Jack Knox: End of a romantic tale, of 6,000 cemetery trips fed by everlasting love

This is a love story. Or, rather, it’s the end of a love story you might have read a few years ago.

It began in 1957 at the Hong Kong shipping company where Chan Yung Tong and Katima Amy Ismail both worked.

article continues below

It continued long after her death, on the mornings, close to 6,000 of them, when Chan caned his way up the hill to the Royal Oak Burial Park on his daily journey to her grave.

And it continued until last week, when he was laid to rest in the plot next to hers, right where he wanted to be.

Katima was born in 1927, descended from a man who came to Hong Kong from India with the British army during the opium wars of the 19th century. Chan — he wrote his name in the Chinese fashion, surname first — was a Hong Kong native, too.

She was the big boss’s secretary at the shipping company, whereas he toiled farther down the corporate food chain. It wasn’t love at first sight (“I don’t chase her. She don’t chase me,” he said in 2009).

One day, Chan looked at the entertainment ads in the newspaper and said he wanted to see a movie. She said she wanted to see it, too. He got the Hong Kong Regiment discount, paying $1.70 for his ticket, while hers cost $2.40. She was a tad surprised when he asked her for the $2.40.

They began to see each other more and more after that, going for coffee, that sort of thing. Still, it was months before they even held hands. Then one day, while trying to negotiate a slippery sidewalk, she took his arm. They were married on March 11, 1959.

In the beginning, her family wanted him to embrace Islam, but it never really took, at least not then.

Giving up pork was his big concession. “Even chow mein, always beef or chicken, never pork.” His family says it was only in the past year or two that he fully converted, believing it would give him a better chance of being with Katima in the afterlife.

If complications from surgery left her unable to conceive, being childless also left the couple free to travel, which they did extensively: Asia, Europe and three trips to Victoria, where Chan had a younger sister.

He wanted to move here, but Katima wasn’t as keen. “My wife doesn’t like. Too cold.” A sun-drenched trip to Expo 86 tipped the scales, though. They settled here officially in 1988.

It was a good life, a good love, the kind that doesn’t need a lot of talking. “Silly man,” she called him. Some couples drift apart, but they just grew closer. “Even now, I’m more and more in love,” he said a decade ago, eight years after her death.

The irony, considering the strength of their love, is that it was her heart that weakened. Chan would take the bus to Royal Jubilee Hospital every day, catching the final run back to Esquimalt at night. For the last couple of weeks of her life, he was allowed to use the bed next to hers. Chan would ask her: “You hate me?” She would shake her head, no. “You love me?” A nod, yes.

She knew she was slipping away, told him Muslims don’t cry at the time of death. “But I cannot stop.” She died on Oct. 6, 2001. “I hold her hand, and the heart stop.”

It was then that he began the daily journeys he promised her he would make. Up at 5:15 a.m., out the door in time for the 7:30 bus to the burial park. Sometimes he brought carnations. Sometimes he fell while making his way through the snow. Eventually, he wore a path across the lawn to her grave.

“I still miss her,” he said in 2009, dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief while standing beside her headstone. “I love my wife very much.”

He said he thought of Katima all the time. “If I’m sitting alone, I’m always thinking of my wife.”

Sometimes, while watching TV in his home, he would catch a whiff of Joy, the perfume she liked to wear. Sometimes he detected a hint of it in the cemetery, too. One of the dog-walkers who frequented the burial park once told him he saw a woman standing behind Chan at the graveside.

His daily journey continued until almost two years ago, when a fall forced Chan into a care home. He had balked at making the transition before that, knowing it would mean the end of his visits. Prior to that, his relatives estimate, he had only missed 54 days in more than 16 years, and only when doing so was unavoidable — a medical procedure, a cancelled bus, something like that. Perfectly reasonable, to everyone but Chan. “It really upset him, because it was a promise,” says his niece Annia Lee.

He was also troubled by the attention his story received after I retold it in 2013, and asked that I not drag it up again. “He was very private, quiet,” Lee said Friday. So, I didn’t mention it again, not until learning from Chan’s family that he had died on Nov. 20, at age 86, and that it was time for the final paragraph to a great romance.

“It was,” says Lee, “a fairy tale.”

Read Related Topics

© Copyright Times Colonist

Find out what's happening in your community.

Most Popular