Saturday, March 05, 2005

Suey Chong Lum

February 10, 1931 to February 20, 2005

My father, Suey Chong Lum, passed away on February 20, 2005. Here is a brief story of his life, edited and corrected from the version published in the obituary section of the Alaska Highway News on March 4, 2005.

Suey Chong Lum was born in 1931, on February 10, in the last days of the Year of the Horse. He was born in China, in a small village called Wah Min Hung located about 200 miles northwest of Hong Kong. February 10, 1931 was a Monday. There is no family record, but it was probably warm and cloudy that day, because it is always warm and cloudy in that part of the world. If there had been a fortune teller present, he might have seen some clouds in the baby’s life as well as in the sky.

The first of these clouds came when he was six years old. In 1937, the Japanese invaded China. His father, Lum Yoey Nien, was one of the many Chinese soldiers who never returned from the war.

Suey Chong and his mother, Chow Yuk Chun, went through hard times. Education was limited. Food was sometimes non-existent. As a teenager, he recognized that with no land, the prospects for farming were not good. One night while sleeping, he had a dream – and in his dream, he had a son. When he awoke, he clearly remembered the dream, but he also understood the reality that he could not stay in the village – with no land and no work, he would never be able to support a wife and a family.

Suey Chong was given the chance to go to Canada to work for his grandfather, Lum Goey Hien. In February of 1950, he left the family home village. After a brief sojourn in Hong Kong, he found himself on a steamship in July of 1950. He got off the boat in Oakland, California in early August and made his way north by bus. His immigration papers list White Rock, B.C. as his entry point into Canada in August of 1950.

After being stalled in Vancouver for a few weeks due to a transportation strike, he finally joined his grandfather in Prince George, in the northern interior of B.C. by mid September. It was here that Suey Chong began his career in the family dry cleaning business.

For a brief time in the mid 1950s, he made his way to Toronto, where he worked at Lichee Garden – even then, a famous Chinese restaurant, which was owned by the branch of the Lum family descended from his grandfather's elder brother. He earned $15 a week at Lichee Garden, and decided after some months that there were better ways to earn a living. He went back to the dry cleaning business.

In 1955, he had his first encounter with Canadian medicine. He went into the hospital in Vancouver to have his tonsils removed, and had a bad reaction to the anesthetic. As a result, they kept him in the hospital overnight. Forty nine years later, he was still able to recall the details of his conversation with the old Chinese gentleman who shared his hospital room.

By this point, the family dry cleaning business had moved even further north – to Fort St. John, on the Alaska Highway.

Two years later, Suey Chong was joined by Bik Sim – the beautiful girl from the next village who was his fiancĂ©e. They were married on Christmas Eve, 1957 in the Anglican church in Fort St. John.

In October, 1958, Suey Chong and Bik Sim had a son. A decade earlier, Suey Chong had awoken from a dream, and from details in that remembered dream, he named his eldest son.

The family dry cleaning business took much time – ten to fourteen hours a day. But despite this, they had a daughter – Betty Yet Tain -- a few years later in 1961. It was also during this period that Suey Chong developed a taste for Godzilla movies. Suey Chong and Bik Sim also developed a close friendship with another Chinese immigrant couple – Lang Mark and his wife, Hing.

Early in 1963, the family paradigm shifted radically. Suey Chong’s grandfather decided to liquidate his assets and retire to Hong Kong. Suey Chong learned that the family dry cleaning business did not include a provision for him to do a buyout. Suey Chong, his wife, and their two children, watched as his grandfather walked out the door in the spring of 1963. They never saw him again.

Bik Sim was pregnant with a third child. Very soon after his grandfather was gone, Suey Chong and his family left the building for its new owners. The family moved to Dawson Creek and lived there briefly, and then moved on to Fort Nelson. Finding work was a priority.

Three hundred miles up the Alaska Highway, Fort Nelson was a major town on the highway that provided infrastructure and services for the companies that developed the natural resources of the surrounding region. It was here that the Lum family moved from dry cleaning into the restaurant business.

With limited education and training, and limited understanding of English, the Lums found the available work was also limited. The restaurant business was one place where it was possible to make a living.

Early on, Suey Chong did a market competition analysis by walking in and eating a meal in a competing establishment. He came out understanding that based on just the quality of the food, the competition could be beaten. However, there were other factors. Ingenuity and hard work were essential.

Suey Chong and Bik Sim learned from their business partners and co-workers. This was on the job training at its most intense. With no knowledge of Canadian food, they effectively figured out by reverse engineering how to produce the standard meals in a Canadian restaurant, and then expanded that repertoire to include Chinese dishes as well.

In September of 1963, a third child, a son -- Ken Do Chuan (pronounced “Kuen”) -- was born.

Suey Chong worked in several businesses in Fort Nelson, including a brief stint as a janitor for the local school district.

In 1967, Canada’s Centennial Year, the family moved to a small community on the Alaska Highway located around milepost One Hundred and One. The community’s name – Blueberry – was never used. All the residents referred to their home as “Wonowon” – a name based on its location on the Alaska Highway. In Wonowon, Dave and Hattie Close owned the Wonowon Services organization – a general store, service station, motel, and restaurant. They needed someone to run the restaurant, and came to an agreement with Suey Chong to do it, starting on September 15, 1967.

It was in Wonowon that Suey Chong applied all that he had learned about the restaurant business to make the restaurant a roaring success. The restaurant opened at 6am, and closed at 11pm. The hours were a bit shorter on Sunday. It was a service business, and there was no such thing as time off. However, it was a tourist stop, and a bus stop. It was used by oil field crews and truckers. It was the preferred afternoon coffee spot for the town.

In later years, Suey Chong would reminisce about the worry he felt in those first few months. – trying to do everything perfectly so that there would be no complaints. Trying to keep up with the demands of the business.

On the first Christmas Eve in Wonowon, Suey Chong and Bik Sim started a tradition. It was their anniversary, and they closed the restaurant early, and spent spent the afternoon cooking. In the evening, they invited the people of Wonowon – their friends and customers – to a Christmas feast, with a distinctly Chinese style. The last of these was held in 1971 – over thirty years later, these gatherings are still remembered by the attendees.

By the late 1960s, Suey Chong had brought his mother to Canada. It was at this time that he began the immigration process to bring Bik Sim’s parents and brothers to Canada. This was completed in 1970 and 1971.

In August of 1972, close to the 22nd anniversary of Suey Chong’s arrival in Canada, the family made the biggest move in its history – leaving Wonowon and moving to Toronto.

In Toronto, for the first time in many years, Bik Sim was reunited with her parents and brothers – the result of Suey Chong’s tireless work with Canadian Immigration.

Suey Chong bought a house in down town Toronto in December of 1972. He owned businesses and had jobs in Toronto over the next three decades. He lived a quiet and modest life with his wife and his children. He defied convention by having a vegetable garden instead of a front lawn. He enjoyed occasional visits to the track, to play the horses. At family gatherings, he was the one who chopped roast pork and roast duck, wielding a meat cleaver with consummate skill. His barbecued pork was recognized to be better than anything you could buy.

Starting in 1972, he was uncle to six nieces and two nephews in the families of Bik Sim’s two brothers. His mother passed away in 1982. His eldest son, and then his daughter, were married in the early 1990s. Frequent family gatherings expanded to include his son-in-law, Barry Quan, and daughter-in-law, Jill Snider Lum.

After nearly 49 years, he returned to the family home village in China in 1998. It was the first time that he had returned in nearly half a century. On that same trip, he stood at the podium in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, walked along the Emperor’s walkway in the Forbidden City, and looked northward toward mist covered mountains while standing on the Great Wall of China.

His first grandchild, Raymond Lai Mon Quan, was born late in 1998. Five months later Corwin Wan Ning Lum was born, the fourth in a lineage of Lum eldest sons. Suey Chong took great joy in both his grandsons. His love was expressed in hugs, in hours of play, in toys and gifts, and in illicitly provided candy treats.

Shortly after Raymond was born, Suey Chong gave up smoking. He had been smoking since he was a teenager in China, where instead of cigarettes, they used loose tobacco and a water pipe. After giving up smoking, his coughing became much reduced. His health seemed to be good.

In August 2000, Suey Chong’s eldest son visited Fort St. John and Wonowon, still thought of by the Lum family as “home” after all these years. He returned to Toronto to report that the dry cleaning building was long gone -- in its place was the parking lot of a Boston Pizza restaurant.

The Year of the Horse returned in 2003 for the sixth time in Suey Chong’s life after the year of his birth. In March, Suey Chong had his second encounter with the Canadian medical system. This time, he was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer – a legacy of his years of smoking. After an aggressive treatment regimen that included chemotherapy and radiation, the lung cancer was brought under control. However, it had already spread to his brain, although this was not discovered until September of 2003.

Although contained by chemo drugs and constrained by radiation, the tumour growth was inexorable. In late March of 2004 – a year after the initial lung cancer diagnosis – stroke-like symptoms appeared. By April, it was confirmed that there was a golf-ball sized tumour mass in his brain.

The presence of the cancer dictated brain surgery. The evening before his scheduled surgery in May 2004, several rules were relaxed to allow Suey Chong to play living room soccer with his grandson Corwin. The result of the competition was indeterminate, as victory was claimed by both sides.

The surgery brought some respite. Returning home from the hospital in days, Suey Chong had a quiet summer – gardening, walking, playing with his grandsons. But by September, he was unable to stand and there were indications that additional tumour masses were continuing to grow in his brain.

Suey Chong became bedridden and was hospitalized – first at Princess Margaret Hospital, then St. Michael’s, and finally Bridgepoint.

At both Princess Margaret and St. Michael’s, he confounded all expectations as to how rapidly his remaining health would decline. However, this was a battle which could only be delayed and not won. In the months that he was hospitalized, Bik Sim was with him each day through the day. He joked with staff and attendants. He continued a dialogue with his eldest son and daughter-in-law. He played with his grandchildren. He shared snacks with his daughter and son-in-law. He gave advice to his youngest son. He was aware and alert to the end.

His physical decline accelerated after he was moved to Bridgepoint from St. Michael's at the beginning of February, 2005. Although he was still lucid as late as Friday, February 18, his capacity to respond became progressively more limited over the next day. Sometime on Saturday evening, he entered a sleep-like coma which ended with his passing at approximately 7:55pm EST on Sunday evening, February 20.

Suey Chong Lum was a modest man, who never thought of himself as well educated, and whose great regret was that he never had the opportunity for more formal learning. We, the family and friends who knew him and love him, understand as he perhaps did not, that his life represents triumph over adversity. Despite the clouds in his early life, he found a place in the sun. His courage, initiative, humour, generosity, and his ability to learn from mistakes and experience – his own as well as those of others around him – more than made up for any shortfalls due to the accident of personal circumstances.

In the last months of his life, lying in his hospital bed, Suey Chong often spoke of happier, simpler times. One of his last wishes was that he wanted to say “Thank You” to his friends and acquaintances in Northern BC. So, from Suey Chong Lum -- thank you -- for your friendship, your help, and your gift of acceptance that allowed a man from a far country to make a good life here for himself and his family.

By Do-Ming Lum []
Eldest son of Suey Chong Lum

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