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)

Kittie Smith – Refusing to Give Up

Katherine Smith, or Kittie for short, was nothing but an ordinary girl until both of her arms had to be amputated when she was only nine. But she would refuse to let this break her – or even shake her optimism.

In October 1882, she was born into a poor Chicago home with two older brothers and a younger sister to be born two years later. Often the kids went without food or proper clothes – a fact that was soon spotted by a local charity. So when she was nine, Kittie had the opportunity to attend a retreat in Whitley County where she was able to enjoy her childhood.

That happy time was cut short, when her mother suddenly died, making her the de facto head of the family and leaving the children in the care of their progressively alcoholic father. That same year, on Thanksgiving, her father drunkenly called for Kittie to prepare the food and as she didn’t obey (either she wasn’t quick enough or she refused trying to stand up for herself), he held her against the hot stove, badly burning her in the process. While her neck and chest got away with only minor burns, her arms were so severely injured that they had to be amputated. Later in life Kittie would claim that she lost her arms in an accident by her own fault, but court records highly suggest the opposite. Unfortunately Mr. Smith walked free as they couldn’t prove him guilty, but Kittie was taken from him nonetheless and placed in a home. That is when she was better, one year later, in 1892. The picture on the right is the only one showing her with her arms still intact and she “value[d] it very highly.” She is the girl on the far right.

So now Kittie lived in the Home for Destitute and Crippled Children, as a ward of the Children’s Home Society of Illinois. There she came to the attention of one Dr. Gregg who set up an education fund in her favour and support poured in from far and wide. So specialists were hired and soon Kittie had learned to navigate life with her feet. Not only was she able to write and paint, but she played the piano and even did needlework! And when she moved to Wisconsin at age 14, the fund paid for her to attend public school. She didn’t take this for granted though and studiously completed her High School education.

But the time came she turned 21 and was no longer considered a child. This meant that she was no longer the responsibility of the Home Society. Furthermore her charity fund had run out. In the meantime her father had died, her brothers could hardly sustain themselves and the family had lost contact to her younger sister who had been adopted into another family. Kittie was on her own. Still she refused to give up. She began selling paintings and needlework done wit her feet, making a small living. With the support from friends she published a small magazine telling her life story which she distributed in the neighborhood. Included with the pamphlet came a return card with a slot for a quarter which the reader would only send if he found himself moved by the story – one of the first crowdfunding campaigns so to speak.

I don’t know if it was her tragic story, her optimism or the fact that she had forgiver her father long ago, but something about the young woman moved the people and by 1906 Kittie had crowdfunded more than $35.000 – all in quarters. And she put the money to good use, founding the Kittie Smith Company. Aiming to improve the living quality of disabled children, the company was created to help them overcome the obstacles created by their handicaps. To finance her endeavors, she now began selling her autobiography officially.  Below you can see a few pages of the little book, showing her drawing and embroidery skills.

In 1913 women finally obtained the right to vote in Chicago. Kittie, now 31 years old, was the first to cast a ballot – using only her feet. Then it became relatively quiet around her until the 1930s when she joined the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as a professional “Armless Wonder,” showcasing her remarkable skills.

She didn’t seem to like that line of work too much though, as soon she quietly left the spotlight for good. And that’s where her traces end. I like to imagine that she had quite a comfortable life though, managing her small business, painting and playing the piano.


You can read Kittie’s own account of her life and see more pictures here.

image credits: Sideshow World – Link