xi's moments

The accidental politician: From racist attack to leader of a community

By May Zhou in Houston | China Daily | Updated: 2018-11-15 09:50

Lee Wong has come a long way from being "angry at the world" to the leader of an affluent suburb that has made it onto Money Magazine's list of the 50 "Best Places to Live" in the United States seven times.

Wong is serving his fourth term as president of the board of trustees of West Chester, north of Cincinnati, Ohio. The position is equivalent to mayor in an incorporated city with a population of 66,000, a median family income of $100,260, a 94 percent high school graduation rate and a projected job growth rate of 4.48 percent for the next five years

He plans to run for one more four-year term to take his public service career to 20 years.

But life hasn't always run so smoothly for Wong in an area where the population is more than 90 percent white.

His parents passed away when he was 12 and he later immigrated to the US from Malaysia to pursue a degree in pharmacology in Chicago in the early 1970s.

Wong, an ethnic Chinese, never intended to come to the US to get into politics, but one incident changed his life's trajectory.

Two years into his college program, Wong was attacked by a white man who mistook him for being Japanese.

"It was serious aggravated assault. He pushed me to the ground and I had to go to hospital," he said.

Wong filed a criminal complaint and took him to court.

"However, he continued to call me 'Jap' in court contemptuously. The judge sentenced him to one-year, non-reporting probation only. That meant as long as he did not attack anyone else within a year and get reported, he was free," Wong said.

"I was stupid and only 20 years old, I let it get into my head. I was confused and angry. For two years I was angry at the world and I hated white people, but I married a white woman later."

Wong said his studies suffered as a result of the attack and he became obsessed with evening the score, which included the "stupid idea" of becoming a policeman to get his revenge.

His application was swiftly rejected.

Wong then got a stroke of luck and obtained a green card because his older brother was a citizen. "So I joined the army. I scored high and got admitted. They said, you want to be a policeman? I will make you a military policeman."

20 years in military

Wong took advantage of the benefits the military provided and went to school at night. He got a bachelor's degree in criminal science and joined the Army police force's Criminal Investigation Command, becoming the first Chinese-American to get into one of the most elite US Army organizations.

Wong saw four wars in his 20-year career in the army. He also learned a lot about politics.

"I said to myself, when I get out, when I retire, I want to do something good for the community, make it a better place than I found it. That is the reason I got into this," he said.

After working as a police officer for a few years in Indiana, Wong moved his family to West Chester in 2001. He got involved in the community by volunteering to collect tickets for football games. After a few years, he made a lot of contacts and gained good visibility in the community.

In 2005, Wong campaigned and won the board seat. He won three more times after that. His current term will end in 2021 and he plans to run for one more term.

The first thing Wong did after his election was to improve the police department.

"The police used to be like Robocops, cold to people. I got my first ticket here. I replaced the police chief. I wanted the police to be friendly to residents, to be here to protect the citizens," Wong said.

As well as improving the quality of life for the suburb's residents, Wong is also focusing on business development and is joining Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley in a delegation to China in early November.

"Some governments come to poach our business. I am not worried because businesses like us and want to stay here," he said.

Another important thing Wong did was to set the stage for the next Asian-American to run for office.

"I meet them and give classes on how to get involved in the community. That's very important," he said.

(China Daily 11/15/2018 page10)

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