Joseph Wong: Paving the way to peace and justice BIO
October was a busy month for Dr Joseph Wong, as he was fighting down to the wire to help the candidates he supported in the Ontario municipal election.
He was also in high gear preparing for an annual fundraising dinner in November for the Association for Learning and Preserving the History of WWII in Asia (ALPHA), an organization he founded whose mission is to bring the teaching of World War II history into the classrooms of Ontario and Canada, and the whole world.
He also dedicates his time to the Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care, which he founded in 1994 to serve Chinese seniors.
Today, Yee Hong is the largest non-profit geriatric care center in North America, serving 2,000 seniors living under its roof, and thousands more through community-based service programs. It has been recognized as a top organization offering exemplary care to seniors not only of the Chinese community, but also of the South Asian, Filipino and Japanese communities.
During most of the week, his “real job” is caring for his patients as a family physician, something he’s been doing for more than 30 years in Toronto.
Asked what all his activities have in common, his answer is firm and clear. “It’s all about the pursuit of peace, justice, respect and understanding, as a global citizen,” he said, a pursuit that comes with the vision to overcome the barriers of time, space, race or prejudice.
Wong said he doesn’t belong to any political party, but he willingly supports anyone who has ability, integrity and courage. He admitted that he has been putting off the idea of stepping into the political arena himself, as he has been fully occupied with the causes he finds meaningful.
But, he added with a smile, “Never say never.”
For now and at least the next few years, ALPHA will be his primary focus, he said.
Wong’s vision for ALPHA took root back in his college days in the 1970s when several experiences made a deep impression on his life.
While studying at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, a Jewish institution, he witnessed how the Jewish community came together to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust would never happen again to anyone anywhere in the world. He was inspired by their passion, action and persistence in addressing criminal acts in history so that the world would never forget.
Prior to that, college life at McGill University had been rather sheltered, as he was so immersed in his studies and stayed on campus most of the time.
After returning to Canada from medical school in New York, he opened a clinic in Chinatown.
His eyes were opened to the deep respect Canadians showed their veterans, how important it was for them to recognize the sacrifices soldiers made for their country and honor the memory of Canadians who had perished through the atrocities of WWII.
That’s when his own realization came to him.
“What struck me was that Asian lives had been valued so cheaply compared to those of the West. When people died in the West, they were remembered because they sacrificed their lives protecting values such as freedom and democracy. Yet the millions that died in Asia seemed to have been forgotten in the narratives purveyed in WWII history.
“My vision is that we need to remember these atrocities so that eventually peace and reconciliation will prevail in Asia,” he said. “I advocate that we look at the history through the lens of a global citizen yearning for peace and reconciliation, without recourse to hatred or blame.”
Such a vision came to fruition in 1997, the 60th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre, when he founded ALPHA with a group of volunteers. Their mandate was to foster education and racial harmony with a focus on promoting public awareness of the atrocities committed during WWII in Asia. The ultimate objective was to bring about peace to the troubled region.
“I believe that education and knowledge are the foundation of peace,” said Wong. “What we hope to achieve is to bring greater awareness of the history and the facts, so that the truth can be brought to the surface rather than being swept under the rug of ignorance. Such gross injustices should not be tolerated and it is our responsibility, as members of humanity, to recognize this.”
Over the past decade, ALPHA has had an impact in Toronto, across Canada, even in Asia and around the world.
Some of its milestones include organizing an annual Peace and Reconciliation Study Tour to China and other parts of Asia for educators from Canada, now in its 10th year.
In 2007, ALPHA successfully lobbied the Canadian Parliament to pass a motion condemning Japan for refusing to acknowledge the facts of military sexual slavery “comfort women” during WWII. In that same year, APLHA also produced a docudrama about Iris Chang and the Rape of Nanking.
These events gave the impetus needed for Toronto District School Board, the largest school board in Canada, to pass a motion in 2008 urging all schools in Toronto to teach the history of the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army, the Nanking Massacre and “comfort women”.
Today, ALPHA is working with all the school boards in GTA, publishing teaching guides for educators and organizing conferences for students about the Asia-Pacific War.
ALPHA also spread to other parts of Canada, with the establishment of local chapters in British Columbia, Edmonton and Ottawa. In 2011, a University of Toronto ALPHA chapter was also founded.
“What has been a nice surprise is the interest and enthusiasm of native born Chinese Canadians, university students, and even non-Chinese Canadians in learning about this part of history,” said Wong.
“On the other hand, I was taken aback by the lack of interest or support among the older generation Chinese who had experienced firstor second-hand such historical episodes,” he said.
Being a man of hope, he believes all the more that the work of ALPHA will inspire a new generation of Chinese to look at these atrocities from a global citizenship perspective, and grow up to be advocates for social justice and peace.
What does “peace” really mean to him, personally?
“Peace is understanding, respect and harmony between human beings,” he said.
Dr Joseph Wong, founder and chair of Toronto ALPHA, speaks at the ALPHA 2014 Fundraising Gala held on Nov 2 in Richmond Hill. He says that now he is more aware of social injustices around the world.