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.
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.”
Follow us on Twitter: