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Gary Wong, the Chinese drummer at the Ki-Low-Na Friendship Society

Gary Wong described his life growing up in Vancouver as chaos.

A self-proclaimed “bad boy” as a youth, he was kicked out of every high school he went to, with Vancouver’s Templeton Secondary School being the only exception. As Wong put it, “that’s where all the bad boys were sent.”

“That was a really bad part of my life because I was involved with all the bad crowds. It wasn’t my parents’ fault. I was attracted to the environment,” said Wong, who’s Norweigan on his mother’s side and Chinese on his dad’s.

At a young age, he fell down the path of alcoholism. He would take wine from his uncle’s and steal 50-pound kegs, where he would get drunk in the bush with his cousins.

In the early 1960s, his parents relocated his family to Mission, but he continued to make trips to Vancouver throughout his teenage years in an attempt to find a high school to take him in. He never got past Grade 10 but did complete his GED later in his life.

As one of the few Chinese students starting junior high at Mission High School, he said his white peers were always ganging up on him.

“They would wait for me when I got off the bus and they would start beating on me. I even took knives to school to defend myself,” said Wong.

He recalled one moment when he was attacked by eight of his white peers, when all of a sudden, an Indigenous student came to his rescue.

“He was grabbing them by their heads and throwing them off me,” said Wong. “He picks me up and says, ‘This is our brother.’”

Before he knew it, he was invited to sweat lodges and into the homes located on the nearby reserve for dinner, where he got his first taste of Bannock.

“I listened to a lot of medicine men, people that were really wise. Elders told me stories, told me this and told me that. I just absorbed it,” he said.

READ MORE: Hundreds gather at Kelowna tribute in honour of Kamloops 215

But despite the positive relationships he was building as he grew up in Mission, he struggled to break free from mischief. He eventually moved back to Vancouver when he was in his late 30s, where he experienced two failed marriages while engaging in a life of crime.

It was 27 years ago, near the end of a jail sentence when he said his road to recovery began after learning that he had a daughter.

“I had two months left and they put her in foster care,” he said. “I got out of jail, got sober, got clean. I went to the federal courts and they told me they’re giving her to her aunt in Ontario.”

He relocated to Chilliwack shortly after prison and began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He also connected with the Stó:lō Nation and began drumming.

In 2003, he moved to Kelowna, where the Stó:lō Nation sponsored him to attend a treatment centre in Rutland. Around this time, he began to regularly attend the men’s circle group at the Ki-Low-Na Friendship Society.

But shortly after moving to Kelowna, he found himself homeless, spending six years on the street with his guitar, bike, pack-sack and a tarp. He eventually found housing through the John Howard Society. While giving an interview about his experience on the streets, his daughter, who was completing a master’s degree at McGill University at the time, reached out to him.

“I wrote to her that I’m computer illiterate, here’s my phone number, call me,” he said. “She called me right away and we’ve been connecting ever since.”

While attending the men’s circle group sessions at the Ki-Low-Na Friendship Society, Wong was mentored by Elder Richard Jackson Jr., who led the sessions.

“He’s been mentoring me since 2003. Now he’s family. Now he’s no longer my mentor — he’s my brother,” said Wong.

As time went on, Wong slowly transitioned into the lead drummer of the men’s circle.

“Richard used to do it, and then it kinda just went to me. When they have a funeral, a wedding or some sort of gathering — all the Elders know me and they ask me to drum,” said Wong.

In addition to leading drum songs at various events, he’s gone to local schools to teach youth how to drum. He estimates that he knows about 30 different drum songs, all taught to him by different Elders.

“All the music I play, I asked permission to play. That’s protocol. You just don’t go on the internet, get a whole bunch of songs, start drumming to the songs and start playing them,” he said.

Gary Wong participates in a drum song at Kelowna’s City Park on June 4, 2021. The event honoured the lives of the 215 Indigenous children whose remains had recently been discovered in an unmarked grave on the former grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)

Wong said he’s proud of his Chinese heritage and added that it’s an honour to have the opportunity and blessing to engage in Indigenous practices.

“I am honoured — with all my heart, spirit and soul — that people ask me to do things, that people partake and treat me just like family,” he said. “I’m honoured to be there. That’s my reward — just being honoured to be there.”

READ MORE: PHOTOS: Westbank First Nation drops banners to honour residential school victims on Canada Day


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