We always got the raw deal,” he would tell interviewers.

After the war, he found steady work as one of the city’s most skilled auto welders before going into business for himself. Gim’s Auto Body, with its wry slogan “Wreck-O-Mended,” was a Vancouver institution for years.

During the 1950s, Mr. Wong embraced midget car racing, competing at oval tracks across the Pacific Northwest. He was an original inductee into the Greater Vancouver Motorsport Pioneers Society.

Mr. Wong married relatively late. On a trip with a buddy to Hong Kong, he met schoolteacher Mui Jan. He stayed on, and married her six months later. They had the first of their five children in 1961. He is survived by his wife and children, Cyndi, Donna, Jeff, Dina and Lisa.

“He was grumpy and stubborn, but he was also a pretty cool dad,” Donna says.

Jeff agrees, remembering a box hockey game his dad fashioned on top of an upside-down table. “He was different, that’s for sure. Everything he touched, he modified. I don’t think there was a single tool in his workshop he hadn’t modified.”

Donna says she was never bothered by her father’s outspokenness. “Some people didn’t get him. He said things, and he didn’t really care what people thought. He was a real character.”

Eventually, Mr. Wong sold his one-man auto body shop, keeping busy with property and rental investments. In the 1980s, he joined the fledgling redress campaign after meeting Charlie Quan, who paid the head tax and knew Mr. Wong’s grandfather.

“I’m not sure people knew that, but my father had a sensitive side,” Donna says. “He kept saying, ‘I have to do it for Charlie. It’s the right thing to do.’ ”

Mr. Wong did not ride the whole way to Ottawa on his Gold Wing Honda motorcycle, which was emblazoned with a small banner that read, “I am a Canadian.” He would travel each day as far as his 82-year-old frame could stand, then nap in the back of the camper van while the kilometres went by.

It still took a toll. Donna believes her father’s health was never the same. But Mr. Wong didn’t give up his quest to ensure the hard old days endured by early Chinese-Canadians were not forgotten. He had a starring role in Kenda Gee’s prize-winning documentary Lost Years. “There will not be another Gim Wong,” Mr. Gee wrote after his death. He was “one of a kind.”

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