'A beautiful man' - Meng Foon farwelled as Gisborne mayor to become new Race Relations Commissioner

Source: 1News

It's been an emotional last day in the job for one of New Zealand's longest serving mayors, Meng Foon.

After 18 years, Mr Foon has handed over Gisborne's mayoral chains ahead of taking up his new role as Race Relations Commissioner next week.

A waiata was a fitting farewell for a man who's as comfortable on the marae as he is in council chambers.

Meng Foon is renowned for bringing cultures together and on Monday he'll put those skills to work nationwide as the country's new Race Relations Commissioner.

"He's often walked with feet in many lands. And so I do think that makes him well equipped to take on a role where actually he has to represent a broad range of New Zealanders," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said. 

Meng Foon was born and brought up in Gisborne, his parents from Hong Kong establishing market gardens in the area, later setting up shops to sell the produce.

There as a youngster, he first encountered the Māori language.

But when he wanted to learn it at high school, he had to defy his mother.

"My mother said it was a waste of time. I can say to Mum now, was it waste of time?" Mr Foon told 1 NEWS today.

He's the only mayor in the country fluent in te reo, along with Cantonese and English.

The mayoral chains have sat comfortably across Meng Foon's shoulders.

"Eighteen years has been an incredible journey," he said.

Earlier today he led his final council meeting and there was no escaping district business even on his last day with "draft procurement policy" on the agenda.

His colleagues were generous in their praise.

"His qualities, his humility and everything about him has made him a beautiful man," said padre Bill Gray.

Councillor Larry Foster said: "He just finds a way to get through to people the best way, through their hearts."

Mr Foon is passing on the mayoral robe and chains to his longtime deputy, Rehette Stoltz, with big shoes to fill. 

"One thing I've learned from Meng is show up, be there for the people, talk to them. That's what's important," the new Gisborne mayor said.

The affection for the outgoing mayor was plain to see at the council today and there was plenty of love for him on Gisborne's streets as well.

"I'm sad to see him go," one woman said.

Another said: "He cares about people."

Don't expect Meng Foon to change in his new role.

"It's all about the people. He tangata te me nui. He taonga te me nui. He reo te me nui," he said.

That's not a bad formula to tackle race relations.