In 111 years, nothing was able to kill Foon Hay Lum.
She survived two world wars, the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Great Depression, China’s Cultural Revolution, the Great Chinese Famine, the Spanish Flu, SARS, MERS and H1N1.
She lived long enough to become what was believed to be Toronto’s oldest person and one of just a few over 110 in Canada. She received congratulatory messages from Prime Minister Stephen Harper on her 100th birthday and from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on her 110th.
“She was such a strong person,” her granddaughter, Helen Lee, said Sunday. “She would have made it to 112 for sure.”
If not for COVID-19.
In the end, it was the coronavirus, which originated in her native China, that ended her amazing life Friday.
Foon, who adopted Canada as her home in the 1960s, was one of 26 residents at the Mon Sheong Homes seniors’ residence on D’Arcy St. — in the Dundas St.-Spadina Ave. area — who have died during the pandemic.
“To live a life that long and to have all of the experience and wisdom that goes with that is incredible but it is equally sad when one of those lives — one of our country’s longest — comes to an end in circumstances like we are experiencing with COVID-19,” said Mayor John Tory.
“I hope Foon Hay Lum’s incredibly long life and its sad ending inspire us to see how we can do better in her honour and in honour of all of the seniors who have passed away during this global pandemic.”
Lee described her grandmother as a “remarkable person” who lived in her own home until she was 107 “and was independent and used no social assistance until recently.”
Her life is the classic Toronto immigrant’s story.
Born in 1908 during the Qing Dynasty, Foon was married at 18 but economic hardship forced her husband, Jack Lum, to go to Canada to provide for his wife and children.
It took 30 years before she could join him in Toronto — where they eventually settled on Cowan Ave. She lived there after her husband’s death in 1971, tending her garden there until four years ago.
In the Chinese-Canadian community, she was legendary for her fight to convince the Canadian government to apologize for putting a head tax on thousands of Chinese immigrants, including her husband.
“Four generations sat in the House of Commons to hear the apology (from Prime Minister Harper),” said an emotional Lee.
Her former city councillor and one-time NDP MP Olivia Chow called her efforts on that campaign iconic.
“Throughout the 23-year Chinese Head Tax redress campaign, Foon Hay Lum never gave up her hope of seeing justice one day,” said Chow. “It was inspirational seeing her in Ottawa in 2006 beaming with joy when the community finally won.
“To honour her legacy, let’s take her fighting spirit and enshrine national long-term care standards into the Canada Health Act so all seniors can live in dignity,” added Chow.
Meanwhile, this COVID-19-ravaged home is not out of the woods.
“As of today, 50 residents have tested positive,” said a Mon Sheong statement on Sunday. “The number of staff tested positive remains at 16.”
Mon Sheong has told government officials it needs additional nurses and personal support workers to ease the workload at the long-term care centre which is home to 400 residents.
Vivian Ip’s 102-year-old grandmother, Chi Nui So — who came to Canada from China 40 years ago — is one of the residents trying to stay clear of the virus.
“We are quite worried but she’s quite tough. She’s hanging in there,” said IP.
She noted a lack of resources at the centre and added the staff complement has dwindled by 20% from normal levels because so many have tested positive.
Perhaps, military personnel, who have been helping out long-term care facilities, could put Mon Sheong on their list. If there was ever a facility that needed some help, this is it.