THE PUNGENT ODOR OF THE KITCHEN on the boat in which she escaped China has stayed with Chantale Wong MC/MPA 1988.

Wong was born in Mao Zedong’s China, part of a generation raised under what her mother, now 96, called “the sheet of red.” Driven to desperation by a series of upheavals and famines, Wong’s parents made one of the most excruciating decisions a parent can make: At age 6, their daughter was smuggled out of China with her grandmother, hidden in the hold of a trawler as it sailed from Guangzhou to Hong Kong. She didn’t see them again for 21 years, this time catalyzing their emigration from China in 1989, after the events of Tiananmen Square.

Throughout her life, Wong, motivated in part by that harrowing ride to Hong Kong, learned how to find connections and build deep relationships that would acutely influence her journey. She went on to study engineering—which inspired her to shift her attention to public policy—and then to attend the Kennedy School. Her path took her to NASA, the Treasury, the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Management and Budget, and eventually to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), where she served as the U.S. director. Wong is the first out lesbian and first LGBTQ+ person of color in history to serve as a U.S. ambassador. She spoke to HKS Magazine from Manila, in the Philippines, where the ADB is based.

“What could have been my life if my parents had not [sent me away]?” she said. “It would certainly have been stalled in terms of education, opportunities, potential. Only in America could I, years later, be chief of staff to [OMB Director] Alice Rivlin. That opportunity would not have been given to me if I had stayed in China.”

Peter L. Levin, the CEO of Amida and a former White House Fellow who worked under Wong at the OMB, says, “I think more than any faith-based commitment, which is very profound in her, and mentorship and human connection, which is transcendent in her, what really drives her is that experience. I think she considers herself successful if one little girl less has to go through that.”

Chantale Wong wearing a bright blue jacket looking upwards in Washington, D.C.

“When I first went to Washington, there weren’t many Asian Americans, certainly not in the metro D.C. area, but also not in the policy discussions that mattered.”

Chantale Wong

Wong began her career with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. “I went into civil engineering because it was the only scholarship I could find,” she said. But she learned quickly that all the rules she had to follow as a wastewater engineer were being made by people far away in Washington, D.C., who didn’t understand the problems at the local level. So in a way, Wong says, it was sewage and wastewater—and the desire to change policy in Washington—that brought her to the Kennedy School. It was also there that she met Rivlin, who had come to HKS to teach for one semester.

“I took a course from her on the federal budget and macroeconomic policy, and … that was it!” Wong said. “She helped me every step of the way. She wrote letters, made phone calls, and opened doors. I didn’t grow up with my loving parents, but I had nuns who taught and nurtured me in high school, in undergrad I had a professor who paid me to do research, and then I had Alice.”

Wong has made paying that mentorship forward a central part of her life. “It’s about finding the focused, deep relationships,” she said. “It’s not just, ‘Hi, how are you? I need help.’ It’s developing the relationships over time. I would call it a personal board of directors. People you go to for certain things, whether it’s having a family, or how to navigate family and a career, or how to deal with bosses.”

Her passion for connection and helping others inspired her in 1989 to establish the Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership (CAPAL), a nonprofit dedicated to bringing more people of AAPI descent into policymaking circles.

“When I first went to Washington, there weren’t many Asian Americans, certainly not in the metro D.C. area, but also not in the policy discussions that mattered,” Wong said. “I started this organization in my basement apartment to encourage young Asian Americans to seek a career in public service. Now generations of Asian Americans have gone through it. I have a lot of ‘mini-mes’ out there.” She spoke with an infectious smile.

During a short-lived retirement that began in 2014, Wong had time to pursue another passion—photography—and became internationally known for her artistry. She was, for example, an official photographer for the civil rights leader John Lewis in the last four years of his life. Her iconic black-and-white photograph of him surrounded by statues of slaves will grace the entrance to the Smithsonian’s “democracy collection” at the Museum of African American History this fall.    

“She’s present; she’s just all there all the time,” says her protégé Levin. “There’s no sense of anything else she may be distracted by, or thinking about, or feeling pressure from. When you’re with Chantale, you’re the only person in the world who matters.”

Literally thousands of people whose lives she has directly touched, in her church, as a community organizer, and as a civic leader, know exactly what he means. Those relationships have endured over two generations, and the wake of her impact means opportunity and safety for millions of little girls all over the world.

Chantale Wong was photographed in Washington, D.C., by Cheriss May.

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