Written by Joanne Lau


Awesome Old Lady of the Week: Kim Phong

This week’s awesome old lady is the ultra-glamorous and talented Kim Phong, a Chinese grandmother living in New York. Joanne Lau chatted to Kim on the week of her 90th birthday.

What is your name?

My name is Kim Phong, which means golden phoenix in Chinese. It looks like this: 金鳳凰
It was quite a common name to name your children in those days.

Where were you born?

I was born in Shanghai in 1924. (Writer’s note: This was during the Shanghai Grand era. During the 1920s and 30s, Shanghai became known as the the Paris of the East, the New York of the West. Its glamour has been immortalized in countless films, both in western and Chinese cinema. Think Boardwalk Empire with Chinese triads and ridiculously beautiful women in curve-hugging cheongsam. Or just google Gong Li in Shanghai Triad or Cecilia Cheung in Dangerous Liaisons and have a silk cushion ready to swoon on.)

Where do you currently live?

I moved to New York in 1972. Some of my children had settled here and I wanted to be near them. Other than Shanghai and New York, I also lived in South Vietnam. (Writer’s note: Many Chinese citizens migrated to Vietnam during the 1920s and late 40s to escape the effects of fighting and economic instability during the Chinese Civil war.) I speak Cantonese, Mandarin, Shanghainese, and a bit of Japanese and French. I know some English – enough to get by on the subway anyhow!

What is/was your profession?

I was a housewife and later a sewing machine operator. Now I’m happily retired.

What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of the fact that my children were all able to receive and complete a higher education. My children and grandchildren have gone on to become artists, doctors, entrepreneurs, and more, and live all around the world from Vancouver to Sydney to Brooklyn. They recently gathered together in New York to celebrate my 90th birthday. It was a very happy time for me.

What is your secret talent?

I enjoy doing crafts. (Writer’s note: Okay, humble understatement much? Look at this stuff! LOOK AT IT!) I also really like to teach people. Well, I don’t think of it as teaching people so much as sharing my knowledge with them.

Some of Kim Phong’s craft. Wow.

What is your favourite indulgence? And what’s your daily beauty regime?

Perfume and diamonds. At the moment I’m enjoying Nina Ricci, and always Chanel No 5. I wash my face at least twice a day – morning and night. These days I use Oil of Olay moisturising cream. When I was younger, I used egg whites and pearl powder.

What is your favourite hobby or pastime?

I love cooking. If I had my family over for dinner, I’d cook them a whole fresh fish, steamed, drizzled lightly with soy sauce, and garnished with fresh spring onion and ginger – it’s just enough to bring out the natural flavour of the fish.

Would you like to be a young woman in the 21st century?

Even though I’ve lived through some pretty turbulent times and regimes in our history, I wouldn’t change anything in my life. I don’t think it would make a difference if I had been young now or then, so, I guess I don’t really have an answer.

What advice would you give your 30-year old-self?

I wouldn’t give any particular advice as I’ve been pretty happy with my life, but in that year, I’d maybe tell myself, “Don’t worry, you’ll have a son next!” Today I have four daughters, one son, 11 grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. I’m so proud of them all.

Special thanks to Kim’s daughter, Françoise, for translating from English to Cantonese and back.

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Written by Joanne Lau

Joanne Lau is that tired-looking Chinese-Canadian girl on the tube scribbling in her notebook and staring into space a lot.