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First person of Chinese heritage to be born in Winnipeg dies

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Family and friends are mourning the woman who was the first person of Chinese heritage to be born in Winnipeg — the city she was named after and loved.

Winifred "Winnie" Paktong died in hospital Aug. 18 of respiratory complications, her son, Alec Chan, told the Free Press on Monday. She was 101.

Winnie’s death comes just over a year after her 100th birthday celebration saw many family, friends and dignitaries travel to Winnipeg to pay tribute to her and her fascinating life journey.

She is survived by her brother, five children, 13 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. "She was such a devoted mother," Chan, also her long-time caregiver, said. "I would say she’s a supermom, a superwoman."

Winnie was born in Winnipeg, the second child and first daughter to Joe Mar and Chow Hop Yee, on May 30, 1912. Chinese families were rare because of Canadian laws at the time, including the onerous head tax.

The vast majority of Chinese in Winnipeg and the rest of Canada were men, working to save money to send to their families back home in China. Mar’s family was one of only two Chinese families in Winnipeg at the time.

The family settled in Winnipeg, with Mar taking a job as the Winnipeg General Hospital’s chief cook.

The hospital offered to bring Mar’s family to Canada after he requested time to visit his wife and son in China. That’s how Paktong and her six siblings were born in Winnipeg.

Life was good: the family resided in a two-storey home on Emily Street provided by the hospital. But their lives changed after Mar announced his plan to return to China to a home he had built there.

In the months after they arrived in China, and after leaving her sweetheart behind in Winnipeg, Winnie entered into an arranged marriage. But the family was forced to flee their home in the summer of 1937, when the Japanese invaded the country. They left Nanking just a week before the infamous massacre of up to 300,000 people by Japanese troops.

Winnie went with her husband to French Indo-China, now Vietnam, where they had five children. Chan said at that point, his family lived a life of some convenience in Dalat as they enjoyed amenities like servants and running water.

Chan said his father’s decision to move back to China in 1955 prompted Winnie to ask for and receive a divorce and custody of the children. Having never relinquished her Canadian citizenship, the now-single mom elected to return to Winnipeg with the kids in tow.

With help and some initial financial support from friends she never lost touch with (Chan remembers seeing his mom pen letters in English while living in Dalat), Winnie took a job in a garment factory and slaved for years to keep a Lipton Street roof over the heads of her kids, saving dimes from her $25/week wage. Every conceivable spot of living space in their one-bathroom home was occupied by someone, Chan fondly recalled.

"She had to work very hard," Chan said. "It’s just amazing how she lived her life."

He’s grateful for her decision to return to Canada and the perpetual toil that meant for her, he said, as he doesn’t know what life in China would have been like. "We were so fortunate she made that decision. Because, who knows?," he said.

In a romantic twist, she and the city sweetheart she left behind years before rekindled their romance.

She married Louie Paktong in 1969. Chan described him as the love of his mom’s life. "That’s the time she was most happy," he said. The two loved to travel, he said, and they were avid Winnipeg Blue Bombers fans. Louie died in 1990 after they had been reunited for 21 years.

Winnie was a devout Christian, and her mind stayed strong and sharp in her later years, Chan said. According to her obituary, she began volunteering a the Meadowood Manor care home in her 80s.

She occupied her time with knitting and reading and loved sushi and trips to Lockport, Chan said. Above all, she looked forward to time spent with her beloved family, he said.

Her death was unexpected, he said. Just about two hours before he got the call she had died, Chan said he had been by her hospital bedside where they tossed a soft ball between each other — a game played to keep Winnie mobile and active.

"I have a really good memory of her strength throwing the ball," he said. "We never expected her to go."

Chan says sometimes people would ask him why he spent so much time looking after his mother, instead of delegating more of her care to the health system.

"For me to look after her was nothing compared to the hardship she went through," Chan said. "I’m kind of lost right now."

— with files from Kevin Rollason



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