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Gift of opportunity

Gretta Grant, BA’43, celebrates legacy of her trailblazing parents

by Krista Habermehl, MA'05 | June 27, 2017

As the first Chinese immigrants to London, Ont., Toye and Lem Wong, pictured here, gave their eight children, including Gretta Grant, BA’43, the gift of opportunity. Photo submitted by Gretta Grant.

At 16, Lem Wong boarded a steamer ship bound from China to Canada. The year was 1897 and he was in pursuit of opportunity.

After a three-week voyage, Wong landed in Vancouver, along with his uncle, paying a head tax of $50 for the privilege of entering Canada. The pair learned the laundry trade to support themselves. After a short while, however, Wong took off across the country solo to make his own way.

Five years later, he had saved enough money to purchase a round-trip ticket back to China. Upon arriving in his homeland, Wong met and married his wife, Toye. He returned to Canada, unaccompanied, but determined to build a life for his new family in a new home.

He ended up in London, Ont., selling products from a booth to qualify for “merchant” status to bring his wife to Canada. He then opened a restaurant — Wong’s Café — in 1914, which quickly became a local institution. Serving “fine Canadian food,” the restaurant played host to local musician Guy Lombardo, who was given the opportunity to practice in the space in exchange for entertaining Wong’s customers on weekends.

As the first Chinese immigrants to London, Ont., Toye and Lem Wong gave their eight children (all pictured in the photo above), the gift of opportunity. Photo submitted by Gretta Grant.

Regarded as the first Chinese immigrants to London, the Wongs raised eight children – Victor, Mary, Clara, Norm, George, Bill, Gretta and Ester – who went on to benefit from their parents’ entrepreneurial spirit. Four became doctors, one a lawyer and one a biochemist. Five attended Western.

“My parents were just remarkable people,” said Gretta Grant, BA’43. “They had a purpose in life. They wanted more opportunities, like anybody coming to this country, and they did what they had to do.”

In honour of the opportunities the Wongs provided their children, Grant, 96, gave a $25,000 donation to the Global Library Space in the Allyn and Betty Taylor Library, specifically in support of the library’s Asian-themed portico. The space was named for Lem and Toye Wong.

According to Catherine Steeves, Western Libraries’ Vice Provost and Chief Librarian, Grant’s decision to honour her parents with this gift has helped develop an inspiring space for today’s students.

“Ms. Grant’s parents’ belief in creating opportunity through education and knowledge are values that drive everything that Western Libraries does — from the provision of vital learning spaces and cutting edge scholarship to the development of lifelong learning and research skills. We are privileged to name this new space for Lem and Toye Wong, London’s premier Chinese immigrants and community entrepreneurs,” said Steeves.

For Grant, a gift to the library in honour of her parents seemed a logical decision.

“They were such unusual, remarkable parents in the contributions they made, and there were so many of us (children) that graduated from Western. I liked honouring my parents who gave us so many opportunities. The centre of learning is a library. My father always said, ‘If you can read a book, you can do anything.’”

Grant’s parents believed in the power of education, in being active and in giving back to the community. And although they laid the foundation for their children’s success, the Wongs believed it was up to their children to determine what to do with their opportunities.

“Our parents didn’t make us go to university; they just gave us the opportunity. If you wanted to do it, you did it. It was either school or work — the choice was yours,” said Grant, who, after graduating from Western, attended law school in Toronto. She went on to become the first Chinese-Canadian woman to be called to the bar.

“You go to school, but you don’t really think of being the first. You just do it. You were born at that time and became first at a lot of things because of timing. I didn’t pick that. I was just born then,” Grant said. She landed her first job as a lawyer thanks to her elder brothers, who happened to be working for the wife of a senior partner at the firm. “There I was, a little kid from the country going to Toronto at one of the biggest firms in Canada. They were always so good to me.”

Grant later received a post-graduate psychology degree and practiced psychology for many years in Toronto. She married and returned to London with her husband to raise their four children.

With her husband’s failing health, though, Grant returned to the practice of law, joining her husband at their local law firm Grant & Grant.

In the wake of her husband’s untimely death, Grant sold the practice and took over London’s legal aid office in order to have a stable 9-5 job that allowed her to maintain a career while raising her children.

With her own kids, Grant adopted the same approach to education as her parents.

“My kids had the opportunity to choose. I have a daughter who is a doctor, a son who is a lawyer and I have two children who are professors. They’re all doing very well.”

The gift to Western is a thank you to her parents for giving her and her siblings the gift of education — and opportunity.

“We came here for the opportunities, because that’s what my father felt. We were given a lot of chances and we (the children) tried to take as many as we could. We were able to take advantage. But, you never forget your background, your parents and what chances they offered you.”

For more information about supporting Western Libraries, contact Julie Ryan, Alumni & Development Officer, Western Libraries (519.661.2111 ext. 88078 or jryan63@uwo.ca) or visit extraordinary.westernu.ca.


This article appeared in the Summer 2017 edition of Impact Western
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