Milton Wong: doing good by stealth

Milton Wong and I were born in the same year, and lived most of our lives in the same city, yet we didn’t have more than a passing acquaintance until we were into our mid-50s. Do I regret that now, or do I see it as a necessary progression toward the meeting that really initiated our friendship? I hover. We had both been on a lifelong journey to discover what interested and motivated us most. Perhaps we needed to wait until we had reached a tentative conclusion or two and were ready to talk.

The first time we had a serious conversation was in the spring of 1995, when I interviewed him for a series of profiles of leading community thinkers that I was writing for The Vancouver Sun’s weekend magazine, Mix.

At the time, he was probably best known as an investment advisor – “the maestro of money” as Business BC called him – and had just been elected Chancellor of Simon Fraser University. He had also been involved in the launching of a number of social and cultural ventures – Science World and the Dragon Boat festival, for instance – and the editor of Mix had been intrigued by comments Milton had been making about the changing demographics of Vancouver and Canada. He suggested that we gave him a chance to explore those ideas in more detail.

The proposal intrigued me. I was coming to the end of a newspaper career as a writer and commentator on the arts and culture, and was on my second three-year term on the board of the Canada Council for the Arts. Given the changing make-up of creative Canada, diversity was an issue that had been more and more in my thoughts. An immigrant myself from one of the so-called dominant cultures, I welcomed the chance to hear the views of a son of an immigrant who didn’t speak English when he first arrived in Canada. Maybe we had useful things to say to each other.

It became as much a conversation as an interview, with each of us prodding the other into thinking more deeply about the issues we were talking about. For much of the time that we spoke, he came at topics from unexpected angles, throwing out thoughts and ideas that only gradually coalesced into a coherent shape. It was unsettling,  and provocative. Later I would recognize that kind of thinking-out-loud, all-over-the-map dot-connecting as one of his principal ways of making sense of the world.

What became clear very quickly was the humane dimension of the man, and his insatiable fascination with the big issue of cultural and ethnic diversity in modern Canada – not only that, but his willingness to voluntarily reinvest his own talents to help advance his ambitions for social harmony and a better world for everyone. In my piece, I quoted a line from an essay he had written: Vibrant political life and a strong society must be grounded in a strong sense of communal membership.

That was something that struck a chord with me. It had been becoming more and more apparent to me that any individual who wanted a better country should be prepared to invest time and energy in building it. Soon I would move on from journalism to what some might consider meatier matters – international affairs, cultural policy, even a brief fling in the political arena. Milton would come to influence me in all those areas, as well as playing an important role in my career in the international academic and NGO fields as an author and speaker. That afternoon meeting in 1995, looking over the city and the harbour and the mountains from his office high in the Hongkong Bank of Canada building, was a significant catalyst. By the time it was over we had the basis of what became a firm and lasting friendship.

One of my own pet causes, in terms of building a strong and vibrant participatory society, has been the relocation of arts and culture from its position on the fringes of society to the heart of modern life, and my work with the Canada Council and later as president of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO gave me the chance to do some serious thinking and writing about arts policy and cultural diplomacy for the federal government. Milt and I talked a lot about that, and about the lessons Canada can provide in the peaceful and productive construction of a multi-racial society. “How to deal with cultural change,” he said. “That’s probably going to become our major export.”

At the same time, he was instrumental in drawing me into the planning process for the move of SFU’s centre for the arts to the new Woodward’s location downtown – I had just received an honorary degree from the university, and, as Milt wryly put it, “nothing is for nothing” – and out of all this reflection and engagement emerged a manuscript, more of a manifesto really, about the importance of culture and the imaginative individual to modern life and our complex social structures.

I called it The Defiant Imagination: Why Culture Matters, and Milt became so enthused about the book that he bought several hundred copies for SFU to distribute to business leaders and directors of cultural institutions around the country. Without his commitment, the book might not have made it beyond manuscript form. His  support effectively gave me a springboard into an area where I had always considered myself an outsider – the world of the academy – and an opportunity to travel widely to make the case for change to a broad spectrum of audiences.

That gesture is typical of his generosity, and of the strength of his enthusiasms and beliefs. What was also typical was his reluctance to have his generosity and help publicly acknowledged. He does much of his good by stealth. Still, he takes pleasure in the good that he brings about. “How’s our book doing?” he’d often ask in theatre lobbies or at parties in the months following its publication. “Our book” it will always be.

This essay first appeared in Spark, a collection of personal stories celebrating the life and legacy of the entrepreneur, philanthropist and social activist Milton K. Wong, published by Greystone Books in 2014.

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