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)

Indra Devi – Mother of Western Yoga

Once again this week’s heroine is a more recent one as she only died fifteen years ago, but as she did die at age 102 I felt like including her wasn’t breaking the “historical” criteria: Meet Indra Devi, who played a big role in bringing yoga to the Western world.

Born as Eugenie Peterson in Riga, Latvia in 1899 to a Swedish banker and a Russian actress and noblewoman, she was sent to study theater in Moscow once she had finished school. There, at age 15, she discovered India’s poetic philosophical texts and first encountered yoga. This left her so impressed, she promised herself to go to India one day. When the family had to flee from the Bolsheviks around 1920, Eugenie ended up in Germany, where she joined a theater group with which she toured all over Europe. This took her to a congress in the Netherlands where she heard ancient Sanskrit chants for the first time, leaving her in awe once more.

The chance to travel to India should come, when in 1927, banker Hermann Bolm proposed to her. Fearing that she would never fulfill her dream once she married, she accepted only if he agreed to pay her journey to India before the wedding. And he agreed. When she returned three months later, she gave Hermann back his ring, sold all her valuables and returned to the country of her heart. There she continued her career as an actress, adopting the stage name of Indra Devi. And in 1930 she was to meet (and marry) the man of her heart, Czech diplomat in Bombay Jan Strakaty. The pair became popular in social circles quickly, being invited to all the important events. Indra defied the social norms, making friends throughout the castes and even befriended Mahatma Gandhi.

It was through her husband that she met the Maharaja of Mysore, whose palace included a yoga school where Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya taught. She approached the famous yogi but was refused for being a Westerner and on top of that a woman. With the intervention of the Maharaja, he relented and she was accepted …reluctantly. This made her the first female yoga pupil ever and the first foreigner Krishnamacharya taught, the first Western woman in an Indian ashram. Determined to exceed expectations, Indra met every challenge with resilience. Long hours of practice, dietary restrictions, denying herself a source of warmth – she conquered them all. Finally her efforts were rewarded and Krishnamacharya took her on as a private student. He was impressed.

In 1939 her husband was transferred to China, which meant Indra had to leave her country. Encouraged by Krishnamacharya, she opened her own yoga school in Shanghai, the first one in China. It attracted students from all over the world who began calling her Mataji, Hindi for “mother.” 

After World War II was over, the couple returned to India where Indra wrote her first book: “Yoga, the Art of Reaching Health and Happiness.” It is believed to be the first book about yoga written by a Westerner that was published in India (she also was the first Westerner to teach yoga in India.)

After her husband died in 1947, she decided to go to California and opened a yoga school in Hollywood one year later. Determined to spread the knowledge of yoga, she persuaded many famous people of her time to attend her lessons (on the right she’s pictured with movie star Eva Gabor in 1960) and wrote two more books which were translated into ten different languages to be sold in 26 countries. She herself was fluent in five languages: English, Spanish, Russian, French and German.

With her second marriage to Dr. Sigfrid Knauer, she became an American citizen and officially changed her name to Indra Devi. She went on to travel to Moscow in 1960, holding a speech before the Kremlin, convincing them to allow the practice of yoga in the Soviet Union. She started a new studio in Tecate, Mexico in 1963 but closed it after her husband died in 1977. And again she relocated, this time to Sri Lanka. But she couldn’t keep still for long and began travelling the world to teach and lecture.

When she arrived in Argentina in 1983, she fell in love with a country again and finally decided to settle. Her style of Sai Yoga (named after guru Sathya Sai Baba, whose teachings she followed) was immensely popular in Buenos Aires and fellow Sai Baba devotees invited her to stay and teach – which she did. In 1988 the Fundacion Indra Devi was founded in her honor and one year later she celebrated her 100th birthday with more than 3000 guests. Despite her old age, she never stopped travelling, albeit not as frantically as before. After a stroke in 2002 however, her health deteriorated and she died peacefully on April 25. Her ashes were scattered into the Río de la Plata.

Today, the Fundacion Indra Devi has seen some 25,000 students pass through the doors of their six studios in Buenos Aires. She was a woman who kept following her dream and made it come true, leading a fulfilling life and being an inspiration to others.

image credits: Fundación Indra Devi

Franca Viola – The Girl who Listened to her Heart

I would like to start with a little warning: One of the main topics of this article is rape. I will not go into detail, but I still want you to know, so you can skip this one if you’re uncomfortable with this topic in any way.

And now let’s begin. Today’s story is set in the 1960s and its heroine is called Franca Viola, the first woman to decline a “reparation marriage” in Italy.

In rural Sicily, 1948, Franca was born and grew into a beautiful young lady. At age 15 she got engaged to Filippo Melodia, a man eight years her senior with ties to the Sicilian mafia. This relationship could not end well and indeed, soon he was arrested for theft and Franca broke up the relationship.

Two years passed. She had gotten engaged again, when Filippo showed up again. For months he tried to gain her back, going as far as stalking her and threatening her family, but she refused. Again and again. (see picture: Franca in her youth, exact date unknown)

Finally in the morning of the Second Day of Christmas in 1965, Filippo gathered a band of his buddies and dragged Franca and her little brother, who refused to let go of her, out of their home, beating up their mother in the process. The little guy was released a few hours later, but Franca was held captive and raped repeatedly for eight days.

You know, there was this thing in Italy called “La Fuitina” – the thought of it isn’t too bad: two lovers who are not allowed to be together for whatever reason decide to elope for a few days and return home, showing everyone that they had been intimate. Of course that was a big blow to the girl’s reputation and the only way to fix this wrong was, of course, for the man to marry his beloved. So a win-win for everyone. Or so you’d think.

Humans are often horrible and this practice was sometimes terribly misused. Rejected suitors or unwanted admirers would sometimes (or often, let’s be honest here) kidnap the woman they desired, relying on the practice of the so-called reparation marriage to evade prosecution. How you ask? You see, according to Article 544 of the Italian Criminal Code, sexual violence was considered an offence against morals and not against a person. Sooo, basically it was either marry their offender of be labelled a slut and live life as an old spinster, shunned by society. And that’s exactly what Filippo was relying on.

Meanwhile, Franca’s dad tried everything to get his daughter back. He started to negotiate with her kidnappers, pretending to come to terms with them, while working with the Carabinieri police all along. Finally Franca was released and the kidnappers arrested, five days before she would turn 19.

Filippo did bring the marriage offer up though. Her father asked Franca if she wanted to marry this man, and when she negated, he promised to support her with everything he had. And that’s when the trouble started for the whole family. They all stood by Franca’s decision to not only refuse the “reparation marriage” but to also prosecute her offenders. And the village hated them for it. They received death threats, they were menaced up to the point that parts of their land were burnt down. But they persisted.

And they succeeded. Despite his lawyers repeatedly trying to undermine Franca’s credibility and claiming she had agreed to the “fuitina,” Filippo was found guilty and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Well, his sentence was reduced to 10 years later and most of his partners got away. But nonetheless, this trial started a conversation about this practise and the harm it could do – and also about the horrible legal situation regarding the topic of rape.

It would however not be until 1981 that the law allowing a rapist to nullify his crime by marrying his victim was abolished. And until 1996 that rape was finally classified as a crime against a person.

Remember that Franca was engaged when shit went down? Her sweetheart stood by her throughout it all and they got married in the end, having three children. The papers went crazy with headlines like “She broke tradition: Sicilian ‘Heroine’ is wed at dawn” (Des Moines Tribune, Dec 4, 1968). The couple even got a wedding gift from Italian President Giuseppe Saragat and was invited for a private audience by Pope Paul VI. There has been a movie and a book and she is celebrated as a national icon of feminism.

Today, Franca is a grandmother living with her family in her hometown. When asked about the incident, all she says is: “It was not a courageous gesture. I only did what I felt I had to do, as any other girl would do today. I listened to my heart.”

This is her in 2015:

So, I hope you learned something new today and liked this article, even though it’s less cheerful than the ones before. Also she will be the first and presumably last living heroine in this series. I want to keep is historical. But I felt like it was still so relevant today.

image credits:

1 and 2: found at MDig, article in English on mashable
3: La Repubblica