Canada

Vancouver mayor-elect Ken Sim talks racism, heavy metal music, and losing friends to drugs

Q-and-A: Sim on dodging gangs in school, failing Grade 11 French, tracking his sleep, and how they’ll all shape his new job as Vancouver’s mayor.

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Ken Sim’s success at the ballot box a week ago will make him Vancouver’s first mayor of Chinese descent, a historic milestone the son of immigrants achieved with zero experience at city hall.

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So, who is Ken Sim?

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His relatively brief foray into politics means he hasn’t often been in the limelight or, for most voters, become a household name yet.

He has a UBC business degree and worked as an accountant and investment banker before starting two successful companies, Nurse Next Door and Rosemary Rocksalt bagels.

He first entered politics in 2018 with his failed bid for mayor under the old NPA party, and then on his second try emerged victorious last Saturday after forming the new ABC party.

We’ve also heard the priorities in his ABC platform, and Sim explain this week how he will try to achieve them.

To learn more about the man who will be the city’s next mayor, we first spoke with several people who have known him for years about his childhood, his careers and his campaigns. Then we asked Sim about the things we discovered, which range from rather silly to quite serious.

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(His answers are verbatim but have been edited for length)

Mayor-elect Ken Sim’s parents Theresa and Francis Sim, in an undated photo.
Mayor-elect Ken Sim’s parents Theresa and Francis Sim, in an undated photo. Photo by . Source: Ken Sim campaign team

Q: You’ve spoken about your parents immigrating to Vancouver in 1967 with $3,200 to make a better life for their three children, and after arriving here they had your sister and then you in 1970. Paint a picture for me of that Sim household when you were a young boy, both from a financial and emotional perspective?

A: From an emotional point of view, I think it just sort of seemed like a normal childhood, because I didn’t have any reference points. So it was normal. But looking back at it, you know, it was challenging. I remember I went to five elementary schools in seven years all across the city: East Van, South Van, even on the west side. I remember Grade 4 going over to Brandon’s house, and I was blown away. They had a VCR and their fridge was full — two things that we did not have in our house …. The other thing I remember is my mom and dad being up at night, or in the morning at the kitchen table at 3 a.m., my mom sometimes would have tears in her eyes. I didn’t realize what that meant at the time, but in hindsight my mom was concerned about where we would be living the next week.

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Q: Is that why you went to five different elementary schools, because they were concerned about paying rent?

A: Yeah, we couldn’t make rent. And you know, it was challenging back then to find a place that would take on five kids and a dog.

Q: You’ve spoken about making money when you were in Grade 5 by buying 10-cent comic books in east Vancouver and riding the bus to a shop on the west side, where you resold them for 25 cents. How does an 11-year-old come up with that idea and are there other examples of how you made money while a boy?

A: I don’t know where the idea came up. It just seemed kind of normal …. I probably did that for a couple of years until they caught on. (He laughs). I think at some point, they figured out: Hey, there’s some kid showing up with these old comic books all the time, where are they getting them from? They figured out there was another comic store that was selling them.

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Q: So they removed you as the middleman?

A: They took me out as the middle person.

Baby Ken Sim sits on his mother Theresa’s knee, beside siblings Ed, Tina, Sabrina and Juliana while on a family trip to Victoria.
Baby Ken Sim sits on his mother Theresa’s knee, beside siblings Ed, Tina, Sabrina and Juliana while on a family trip to Victoria. jpg

Q: Did you experience racism while growing up in Vancouver, and is there a particular incident that’s had a lasting impact on who you are today?

A: There were always a lot of songs. You know, the whole “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these.” I remember, people used to say, “C—, c—, Chinaman sitting on a fence trying to make a quarter out of 15 cents.” I’ll think about that. I still remember that song as a 52-year-old. It’s quite brutal …. We’ve gotten a lot better but, at the same time, it’s still out there, for sure.

Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School yearbook photo of Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim (Kenny Sim) in Grade 9 in 1985.
Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School yearbook photo of Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim (Kenny Sim) in Grade 9 in 1985. jpg

Q: You’ve said gangs targeted Chinese teens when you were a student at Churchill Secondary, and as a result a friend picked a fight with you. And that the school liaison officer helped you?

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A: In Grade 8, we’re in French class together and we were buddies. And then by Grade 10, he joined either the Lotus or the Red Eagles, two prominent gangs at the time …. I don’t know if it was his initiation, but he had to pick a fight with me, and basically he jumped me and started throwing fists at me. And we were friends and he was forced to do it. And if it wasn’t for the school liaison officer program, I’d have had nowhere to turn to. Just their presence there, but also having someone to be able to talk to you, made a big difference.

Q: You stayed at Churchill until the end of Grade 11, and graduated from Magee in Grade 12. Why did you switch high schools?

A: I had a lot of fun in Grade 11 and so I missed a lot of classes in French, and I didn’t manage to pass French 11. And Magee was the only school anywhere close to where we were living that was on the semester system, so you can actually take 10 courses versus eight. And so I took French 11 and French 12 so I could get into university …. You make mistakes as a kid and you have to leave your school and all your buddies in your grad year. It was memorable, that’s for sure.

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In 2010, Jan Paul Snip (left) and Ken Sim show off the funny hats they wore to Olympic events.
In 2010, Jan Paul Snip (left) and Ken Sim show off the funny hats they wore to Olympic events. Photo by Handout /Vancouver Sun

Q: Your first high school job was as a night janitor at Wendy’s. What other minimum-wage jobs did you have in your youth and did you ever think back then: One day I’m going to be mayor of this city?

A: Well, I can tell you I definitely did not think at any point I would be mayor of the city — that only happened about 4½ years ago. So clear that off the table right now. In no particular order, Wendy’s as the janitor was my first job, I was making $3.05 an hour. And then I went to the Dutch Omelette House on Cambie and 17th, I was making $4 an hour there as a prep cook and I was cleaning toilets as well. And then I went to the Keg Coal Harbour, that no longer exists. I was an appie cook and a sous chef there, I think was making $4.75 an hour, plus some tips which added up to about six bucks a week. Then I became a busboy at the Pan Pacific Hotel, and it was great. I thought I was rich, I was making $8.65 an hour plus a bunch of tips. Then I became a waiter at the Pelican Bay, in the Granville Island Hotel. I thought I was really rich, because there’d be some days I’d make over $100 in tips. Now I’m in university, I’m putting myself through school, and so it was great.

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Q: A Churchill student who was in your auto class remembers you driving a convertible Volkswagen with a giant dog as your passenger. You also listened to heavy metal music. So, what was teenage Ken Sim like?

A: Oh God, are you guys trying to embarrass me? Yes, I had a convertible Rabbit — that’s one of my skeletons in the closet that I’m not too proud about — I had a convertible Rabbit. The dog was a big chow chow at that point in time. I loved, and I still do love, heavy metal. It doesn’t seem that heavy now, but Van Halen, Iron Maiden, Krokus, Judas Priest, the list goes on and on. I love that music. We would blare the tunes. It was a really weird look. Here’s some kid in a convertible Rabbit, playing You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’ by Judas Priest, going down the street. It’s kind of bizarre now if you think about it.

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Q: You’re 52 and you’ve never held public office before. It’s much different than running a private corporation. What in your life has prepared you for your new job?

A: I think a couple of things. First of all, over the last four years, we’ve literally created the largest municipal political party in the province. And so we’ve been speaking with politicians, and city managers and what have you, throughout the province and actually throughout North America. Two, our team. So it’s bigger than any one person. I’m a team builder. We have three sitting councillors that have been in that chamber for the last four years who’ve seen the inner workings of City Hall. Plus, we’ve surrounded ourselves with other people that have a deep understanding of the various parts of the city.

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Ken Sim’s sons react in the background after Sim won the NPA leadership over John Coupar (right) in 2018.
Ken Sim’s sons react in the background after Sim won the NPA leadership over John Coupar (right) in 2018. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

Q: I understand you knew five people who ended up in the Downtown Eastside, and two of them died. Can you tell me more about these friends, and how their experiences shape your approach to addictions and mental health issues?

A: One individual was my brother’s training buddy, training partner. He actually accomplished a lot, he was Mr. Canada. He had some issues, he had some injuries, got addicted. He was a fixture in the Downtown Eastside and he passed away. There’s another person I went to high school with, a great kid. At 16, the family discovers that he actually has schizophrenia, and then ends up in the Downtown Eastside after he gets off his meds …. These are mental health, addiction, or people experiencing homelessness issues. Everyone is someone’s son or daughter. When we start looking at it from that perspective, as opposed to judging people, I think we will go a long way in coming up with solutions to tackle the big challenges that we have.

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Q: Will you commit that your city hall won’t cut funding for services in the Downtown Eastside?

A: What I would commit to is we will make sure that services don’t get cut, but we’re actually going to look at all our different departments and see what the outcomes are and hold people accountable. And if people are doing a great job in various departments, absolutely, we may even provide more resources to those areas, kind of like Car 87.

In 2015, Nurse Next Door President Cathy Thorpe with co-founders Ken Sim and John DeHart.
In 2015, Nurse Next Door President Cathy Thorpe with co-founders Ken Sim and John DeHart. Photo by Mark van Manen /Vancouver Sun

Q: The public knows you’ve been an accountant and an investment banker, they know about Nurse Next Door and Rosemary Rocksalt. But you also co-ran another company for, I think, about 15 years called CareSource, which provided staff to care homes, that’s been criticized in the past for labour-related issues. Why don’t you talk about CareSource on your LinkedIn or your official bio?

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A: CareSource was operating for about five or six years. There are a lot of things that we just don’t talk (about) on the bio because they’re not really relevant. But no, CareSource was a great opportunity at the time, we’re actually really proud of what we did. It was also the period where caregivers were getting laid off across the province. And a lot of these caregivers were actually people that we cared about that were working at Nurse Next Door as well. And so we set up CareSource as an opportunity to make sure that people had jobs who had been laid off. And so we started to get some contracts from different nursing homes. And, you know, at the end of the day, the bulk of the operations was basically just providing caregivers and activity aids to facilities that wanted that support.

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Q: It’s no longer operating?

A: No. Over a decade ago, we decided that as beneficial as it was to help our people out, our core business, what we really care about, is making lives better on an individual basis … things that we don’t get to do in an institutional setting.

Q: I’ve heard you adored your late mother, and that she wanted you to learn Mandarin. Why didn’t you take her advice, and is that a big regret?

A: Yeah, it was Cantonese and Mandarin, it was both my mom and my dad. At the end of the day, the reason I didn’t take their advice as a little kid growing up in the ’70s, we were bullied. And it wasn’t just the kids of Chinese descent, it was South Asians, anyone that looked different. As much as we loved our heritage, we didn’t embrace it because you are made fun of, you’re actually pushed around. And so that’s the reason why I speak French versus Cantonese.

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Q: Your late father is originally from Chaozhou city in China’s Guangdong province, and a friend introduced you to a local Chaozhou association meeting while you were campaigning. What was that experience like for you?

A: We met with community groups — Greek community groups, Jewish community groups, we’ve been in gurdwaras and temples, and business groups. So it was interesting to see like all the support that we’re getting from those different communities. This (Chaozhou) one was special in the sense that it was as if I was part of the village, which sounds funny because it’s a huge region now, but it felt like we’re going back three, four or five generations of history and I was part of the tribe, so to speak. It was a bit emotional.

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Teena Gupta and husband, Ken Sim, in 2013.
Teena Gupta and husband, Ken Sim, in 2013. Photo by Ric Ernst /PROVINCE

Q: I’ve been told that you, your wife, Teena, and your four sons are avid skiers?

A: We are, except for I’m a snowboarder, so I don’t know if I just upset half the electorate here. I used to be a ski. I skied for a long time. I could never get boots that didn’t hurt and once I tried those snowboarding slippers on I was hooked.

Q: Your life now is very different from the life your parents had when they came here in 1967, the life you are providing to your boys today is different than the life you’ve had. Have you maintained a connection with your working-class roots?

A: Sure. When I think of our kids, our kids don’t get allowances. They have to basically earn their keep, so they do jobs, they’re paying for their own education beyond the base level education at university. Our kids go to public school, they went to Trafalgar, they went to Kits, because I think that’s incredibly important — diversity of experiences …. And then, at Nurse Next Door, that’s the thing that actually keeps me the most humble and down to earth. When I think of all of our caregivers, make no mistake about it, they are better individuals than I ever could be.They come here to do an incredibly challenging job. They do it because they love it, they actually care for people, and they sacrifice. They come to Vancouver, and for a while they probably have their families and young kids back in the Philippines, and they’re sending money back home. They’re coming here for a better life, not for themselves, but for the kids and the family.

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Ken Sim at Vancouver city hall on Oct. 19.
Ken Sim at Vancouver city hall on Oct. 19. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

Q: Do you wear an Oura smart ring? Tell me about how it helps to track your sleep and stress levels, and how much you’re going to need that with your new job?

A: Maybe this actually is relevant for city hall. There is a school of thought that you have to work super long hours, and you have to kill yourself and you have to do FaceTime and all that. And then there’s a view that, look, we can be way more effective, get more accomplished in less time. The significance of the Oura ring is studies have shown that if you don’t get enough sleep, you don’t perform well, and actually your health outcomes deteriorate. So I track my sleep. I used to be one of those individuals that used to celebrate the fact that I get four hours of sleep a day. I’m trying to get seven, I’m at six right now, but I (want) seven. It’s going to be that thought process that we’re going to take to city hall, we’re going to be way more effective with the resources that we’re given.

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