CANADA

Two women bound for the history books

B.C.’s first Chinese MLAs buck the odds

SCOTT STEELE August 26 1996
CANADA

Two women bound for the history books

B.C.’s first Chinese MLAs buck the odds

SCOTT STEELE August 26 1996

Two women bound for the history books

CANADA

B.C.’s first Chinese MLAs buck the odds

SCOTT STEELE

The two women have remarkably similar backgrounds. Both are from large working-class families, headed by parents who scrimped and saved to ensure their children a better life. Both used terms in municipal government as a springboard to higher office. Both are still young, charismatic and proud of their heritage and culture. But when it comes to politics, Ida Chong and Jenny Kwan are a study in contrasts. Chong is a conservative-minded accountant who ran for the British Columbia Liberals in May’s provincial election, narrowly defeating incumbent NDP finance minister Elizabeth Cull in the Victoria-area riding of Oak Bay/Gordon Head—one of the province’s most affluent. Left-leaning Kwan, on the other hand, is a social activist who was tidily elected on the New Democratic ticket to succeed retiring former premier Mike Harcourt in the predominantly blue-collar riding of Vancouver/Mount Pleasant—which includes some of the province’s most down-andout neighborhoods. But in spite of their political differences, Chong and Kwan are inseparable: they now share a page of history as the first two Chinese-Canadians ever elected to the B.C. legislature.

For both women, simply being there is vindication of a sort: British Columbia has not always opened its political doors freely to those of Chinese ancestry. In 1874, colonial governors banned ChineseCanadians from all political activity— including voting. It was not until 1947 that they were granted the vote. Since then, other minorities have been represented in the provincial legislature and even the B.C. cabinet (which currently includes two Indo-Canadians: Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh and Education Minister Moe Sihota). Until this year, however, no member of British Columbia’s 250,000-strong Chinese community—the province’s largest minority group—had won election to the provincial legislature. Now, with this spring’s provincial election, Chong and Kwan have broken through that barrier—in pursuit of strikingly different political goals.

For Chong, 39, winning in Oak Bay/ Gordon Head represents a home-town victory: she was born and raised in Victoria. Still, her upbringing reflected her parents’ origins. Chong’s father, Peter, grew up in the Vancouver Island community of

Cumberland, 175 km northwest of the B.C. capital. Her mother, Yoke Yee Chong, came to Canada in the early 1950s from Hong Kong, where her family had fled after the Communist takeover of their native Guangdong province. While Peter Chong worked as a boilermaker in a local shipyard, his unilingual Cantonesespeaking wife got a job as a dishwasher as the couple, with eight children, struggled to make ends meet “They did not deprive us,” says Chong, who is now the Liberals’ smallbusiness, tourism and culture critic, “but they never took any extravagances.”

When Chong was 10, the family moved out of downtown Victoria to the middle-class suburb of Gordon Head. “There were only two or three Chinese in my entire school,” Chong recalls. “I experienced culture shock.” But she does not remember experiencing any overt racial discrimination. Her mother, meanwhile, taught her daughter some core economic values. “She said there are three things that I you have to remember g in life,” recalls Chong. % One such maternal les“ son covered the importance of basic needs—“Food on the table, clothes on your back and a roof over your head.” Another underscored the value of education. But it was the third lesson that has stuck with Ida Chong and now colors her politics. “Before anything else,” she recalls learning, “before any extravagances, always pay off your mortgage.”

Jenny Kwan, 30, is also familiar with foregone extravagance. In Hong Kong, where she was born, her father, Wing Yim Kwan, owned a small tailor shop and toiled long hours to support his six children. Her mother, Po Kwun Tse Kwan, stayed home to care for the youngsters in the family’s small, subsidized highrise flat. “The one thing that struck me more than anything else as a child were the beggars on the streets,” she recalls. “There was a very clear difference between the rich and the poor.” In 1975, when she was 9, her parents moved the family to the east side of Vancouver. But Kwan remembers having mixed feelings about her new home—and one reason was the discrimination she encountered. One day, in a school washroom, two girls trapped her

in a cubicle. “They started to chant, ‘Chink, Chink,’ ” recalls Kwan. “I started to cry—and it got worse.”

The incident fuelled Kwan’s emerging perception that her race was a handicap in Canada. “I remember thinking, ‘Boy, if I could just not be Chinese,’ ” she recalls. She remembers her highschool years as being full of “frustration and anger,” and credits her strong, supportive family for the fact that she did not “selfdestruct” under the pressures of adolescence. But even after completing high school in 1984 and then studying business administration for a year at Burnaby’s Simon Fraser University, she still felt herself adrift. It took a trip back to her native land to show Kwan the path she would follow in Canada. In 1987, armed with savings from a year spent working as a gas company secretary, she flew to Hong Kong and then travelled around the People’s Republic of China. For the first time since her encounter with the jeering girls, she says, she began to view her ethnic heritage in a positive light. “I began to understand and respect Chinese culture and traditions,” she says.

Kwan had found her bearings at last. “When I came back, I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” she says. “Fundamental to it is the whole issue of equality and justice.” Determined to put her thoughts into action, Kwan returned to Simon Fraser, this time completing a degree in criminology.

Miles apart politically, Chong and

Kwan still share basic values

After graduating in 1990, she found work with an advocacy group in Vancouver’s poorest neighborhood. That two-year stint with the Downtown Eastside Residents’ Association gave Kwan firsthand experience in helping the disadvantaged— and helped bring the personable and energetic young ChineseCanadian to the attention of NDP recruiters.

In 1993, the party backed Kwan as a candidate for Vancouver city council. Elected as the only member of the NDP-affiliated Coalition of Progressive Electors, she established v herself as the council’s ¿ sole voice of the left, « fighting for affordable I housing and resisting “ the freewheeling real estate development that many of her colleagues favored. Asked to run provincially for the NDP this spring, Kwan could not resist. Her ethnically and economically diverse riding is where she has done most of her advocacy work—and it includes Vancouver’s Chinatown. Kwan won handily, defeating her Liberal opponent by more than 6,000 votes.

Like Kwan, Chong’s decision to enter active politics occurred later in life. But, she recalls, the common-sense conservatism she learned in her parents’ home left an indelible mark. In high school, her Grade 11 social studies teacher asked students to keep a journal. “She said we could write anything we wanted,” says Chong. “So I started picking up the newspaper and reading.” Soon, her entries took on a decidedly political tone. Drawing on her parents’ example, Chong argued that people who worked hard and made sacrifices should not be penalized by heavy taxes. Then-NDP Premier Dave Barrett’s “socialist left-wing agenda,” she wrote, threatened to lead British Columbia to “ruin.” But when her teacher asked Chong if she had thought of entering politics, her reaction was swift. “I said, ‘Oh, no. Politicians are awful people. Just look at what they are doing!’ ”

That youthful aversion to politicians endured while she established herself in a career. After high school, she went to work full time as an accounts clerk in a department store—and enrolled in the demanding Certified General Accountants program. Working during the day and studying at night, she met her own ambitious goal of becoming an accountant by age 25, receiving her designation in 1981. Three years later, she opened her own accounting firm, Kesteloo and Chong, with childhood friend Karen Kesteloo. But finally, in 1993, the earlier prodding she had received in school took effect: Chong sought and won a municipal council seat in the Victoria-area community of Saanich. “My mother always said you’ve got to give back to your country,” she says. “I felt it was time to make a contribution.”

Chong takes issue with criticism levelled at her that she is too right of centre— although she readily admits to being a fiscal conservative. And, clearly, her philosophy found a sympathetic audience among voters in Oak Bay/Gordon Head when Chong set her sights on the provincial political stage earlier this year. Although her margin of victory over sitting finance minister Cull was small—fewer than 700 votes— Cull was the highest-ranking New Democrat toppled in the election.

Now seated almost directly across from each other in the B.C. legislature, Chong and Kwan find themselves well positioned to achieve even greater prominence. “I think that Jenny Kwan has more upside in terms of future potential and responsibility than any new MLA that was elected,” says Victoria-based public affairs consultant and former NDP strategist Brad Zubyk. “I would run on the assumption that she will be in the next cabinet—I think she’ll be a star down the road.” Liberal insiders offer similar opinions about Chong. “She will make a good MLA—and she would clearly be a good bet for a cabinet ministry were there a Liberal government,” says longtime Liberal strategist and Victoriabased consultant Gerry Kristianson.

Whether the two rookies sink or swim in Victoria’s rough-and-tumble political environment, both say that their historic election has helped to heighten awareness of British Columbia’s multicultural society. “My fundamental belief is that everybody has a role to play,” says Kwan. Adds Chong: “I think all Canadians should be more involved in the political process. I have the advantage of knowing another culture—that is the only difference.” On that point, and despite whatever else they may differ about, British Columbia’s first two MLAs of Chinese origin speak the same language. □