Obituary

Milton Wong, a tireless philanthropist, brought a lot to the table

VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail

SFU Chancellor Milton Wong and first nations student centre director Sasha Hobbs lead students to a feast following a First Nations convocation ceremony in 2003. (SFU photo/SFU photo)

Milton Wong loved working in the kitchen, especially for the feast that he hosted on New Year’s Day for everyone in his large but close-knit family.

He enjoyed bringing people together to share a meal and, with his bottomless curiosity, to talk with them about their passions. “Everyone was important to him and he had time for all of us,” his niece, Joanna Wong, said Monday. “He would see that thing in people that really made them come alive.”

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Mr. Wong is better known outside his family for his considerable achievements in the world of finance and his role in the life of several B.C. institutions, including as chancellor of Simon Fraser University, co-chairman of the BC Cancer Foundation’s millennium campaign and co-founder of the International Dragon Boat Festival. A dynamic community leader, philanthropist and successful financier, he died Saturday at age 72. He had pancreatic cancer, a family member said.

The family, however, decided to go ahead with the New Year’s banquet the following evening.

“He loved that meal. All of us could feel him with us,” Joanna Wong said. “Our New Year’s dinner was such an important tradition to him. He worked for many years to pass it onto the next generation. It was so emotional to honour him.”

Mr. Wong began working in finance after graduating from university in 1963 and started his own financial management firm, M.K. Wong and Associates, in 1980. After HSBC bought the firm in 1996, he headed HSBC Asset Management (Canada) Ltd., where he was responsible for managing billions of dollars in global assets.

His legacy includes several successful start-ups, including Nurse Next Door and Perceptronix Medical Inc., which specializes in early cancer-detection testing. He also founded the portfolio management program at University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business. A businessman with a social conscience, he raised millions of dollars for health-related causes and helped establish innovative partnerships between B.C. first nations and businesses.

Former B.C. premier Mike Harcourt, a long-time friend, worked with Mr. Wong on urban renewal projects in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and on assisting first nations with business development. “Milt was very good at getting [people]to help with causes he thought were important,” he said.

Mr. Wong did not let racial discrimination that was prevalent at the time he was growing up colour his outlook on life, Mr. Harcourt said. “Instead of making that into a negative, he turned it into a positive.”

As tensions rose in the late 1980s around an influx of Chinese immigrants, Mr. Wong created the Laurier Institution and the International Dragon Boat Festival. It was a way of confronting those problems in a positive way, Mr. Harcourt said. The Laurier Institution is a think tank that examines social and economic implications of cultural diversity while the dragon boat festival was created as a showcase of cultural diversity.

“He had a very creative mind,” Mr. Harcourt said.

Barbara Brink, the driving force behind the creation of Science World, said Mr. Wong was instrumental in bringing support from the business community to the project in the 1980s.

“He was a very broad thinker,” she said.

“He was clearly a successful businessman but his legacy will be how much he gave back to the community, and not just in dollars. He was just so interested in new ideas and willing to help people in start-ups. So many institutions in this city owe him an awful lot.”

Mr. Wong was raised in Vancouver’s Chinatown and was the second youngest of a family of four daughters and five sons. With his wife, Fei, he was actively involved in the lives of his three daughters and three grandchildren.

His niece said the tradition of hosting a New Year’s feast was started years ago by his father. Around 50 people were at the 2012 New Year’s feast earlier this week.

It was the second year that the next generation was in charge of cooking the dozen or so dishes for the banquet.

“The inspiration he gave to Canada, he also gave to his family,” Ms. Wong said. “We all felt so loved and supported by him.”

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