Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The original 'Winnie'

Named after Winnipeg, first Chinese Canadian born in city is now 100 years old

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She was named for this city long before a certain bear, and later her father's desire not to lose face would nearly cost her her life, but Winifred "Winnie" Paktong has many reasons to celebrate.

In fact, she has 100 reasons.

Paktong, the first Chinese Canadian born in Winnipeg, is celebrating her 100th birthday this year. She was born in the year of the rat, but she is celebrating in the year of the dragon.

Given her age, her hearing may be diminished, but her mobility is great. She recently came bustling into a room in her seniors residence, pushing her walker at a brisk pace. She also stood for several minutes unaided looking through family photos covering her lifetime.

"She still goes to exercise class," her son, Alec Chan, said.

"And she used to feed people on the care side -- the younger people," he added laughing.

Paktong may not remember part of her past, but she clearly remembers why she was able to come back to Winnipeg in the 1950s after years of living in China and Vietnam when her family returned overseas.

"I was born in Winnipeg so I have a Canadian passport," she said.

"I am allowed to come back. As a Canadian, I could bring back my five children.

"I wanted to come back to Canada."

Shown a photo of herself, Paktong couldn't remember for sure how old she was at the time, but she noted it was her name in Chinese lettering on the front of the photograph.

She was born in Winnipeg, the second child and first daughter to Joe Mar and Chow Hop Yee, on May 30, 1912. Alec said his mom's birth here -- and the fact there was an entire Chinese family in Winnipeg at the time -- was pretty rare.

"Her father named her for the city of Winnipeg," he said.

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 after a member of the Winnipeg General Hospital's board of directors was so impressed by Mar's cooking on a Royal Navy cruiser in Victoria in 1903, that he later offered the chef a job as the hospital's chief cook.

A few years later, when Mar asked for permission to go on a vacation to visit his wife and son back in China, the hospital offered instead to bring his family to Canada.

That's how Winnie, along with six more siblings, was born in Winnipeg.

Alec said they had a good life in Winnipeg, living in a two-storey home on Emily Street provided by the hospital, and going to local schools, but their lives changed after Mar announced his retirement from the hospital. He wanted to move into a home he'd had built in China.

Alec said Mar's oldest son was chief of surgery at a hospital in Nanjing and he sent word the Japanese were about to invade China and it was a bad time to immigrate, but by the time the family received the message, Mar had already been given a retirement party by the hospital and was presented with a mantel clock.

"He did not want to lose face," Alec said. "To save face, he had to go. He said he couldn't stay. If not for that they would have stayed. But it cost him everything."

A newspaper photograph and article show the family waiting at the train station in Winnipeg on Nov. 23, 1936, bound for Vancouver, where they boarded a ship for China.

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 Nanjing 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.

But in 1955, when her husband decided he wanted to move back to China, Winnie, who never gave up her Canadian citizenship, demanded, and was granted, a divorce. She later decided to move back to Winnipeg with her family, getting a job in a garment factory to support her five children.

In what became a real-life love story, Alec said, his mother rekindled her romance with her sweetheart from decades before, marrying Louie Paktong in 1969. He died in 1990.

Today, in addition to her five children, Winnie has 13 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild celebrating her long life.

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2012 j5

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