Granny Lum Loy – Surviving Three Cyclones and a War

This is the story of a survivor. Adopted and sent to a faraway land, she made it her home while keeping her cultural heritage alive. She built up several businesses and survived many a catastrophe, all while founding her own family. I present to you: Lee Toy Kim, later known as Granny Lum Loy.

Nothing is known of her early childhood, besides that she was born around 1884 in Shekki, southern China. Together with another girl named Lee Leung See, she was adopted by Fong Sui Wing, an entrepreneur who soon set sails to Australia with his new daughters in tow. They arrived in Darwin, Northern Territory, in 1898. The destruction a cyclone had wreaked the year before was still evident, but the small family did not lose courage and went to work. Soon their first grocery and general store was founded in the heart of Darwin’s Chinatown. Three more stores in the area would follow. Although she had never had a formal education and only spoke the Sze Yap dialect of her people, Lee Toy was able to work in her family’s Darwin store, having taught herself to read and write Cantonese. There she forged connections to the locals, slowly learning the language of her new country.

In 1901, when she was around 17, she met mining engineer Lum Loy and fell in love. In no time they were married and moved south to Pine Creek. Five years later their only child was born, a daughter they named Lizzie Yook Lin. After her husband died in 1918, widow Lum Loy moved her small family back to Darwin where she hoped for a better education for her daughter. And Lizzie did not disappoint her, working herself to the top of the class. Being a single mum wasn’t easy though, but she had a plan. She rented ten acres of land and single-handedly turned it into a mango orchard sporting about 200 trees she had all planted herself. In time her plantation grew into a fruit enterprise, exporting mangoes to the western part of the country.

In 1923 her daughter married prominent Chinese businessman Chin Loong Tang and they went on to add two more stores to the family business and nine children to the family itself. This would be the foundation of one of the largest Chinese families in Darwin, making her the matriarch. Now known as Granny Lum Loy, she continued her fruit export business for over ten more years until she decided to sell her orchard in 1935. The growing family returned to their original home in Darwin, where Chin Loong went off to attend business in Hong Kong, leaving the family café in the hands his wife and her mother. When her son-in-law returned, Granny Lum Loy found herself a little bored and purchased another block of land, this time turning it into a chicken farm. Every day she went from her house in the city to the outskirts of town, tending to her chickens and collecting the eggs, which she then sold to a local café. This was also around the time the second cyclone happened.

Then the war came. After the Pearl Harbor incident, her family evacuated Darwin and fled. Granny Lum Loy refused to leave. While she was on her daily morning visit to the Chinese temple however, a bomb hit Darwin in February 1942. Even though she still did not want to leave her home again, she saw that it was the most sensible thing to do. She reunited with her family and together they fled further south. Arriving in Alice Springs, Adelaide, they made a temporary home there, using their talents to set up a vegetable and fruit shop. After two years, her family decided to move to Sydney and Granny Lum Loy decided to go with them. It should not be a pleasant stay. Shortly after giving birth to her ninth child, Lizzie Yook Lin complained about pain in her kidneys and died in August 1945.

Only one month later the war ended and the family returned to Darwin. Granny Lum Loy was shocked to find her hometown in ruins, the land firmly placed in the government’s hands and Chinatown about to be demolished. The landowners were compensated for their lost land, although not exactly fairly. But our clever Granny managed to save her family’s property – albeit at the cost of her chicken farm. This was to be the last time she moved places in the remainder of her long life. Her grandson built her a small house and she proceeded to establish a wonderful garden on her property, growing many tropical fruits – yes, mangoes too. The third cyclone in her life should come in 1974. In the morning after the storm when people carefully began to move outside and oversee the damage, a figure could be spotted in the remains of her garden. It was Granny Lum Loy, 91 years old at the time, who was already beginning to work on its restauration.

She became a prominent figure in Darwin’s social landscape, the Chinese gardener lady in her traditional clothes. So prominent indeed, that in 1979 painter Geoff la Gersche created a big portrait of her. She was overwhelmed. After all, in the China of her memory only emperors had their portraits painted! Her death one year later, when she was about 96 years old was mourned by many. Marking the end of an era, her funeral was the largest one the town had seen and would see for many years.

image credits:

1: National Museum Australia: Harvest of Endurance Scroll (Collection interactive) – Entrepreneurs
2: The Canberra Times  Sa, 1 July 1989: “The women from the north: larger than life but unknown” – Link (archived article)
3: “Mrs Lum Loy” © Northern Territory Library (PH0044/0058)

Dada Masiti – Expanding Her Traditional Duties

Thinking about Somalia, literature might not be the first thing that comes to mind, but unbeknownst to many, Somalia is a country of bards and poets. This is the story of one of them.

Mana Sitti Habib Jamaladdin was born around 1810 in the city of Brava on the southern coast of Somalia to a family that took pride in the fact that they were part of the Ashraf clan, direct descendants of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. As the Somali people follow an oral tradition of storytelling, there are a lot of uncertainties regarding her life. Though it is confirmed that she was abducted as a child and taken to Zanzibar where she lived in slavery, opinions differ on how exactly this happened. 

One source says, she was kidnapped and sold, while another states that the kidnapping was voluntary so she could marry a suitor her family had turned down. They were said to have married on the Kenyan island of Pate, but soon sweet young love turned bitter and she ended up enclosed in her home, a mere maid. Mana herself seems to have hinted on the latter version to be true, writing in one of her poems that she was “led astray by worldly lures.” But however things went down, they ended the same way: in slavery. After ten years she was finally found: one of her cousins was in town, recognized her and brought her home.

Having grown into an intelligent young woman (albeit slightly remorseful regarding her “worldly adventure”), she immersed herself in religious studies, earning a reputation as a Muslim scholar. Contrary to other religious texts and the oral tradition of the Somali people, Mana began to write poems in her own language and dialect, Chimbalazi or Bravanese. And they were well-received. Showing eloquence and a deep understanding of religious scripture, they found their way into mosques and Quranic schools all over the region and eventually became a staple piece of literature in and around Brava. And not only that, her work helped to spread and revive the Sufi order of the Qadriyya in Somalia, finding a new purpose as prayers! Her poems were memorized and recited and even the Sheikh wanted his eulogy written by the famous poetess. Eventually she was even revered as a Muslim saint.

She went on to be more than one hundred years old in which she never stopped writing. As she grew older, she was regarded a treasure of the town and known by everyone as Dada Masiti (Grandmother Masiti). Until her death in the summer of 1919 she continued to live in her little house in her hometown and was buried there as well. After spending the earlier part of her life away from home, it seems she didn’t even want to leave it in death.

Still remembered fondly throughout Somalia, each year a pilgrimage to her house can be observed in the streets of Brava. It were (and still are) mainly the women who are keeping the poems of Dada Masiti memorized, looking up to her. You see, she never married and lived a self-determined life, all while still contributing to society and fulfilling her traditional duties. In Brava men and women are strictly separated and women are prohibited from attending and performing many functions. Nonetheless their role as teachers is essential to a functioning community, providing intellectual but also cultural knowledge.

Dada Masiti managed to carve out a place of her own in this society by following her traditional role and expanding it.

Finally here is an excerpt from her work. It’s the final part of her eulogy for the Sheikh: “After Life”
It is one of her most famous pieces and the most famous eulogy in all of Somalia.

Hu xuzuniko mpeengele
Kutta schinendhroowa
Hu xuzuniko ni darsa
Fadhi schitalicoowa

Miskiti huwa miinza
Ataa tarha ichashoowa
Tarha waarhiko niyeeye
Nuuru ya ku rhangaaloowa

Sawarataani turhaani
Sheekhi siwo wakhpatoowa
Sheekhi karheente Jannaani
Na kurhiindra kendreloowa


The pathways he walked daily
Will feel sad,
As will his daily circle of students
And the lessons he used to teach

The Mosque will be dark
Even when it is lit
For he was the light
A bright light we all watched

Calm down and be consoled
For the Sheikh is out of our reach
He is residing in Heaven
Waiting for us to join him

image credits:

Brava today: User Vascoscream in Wikimedia Commons – Link

As there were no images of this week’s heroine available, I reached out to the community that started this project and was lucky to have had three awesome artists interpret her in their very own styles. Check out their amazing work:

1st picture: Anna Latchman
2nd picture: Annassez – on facebook, patreon and etsy
3rd picture: Kateryna Kateryna – on instagram and patreon