Monday, November 17, 2008

Wong becomes NZ's first Asian minister

3:47PM Monday Nov 17, 2008
Pansy Wong says her ministerial appointment sends a message to the world New Zealand is a country where anyone can be accepted and succeed. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Pansy Wong says her ministerial appointment sends a message to the world New Zealand is a country where anyone can be accepted and succeed. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Pansy Wong says her appointment as the country's first Asian Cabinet minister shows New Zealand is an open and tolerant country.

The 53-year-old ethnic Chinese MP was appointed Minister for Ethnic Affairs and Minister of Women's Affairs in the new-look Cabinet today.

Mrs Wong said she had always battled to be treated like any other New Zealander and her electorate win in Botany and her appointment as a minister sent a message to the world.

"It shows that New Zealand is a tolerant country where anyone can be accepted and succeed," she told NZPA.

She hoped her achievements would show other minorities they could succeed within mainstream parties and politics and encourage them to get involved.

Mrs Wong credited education, hard work and determination - a system of values instilled by her poor uneducated parents - as the keys to her success.

Born in Shanghai, her family moved to Hong Kong when she was five.

Her father was a seaman who was away for six months of the year and she, her mother, and two brothers lived in a small room in a shared apartment block floor populated by seven families.

"That was about 40 people. We shared one kitchen area and one toilet and one bathroom. So I experienced poverty."

Despite their surroundings, her parents were extremely proud and committed to providing an education and better life for their children.

"She held on to the dream that one day, because the living environment was so depressing, that she wanted to own her own apartment. That dream was fulfilled after six years."

In Hong Kong it was popular to take an English name. Born Yu Fong, which meant "fragrance of flowers", she chose Pansy as her English name.

"I liked it. Pansies are tough but they are also happy and kind of vivacious. It was only afterwards that I found out they don't have any fragrance."

In 1974, when she was 19, her family emigrated to New Zealand after her father, who had docked here on his travels, decided it was good place to raise a family.

Mrs Wong studied at Canterbury University, helping out in her family's St Albans fish and chip shop and Bealey Ave hamburger joint in her spare time.

"Even now I can still flip a mean burger."

It was at university that she met her Malaysian Chinese husband Sammy.

She went on to complete a Masters of Commerce degree with honours, initially working at what is now Ernst and Young as an accountant before joining Christchurch firm Smiths City where she eventually became chief financial controller.

In 1989 she was approached to enter local politics and was elected to Canterbury Regional Council, where she became known as the "$6 million dollar woman" for carving that figure off the budget.

As MMP neared Fendalton MP Philip Burdon approached her to stand for National and she agreed, in 1996 becoming New Zealand's first Asian MP by virtue of National's list.

It was during that election that she first locked horns with New Zealand First leader Winston Peters who was campaigning on an anti-immigration platform and described her as a "token" MP.

After the election she threatened to quit National if the incoming government adopted NZ First's immigration policy.

Mrs Wong said being described as token did not overly worry her because she was used to such treatment.

"Even today some people mock my accent and the way I speak."

She said if anything the barbs helped her motivation.

But she did not like NZ First's denigration of immigrants, knowing first hand how hard it was to resettle in a foreign country.

Mrs Wong said since she was elected to Parliament she has tried to represent Asian communities, but she does not see herself as a spokeswoman for all Asians, as there is a diverse range of interests and views within such a wide group.

"I think it's really important for people to see Asians as individuals rather than just a group."


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