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Foon Hay Lum poses for a photo in her room at her retirement home in Toronto on January 13, 2017.

Centenarian and late husband paid $10,000 for the semi-detached Victorian, which has been a 'lucky house' for her

THE LISTING 69 Cowan Ave.


TAXES $3,300 (2016)

LOT SIZE 18 by 73 ft.

AGENT Steven Atsaves, Royal LePage Grange Hall Realty

Foon Hay Lum’s house of 50-plus years at 69 Cowan Ave.

The back story

Like many married couples, Foon Hay and Nam Jack Lum were pleased and proud the day they took possession of a solid red-brick house on a pleasant Toronto side street.

But in most other ways, their married life was far from typical: The husband and wife had lived apart for 32 years. Moving into 69 Cowan Ave. in Parkdale not only represented a fresh beginning – it also symbolized the reunion of a family.

"It was weird," Ms. Lum exclaims, with the help of English translation by her granddaughter Helen Lee. "You have to get acquainted all over again."

The couple paid $10,000 and assumed a small mortgage to buy the semi-detached Victorian in 1965.

Her husband died in 1971, but 108-year-old Ms. Lum continued to live in the house until a few months ago.

Foon Hay was born in a village in Southern China in 1908. At the age of 18, she married a 23-year-old adventurer who had returned to his homeland from Canada in order to find a bride. After a few months, Mr. Lum went back to "Gold Mountain," as the Chinese called Canada in the late-19th and early years of the 20th century. The plan was to continue working to repay his family, who raised the $500 "head tax" he had to pay when he immigrated to Canada.

At that time, $500 was roughly the equivalent of the cost of two houses. In 1923, the Canadian government's Chinese Immigration Act barred virtually all Chinese immigration, so Mr. Lum wasn't able to bring his wife over to join him. With earnings from his job at a laundry, he regularly sent money back to her.

After a few years, Mr. Lum was able to visit his wife in China. He stretched the visit out for as long as he could before he risked losing his eligibility to return to Canada. During that extended stay, the couple had two children.

Mr. Lum returned to Canada and continued to send cash overseas to the family. He wasn't happy when his wife used the funds to buy land in her village, but she had her own ideas, Ms. Lee says.

Mr. Lum also sent such luxuries as canned salmon, candy and perfumed soap. The most coveted item of all was the Simpson's mail-order catalogue. Ms. Lum would circle the items she wanted and mail the pages back to her husband. A few months later, the parcels would arrive in China.

When the Second World War broke out, all travel and correspondence between Canada and China ended. Ms. Lum no longer received money, parcels or even letters from her husband. But the land she had purchased earlier allowed her to continue farming. Throughout the war and then through the Chinese Communist Revolution that followed, she was able to provide for her own family and others in the village.

The backyard of Foon Hay Lum’s Toronto home at 69 Cowan Avenue.

The Canadian government repealed the law banning Chinese immigration in 1947. During the 1950s, Ms. Lum and her children moved over on separate journeys.

Ms. Lum and her husband bought the house on Cowan Avenue to be close to their daughter, Har Ying Lee, who lived nearby. Ms. Lee's husband's family owned a popular neighbourhood restaurant – Bing's on King Street. Both sides of the family worked at the restaurant. Ms. Lum spent many hours chopping vegetables in the basement kitchen.

Helen Lee recalls spending lots of time at the kitchen table at her grandparents' house on Cowan. Her grandfather doted on her after missing out on his own son and daughter's upbringing.

"I still remember his lovely rose bushes and tiny orange trees," she says. " When I was older, I remember when he taped me singing along with all the other children on Cowan Avenue."

During those years, many Chinese immigrants lived in the Chinatown area around Spadina Avenue, Ms. Lee says, but her grandfather wanted to live in an area beyond the traditional community. Most of the surrounding neighbours were Polish- and Ukrainian-speaking immigrants, she says.

Ms. Lum continued to grow fruits and vegetables in the back garden at Cowan Avenue. Ms. Lee remembers the melons that would grow to a weight of up to 14 kilograms.

A photo of Foon Hay Lum with former Prime Minister Stephen Harper hangs in her room in her retirement home in Toronto on January 13, 2017.

Many years after her husband's death, Ms. Lum became a social activist at the age of 70. She joined others in the Chinese community in seeking an apology and compensation from the federal government for the head tax and the exclusionary immigration policies that followed.

For many years, she had preserved the certificate her husband received as proof of the head tax he paid.

In June, 2006, Ms. Lum was present in the House of Commons in Ottawa for then-prime minister Stephen Harper's formal apology to Chinese Canadians on behalf of the Canadian government.

Ms. Lum recently moved into a nursing home after she began having difficulty climbing the stairs in her two-and-a-half-storey home.

The house today

The kitchen in Foon Hay Lum’s Toronto home at 69 Cowan Avenue.

Steven Atsaves of Royal LePage Grange Hall Realty listed the house with an asking price of $699,000 and a description of the property as a "renovator's dream find."

The asking price is low compared with the sale price of other Victorian semis on the street, he says, in recognition of the updates the house is likely to need. He figures the buyers will spend $200,000 or more to renovate.

The kitchen and bathroom are rundown and the fixtures are vintage. Radiators provide the heat. He didn't bother with fresh paint and staging, he says, because new owners will likely gut the interior.

"It needs everything," he says.

The first day the property arrived on the market, potential buyers were streaming through. Cowan Avenue has many stately houses that were divided into rooms and apartments in previous decades, but many of the houses have been renovated in recent years as the area has experienced a resurgence.

Mr. Atsaves says many of the prospective buyers were members of the Chinese community calling him from Toronto and overseas.

Some callers asked about the house's history. Ms. Lum is still in good health at 108 and her descendants consider the house an important part of the family's long life and prosperity.

Ms. Lee points out that all members of the younger generations have done very well. Her grandmother was reluctant to move to a nursing home, she says, but she enjoys the companionship and activities now that she's there.

"The house is a lucky house," Ms. Lee says. "It was her house and she didn't want to leave it. It was her success."

The best feature

A lamp in one of the bedrooms in Foon Hay Lum’s Toronto home at 69 Cowan Avenue.

While many of the Victorian-era details have disappeared and the interior needs a facelift, the original layout is intact. The house's original character is still evident in the hardwood floors, clawfoot bathtub and bay windows.