Karen Wong: Tiger Woman

Interview by Anna Gray for Girls I Know on April 1, 2013.

How do you measure success?

Before the phrase “tiger mom” was coined, vaulted into popular lexicon and then subsequently demonized — we just had Asian parents who were obsessed with their kids’ education.  Mom and Dad encouraged me to excel but there were no caveats. They instilled a self-confidence that has propelled me to take risks and follow my intellectual pursuits. At Brown, the mantra of public service cast a bright light and my liberal tendencies were cemented.

Nine lives. I wish for a long life with my wits about me so that I may change direction and venture new challenges and inspirations.  The thread is culture — I am consumed by its possibilities to improve our cities.

Friends. It’s the sister who sets you up with a friend of a friend because she wants you to have a “new” friend.  It’s the BFF who uses her air miles to fly you to London to visit your goddaughter. It’s the other BFF who texts you every weekend to get ur butt 2 yoga.

My art. There is the touching portrait of me painted by the husband right before we divorced. There is the regal pair of watercolors, a queen and a king, which I received after designing the artist’s exhibition catalog.  There is a handmade book of photographs of small garages for a birthday when I told an architect my desire to convert one into a little city house.

As a kid, I was always eager to pick up a ringing phone, but then we started getting a weekly crank call — in a fake Chinese accent a male voice would deliver the punch line: “Ah, I have da wong numba, soo sowey.”  On the playground, there were the poetic taunts to rhyme my name with King Kong, ping pong and ding dong. What was the temperature of these episodes on the racism thermometer? Lukewarm and yet it lit an internal fire.  I became fiercely competitive and worked hard to do well. Years later, I remain competitive, embrace my workaholic tendencies and have learned that my measure of success is doing well by doing good.

Driven by different goals than most, Karen Wong has the disposition of someone that swims in her own current. I first met Karen when she parted a crowd of fashionistas and boldly introduced herself as a friend’s mentor. All of our meetings since then have been just as impressive and immediately to the point – piling us in a car to Southampton’s Parrish Art Museum or to Queens for amazing Chinese food – Karen executes her tasteful adventures with the energy of a perky teen.

As Deputy Director of The New Museum she’s a promoter of art but she’s also an advocate of genuine talent in all its forms – design, media, hot pot, friendship – and she plays as hard as she works! She also dresses really well, is funny, and loves tequila. Safe to say she’s a girl I love knowing.