Shoe craftsman, loving wife, grandmother, stoic. Born Feb. 5, 1923, in Vancouver, died Feb. 1, 2013, in Nanaimo, B.C., from complications due to a stroke, aged 89.
Jennie was the second eldest of 10 children born to Lee King Sing and Lee Pang Shee. The family lived in an upscale neighbourhood in Vancouver’s Shaughnessy area. When she turned 17, Jennie wed Frank Wong in a marriage arranged by her father, King Sing, and Frank’s mother.
Frank had a shoe repair business called Wong Brothers Shoes, and Jennie came to work by his side. They lived in a modest house in Nanaimo, where they raised three children – Martin, Mabel and Gilbert. In 1964, a fire destroyed the store and they moved to a new, three-storey location and lived on the top floor above the store.
The shoe shop would become a fixture in downtown Nanaimo for decades, providing hand-crafted shoes and boots to loggers, construction workers and businessmen. Eventually, it ventured into selling dress shoes, cowboy boots, ladies’ and children’s shoes as well.
Despite the store’s success, the early days were not always easy for Jennie. As a Chinese-Canadian citizen at a time when multiculturalism had not been fully embraced, she encountered racist and prejudicial attitudes. Jennie remembered some people walking in and telling her she didn’t belong in Canada and should go back to China. Those comments hurt her, as she told the Nanaimo Daily News when the store closed for good in November, 2003. “I was a Canadian,” she said. “I was born in Canada. It still makes me cry.”
Outside of her daily work in the store, Jennie had many talents and hobbies. She loved knitting sweaters, scarves, socks and blankets for her grandchildren. She enjoyed going to the beach to collect seaweed while digging for clams to make her delicious clam chowder. She enjoyed excursions, visits to the local casino and long walks on Nanaimo’s waterfront.
She had some unconventional pastimes, too. She collected the foil wraps from cigarette packages and pressed them into a five-pound ball that looked like a shot put from the Olympics.
Visitors were spoiled by her superb home-cooked meals – spaghetti and meat balls, Chinese congee, barbecue pork fried rice or chicken salad sandwiches with sweet pickle.
Jennie had a predictable, yet pleasurable, routine. She watched her cooking shows and soap operas, the dinner-hour news and Entertainment Tonight. Before going to bed, she would make Chinese tea and, on occasion, play cards at the dinner table while listening to a Chinese radio station.
Even in her final days, when she was losing her ability to walk, Jennie would not stop trying to get out of her hospital bed.
Her strength, self-will and determination during times of adversity are her legacy.
Brandon Yip is Jennie’s third grandson.