BAIE VERTE, NL — The fact most people would not know her given name is strangely indicative of the relationship Mrs. Jim had with the people of the Baie Verte Peninsula.
At 95 years of age, Mrs. Wong Kim Sue Jim died April 5 at the Baie Verte Peninsula Health Centre.
She was known by nearly everybody just as Mrs. Jim. She was the prominent face behind Jim’s General Store in Baie Verte for nearly 50 years, especially so after the sudden death of her husband Fong Jim in 1983.
She was believed by many to be a quiet personality, as she mainly kept to herself and her family. However, her strength and confident disposition were easily recognizable by any who entered her business.
She greeted people with an affection that made them feel welcome, but within a moment’s notice would have no qualms chasing any delinquent out of the store.
Her son Patrick Jim, who remains in Baie Verte, laughs at any notion of his mother as having a quiet demeanor. He easily explains her solitude as a focus on family.
“In our life mom was always head of the family,” he said. “She made most of the big decisions in our lives, and had a big role to play in our lives growing up. She had a very, very dominating personality, and it was because she wanted the best for us.”
Her life’s story was reflective of that desire.
She was born to a peasant farm family in Bak Sec Tun, China in 1922. She started caring for her siblings at the age of six, with responsibilities of cooking falling upon her tiny shoulders. Mrs. Jim would tell her family she was the first girl in her village to attend school. Eventually reaching the age of arranged marriage, she was introduced to the late Mr. Fong Jim. Because Mr. Jim's father, Jim Fung, was already in Newfoundland, her husband-to-be was recognized by her family as a means to a better life.
The couple was married and had children before Mr. Jim joined his father, becoming one of the last Chinese nationals to enter the colony of Newfoundland before it joined Canada. The couple would spend eight years apart, a time during which, Mrs. Jim later told her family, she faced considerable oppression at the hands of communists. She would be separated from her children and, as a landowner, forced to work in a camp.
Eventually she, along with three of her children under the age of eight, escaped China to Hong Kong by foot.
Mrs. Jim finally arrived in Newfoundland in 1955 and life was far more fortunate – much of the family’s fortunes coming from a large gambling victory by Patrick’s grandfather, the aforementioned Jim Fung, within a year of his arrival in St. John’s.
“We could have all ended up living in rural China back in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, and more than likely many of us would not have made it,” Patrick said.
After the family's reunion, the Jims would open the Tip Top Grill on Main Street in Stephenville. Mrs. Jim was the driving force behind the venture, according to her son.
In 1961, the family was ready for a change — mainly because of the closure of the American Air Force base in Stephenville — and the new destination was between Clarenville, where the oil refinery was being built at Come by Chance, and Baie Verte, where the new asbestos mine was underway.
Baie Verte it was. Jim’s Restaurant was opened in 1961, and for many years it was the only Chinese restaurant on the Baie Verte Peninsula.
As mining grew, so did the family business. They bought two adjacent properties to the restaurant and opened Jim’s General Store — which carried just about anything anybody could ever want. After Mr. Jim’s death, she assumed sole responsibility of raising her family and maintaining the business.
Jim’s Restaurant was sold in 2004, and it eventually closed in 2009. In 2012, she decided to close the general store after 49 years in business. She still lived in the residence atop the store.
As her health failed, the family faced the choice of sending her to Ontario. Patrick said his mother wanted to stay in Baie Verte. While she may never have stated outright to anybody what the town and its people meant to her, he believes that was proof enough of how she felt.
“I think that says it all,” he said. “She loved the place. It was home to her.”
When news of her passing spread, people throughout the area — and former residents now living across the country — reflected on their memories of her and expressed their condolences.
“I am amazed that she had this impact on so many lives,” Patrick said. “If you really think about it, she was just a store clerk. To have people react that way to her, it was amazing.”
Mrs. Jim travelled with family to Ottawa in 2006 to witness Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologize to the Chinese immigrants who were charged a head tax upon entering the country. At the time, she said she wished there was never a need for such an apology. She spoke of the difficulty during the years the family was apart and the joy of the life they made here.
Patrick is proud of what his mother was able to overcome, and the life she was able to provide for them.
“She taught us to work hard,” he said in her eulogy. “She taught us to get a good education. She taught us to be dedicated to family. She taught us to save for the bad times.
“She taught us all this because she never wanted us, her family, to go through what she went through. Because of her, we’re here. We are reflections of her and her aspirations. Her lessons have and will continue to live on in future generations.”
The funeral service was held at the Carnell Memorial Chapel in St. John’s April 9 with the interment at Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Donations in her memory can be made to the Therapeutic Wander Garden at the Baie Verte Peninsula Health Centre.