Saying goodbye to Milton Wong, a great British Columbian

Milton Wong, who grew up in Chinatown as the son of an immigrant tailor and became one of Vancouver’s most honoured financiers, philanthropists and community leaders, has died.

Wong died Saturday at age 72, after battling pancreatic cancer for several months.

“It’s a real loss. He was still very vigorous until he got ill earlier last year,” said Joe Wai, a Vancouver architect and friend of the Wong family.

“There were more things that he would have done. He was an amazing human being who did a lot of good in furthering the causes he believed in.”

Wong managed billions of dollars as founder and chairman of M.K. Wong and Associates, which was sold in 1996 to HSBC Bank Canada, where he also served as non-executive chairman.

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The money manager was as celebrated for his philanthropy and his passion for British Columbia’s social diversity as he was for his Midas touch.

Wong co-founded Vancouver’s Dragon Boat Festival, which he saw as an event that could build bridges between Vancouver’s many ethnic communities.

His interest in the challenges facing Canada’s multiculturalism prompted him to become a founder and later chair of the Laurier Institution, a national non-profit think-tank that promotes discussion of cultural diversity.

Wong received a Freedom of the City award in August of last year. Mayor Gregor Robertson said at the time that Wong’s “leadership, generosity and dedication have touched the lives of so many citizens, and he’s truly an inspiration to us all.”

Wong’s stature in Metro Vancouver was such that he was appointed chancellor of Simon Fraser University for two consecutive terms, holding the position between 1999 and 2005.

“A great British Columbian whose success in business was always complemented by a strong social conscience, Milton Wong’s legacy is one of openness, collaboration and trust,” said David Mitchell, a former MLA who is currently CEO of the Public Policy Forum in Ottawa.

“Almost a generation ago, he was the first prominent business leader in British Columbia to call for a resolution of native land claims, not only because this would boost investment in the province but because it was a matter of social justice. It was the right thing to do.”

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Mitchell, who was previously a vice-president at SFU, said that as chancellor at the university Wong “was more intellectually engaged in the life of the university than most holders of that position.”

Wong helped spearhead the development of SFU’s downtown Vancouver campus, including the Wosk Centre for Dialogue, said Mitchell.

“He probably logged more hours in the circular Asia-Pacific Hall than anyone else, exploring different kinds of leadership models and new ways of discussing policies and ideas.”

A strong believer in the importance of the arts, Wong donated $3 million to build the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre in SFU’s new School for the Contemporary Arts in the Woodward’s building.

“This heritage restoration and redevelopment was very close to Milton’s heart, as he grew up only blocks away on the edge of Chinatown,” said Mitchell.

Wong also helped finance Centre A., a gallery for contemporary Asian art, located in the Downtown Eastside.

In 1997, Wong received the Order of Canada for his distinguished community service.

Wong was born in Vancouver’s Chinatown to Chinese immigrants Wong Kung Lai and Chu Man Wong in 1939. He was the eighth of nine children.

His father arrived in Canada in 1908 during an era when Chinese immigrants had to pay a $500 head tax.

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Wong’s father started Modernize Tailors in 1913 in the Chinese Freemasons building at Pender and Carrall.

The building was eventually sold but Wong purchased it decades later, restored it and converted the upper floors into seniors’ housing.

The nine-year-old Wong delivered the Province newspaper all over Gastown, Oppenheimer and Strathcona.

Wong’s older brothers, Bill and Jack Wong, graduated from the University of B.C. with engineering degrees but were unable to practise because of laws that kept Asians out of many professions in the ’40s. Instead, they took up their father’s trade and ran his tailor shop.

Wong attended high school at Vancouver Tech. When he enrolled at UBC, the institutional racism experienced by earlier waves of Chinese, including his brothers, was on the wane.

Wong studied political science and economics at UBC and graduated in 1963. He joined National Trustco Inc. in Toronto and quickly rose up the ranks. Soon Wong was back in Vancouver, managing investments for the firm’s western branches.

He struck out on his own in 1980, establishing M.K. Wong & Associates to provide investment counselling services. The firm prospered and Wong earned a reputation for his investment acumen. In his 2010 book Mavericks, journalist Peter C. Newman described Wong as a “water-walking money manager who turned a $40-million nest egg into $3.5 billion in assets in less than seven years.”

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But M.K. Wong was hurt by Black Monday, the 1987 stock market crash, and lost nearly $2.5 billion. Wong remained bullish on stocks and his firm recovered when the markets rebounded. Of M.K. Wong’s revival, Newman wrote in Mavericks: “He [Wong] recovered, hiring a cohort of young, computer-clever fact sifters to detect and dissect technologically sophisticated small-capitalization oil and gas ventures, among other hot prospects.

“Their stocks became part of the New Economy Growth Fund, which in its first six months alone had a return of 122 per cent.”

M.K. Wong was acquired in 1996 by HSBC Bank Canada Ltd. for a reported $15 million. Wong went on to serve as non-executive chairman of a much-expanded version of his old firm, renamed HSBC Asset Management Canada and with assets of $4 billion.

Many of Wong’s investments were inspired by his own intellectual interests.

When his wife Fei developed breast cancer in the early ‘80s (she recovered), Wong became an angel investor to ALI Technologies, which was developing new technologies in breast screening.

He helped raise $100 million for the BC Cancer Agency after learning about how gene therapy had cured a baby born without an immune system.

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Wong also raised money for the late Michael Smith’s UBC human genome sequencing project.

Wong was also a founder and chairman of Perceptronix Medical, Inc., which operates as a cytology laboratory and cancer diagnostics company. It specializes in the provision of early cancer detection tests.

In 1994, he received the “Socially Responsible Entrepreneur of the Year” award. In 1997, he was the chairman and CEO of the 4th World Chinese Entrepreneurs Convention held in Vancouver. In 2002, Wong was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young.

Wong also served as a director on the boards of the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, the Canada-U.S. Fulbright Program, the Pacific Salmon Endowment Fund Society, Genome BC and the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation.

He was a member of the Canadian Judicial Council. He was co-chair of the BC Cancer Foundation Millennium Campaign and an advisory board member with the Salvation Army.

Wong is survived by his wife, Fei, daughters Andrea, Sarah and Elizabeth, sons-in-law Kevin and Joe, and three grandchildren. A memorial service is planned for later this month.