When Lana Kwong enters the room, an aura of quiet elegance seems to surround her. There’s a sparkle in her eyes, as if even the smallest detail she sees brings her the greatest of delights. Yet there is also something below the surface, a mysterious hint of the tenacity, strength, and sheer determination Kwong needed to overcome obstacles many would find inconceivable. It is said that still waters run deep, and unquestionably there is depth to this woman who is entrepreneur, survivor, wife, and mother of four successful children: Julie, Amy, Eric, and Lisa.
Flights of desperation
Born into an affluent Chinese family in Vietnam, Kwong’s early life was one of privilege and status. At a young age, she joined her father’s business and learned the ins and outs of buying and selling. In 1966, she married Tung Ban Lee, an elementary school classmate and they soon opened their own shoe factory — a company that rapidly rivaled her father’s in profitability.
But there were problems. The highly volatile political environment in Vietnam meant the family could not be seen to have money. Hiring a nanny was out of the question. Her husband, raised with traditional beliefs, refused to lift a finger to help Kwong with housework or raise the family. Sometimes he beat her. Divorce was not an option, so she stayed in the tempestuous marriage.
Two years after the unification of North and South Vietnam, Kwong, her husband and their children fled to China only to discover living conditions in their homeland were even worse. Using the remnants of their money, they purchased a boat, hired a captain, and made plans to immigrate to Canada via Hong Kong.
Kwong still winces as she describes the nightmare that followed. On departure day, she discovered the captain was “less than honourable” and had sold passage to almost four dozen strangers — anyone who could pay two ounces of gold. When a storm hit the severely overloaded boat, 20-foot waves flipped over another vessel just ahead and soon dead bodies were floating past. “We all knew our chances of survival were 10 percent at best,” Kwong says.
But the family did survive, and 10 months later, they were finally able to fly to their new home in Canada where they were met by Betty and Frank Mackenzie, members of the Burnaby Olivet Baptist Church. “I have no idea how they communicated with my parents, but Betty and Frank became our guardian angels,” says Amy Lee, Kwong’s second daughter. “Frank passed away in 1995 but we still call Betty grandmama.”
New tests of resolve
Life in Canada was not what Kwong had expected. Although the church helped the struggling family of six get established, it was a year before Kwong’s husband found work. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with cancer and within three years of arriving in Vancouver, Kwong was a 34-year-old widow with four young children to support.
“I was pre-qualified for welfare, but I refused it. If I had accepted it, we would have been stuck there forever — I had to set an example for my children so they would understand that everyone should be independent, self-confident, and striving to do their best,” Kwong says. She smiles at Amy, now 43 years old, who is sitting beside her in the interview, and the two women share a look of deep mutual love and respect.
To provide for her family when her husband could no longer work, Kwong had taken a job as kitchen help in a restaurant nearby. She watched and learned, and one day a customer offered to double her salary if she would run his restaurant in White Rock. The position was seven days a week and required 90 minutes of travel each way, but Kwong accepted.
“My mother had to walk up a long hill at midnight to catch the bus home,” Amy says. Her voice catches, and a tear slides down her cheek. “She was too exhausted from the long, grueling hours of work to run for the bus. Sometimes in the winter, she had to wait an hour in the snow wearing just her uniform, a thin coat, and fabric shoes.” Gently her mother brushes the tear aside and strokes her daughter’s hair.
The restaurant, however, was a success and soon the owner opened a second one. When the stresses of running two busy establishments became too great, he gave Kwong the option to purchase his second restaurant with no money down and zero interest as a way of thanking her for her years of service. The door of opportunity had opened for Kwong, and she stepped fearlessly through it.
It took Kwong less than three years to pay off her debt. All four children helped out during their spare time — even eight-year-old Lisa could often be found assisting with the sushi rice preparation. The restaurant was filled with laughter, familial warmth, and customers who raved about the food.
With her restaurant running smoothly and showing a profit, Kwong turned her attention to where she saw another opportunity: real estate. She bought a lot in Surrey, built a house, and turned a profit of more than four times the purchase price. Eight years later, she had built 54 houses and was a self-made millionaire.
“It is so important to build your credibility so people know you are honest,” Kwong stresses. “At the beginning, I had to pay in advance for everything. Now I sometimes feel like I’m chasing people to come and pick up their money.” Her tone is lighthearted, but there is no denying that personal integrity is a pillar of her business. “When I was just starting, a builder stole $30,000 from me and left me with a partially completed house. I didn’t have the experience to know what to do, but other builders stepped in to help me — that restored my belief in human kindness.”
Kwong is particularly proud that she was able to help her son Eric Lee establish his architectural design firm, VictorEric Design Group, by incorporating his designs into her real estate projects. Eric’s work for his mother soon caught the attention of the design world and earned his firm its first Georgie Award.
In 2002, yet another door opened unexpectedly for Kwong. After being a widow for 24 years, she met Fred Kwong and love blossomed. Within two years, the couple were married. Today, more than a dozen years later, her eyes still light up when Fred walks into the room and their hands spontaneously connect. “He keeps me young,” she says as their fingers gently intertwine.
To her children, Kwong remains “the greatest mom in the world” and the inspiration for their own successes. To Kwong’s eight siblings, all of whom she not only sponsored into Canada but built homes for, she’s the glue that keeps the extended family together.
“Mom taught us that family is more important than anything,” Amy says. “Between kids and grandkids, there are 17 of us who live within a 20-minute drive and we all get together for dinner at least once a month.”
“I have no regrets about my life,” Kwong says. “I’ve learned that Heaven is fair — no matter how difficult things might be, they cannot remain difficult for a lifetime if you make the effort to conquer your challenges. Be patient, be on time, be polite and build your credibility. But most importantly, keep an open mind to new ideas and when opportunity arrives, grab onto it.”
Photography by Milos Tosic