Remembering Manyee Leung, who skipped through countries and cultures, all the while remaining an open-minded student of the world

Manyee Leung often described herself as a “country mouse,” and that was the impression Dan Mullen, her daughter Toni Brem’s then boyfriend, got when they first met in the early 2000s. As they ate dim sum on Spadina Ave., Leung was quiet throughout the meal, but afterwards she invited the young couple to join her as she looked for a new sword to use in her tai chi practice. After going into several shops, Leung found a sword and, as Mullen recalls, the “country mouse” disappeared, as she haggled with the owner for a better price.

Mullen, who married Brem in 2008, was floored by the change in personality. “I’ll always wonder if she wanted me to know that behind that smile, she was a strong and confident woman who knew how to use a sword,” he says. Strength and confidence are precisely what propelled Leung through countries, cultures and careers before landing in Toronto to raise her daughter as a single mother.

She was born Yin Wan Leung in Hong Kong in 1937. One of nine children, she lost two siblings during the air raids under Japanese Occupation. Recognized for her intelligence at an early age, she was accepted into Hong Kong’s prestigious Sacred Heart Canossian College, where she learned English while studying under Catholic nuns.

After graduating, she put her smarts and language skills to use by spending eight years as a reporter with the Communist-leaning Wen Wei Pao daily newspaper. She loved covering the music beat and met, among others, Charlie Chaplin and the Beatles. “Manyee” was a pen name she used in her bylines that stuck for the rest of her days. While at Wen Wei Pao, Leung crossed paths with Max Brem, a New Zealand-raised journalist, who also covered the monthly news conferences being held by the British colonial administration.

“Manyee had a curiosity about her,” says Brem. “She could be friendly, but if she sensed someone was being false, she was not afraid to call them out. She had independent views and was able to balance her independence with a loyalty to China.” According to Brem, she was self-aware and comfortable mingling with foreigners like him or asking pointed questions during press conferences. “She stood out,” he says.

The couple dated then wed at a time when marriage between a Hong Kong local and a westerner wasn’t common, and as the 1960s ended, Leung left the paper and Hong Kong. She barely looked back, touching down in Bangkok, New York and Washington where she worked in media, trade relations and computer programming in the nascent days of information technology. While living in the U.S. in the ’70s, her marriage to Brem fell apart. Despite the end of their union, she yearned to be a mother and returned to Hong Kong to pursue the adoption of a baby girl named Tung Nei. She named the little girl Toni because it was close to the child’s birth name and had a gender-neutral feminist ethos with which she identified.

In the summer of ’76, Leung and her daughter arrived in Toronto, where her ex-husband and three brothers now lived. The pair moved to a bustling west end co-op on Davenport Rd., where Toni recalls a free-range, latchkey upbringing surrounded by plenty of kids her age, under the watchful gaze of other adults in the building.

Toni remembers her mother working non-stop — full-time for an insurance company and part-time doing payroll at two doctor’s offices — to ensure her daughter had all the extracurriculars she wanted: dance classes, horseback-riding lessons, overnight summer camps. “She was selfless in her pursuit of giving me a good life,” says Toni. “But I would have preferred more of her, and less piano lessons.”

Through it all, Leung remained a curious student of the world. In later years she was heavily influenced by the philosopher Krishnamurti. She embraced Buddhism and practiced meditation, and called tai chi “a meditation in movement, a dance, a martial art, a healthy workout.”

In 1998 Leung took Toni home to Hong Kong and China to celebrate her university graduation. It was her first trip back since her daughter was born and Toni remembers her mother being shocked to see a Starbucks at the entrance of the Great Wall.

When Toni and her husband moved into their Riverdale home, it came with an in-law suite especially for her mother, who lived there from 2003 to 2008, as her health began to deteriorate due to complications from Parkinson’s. Leung lived her final years at Chester Village on the Danforth with frequent visits from her three grandchildren, Oliver, Charlie and Marlowe. Though Leung would come in and out of psychosis, she told Toni in a moment of clarity that she preferred the other world because, “In that world I can move freely. I can walk. I can dance. I am creative.”

A tree will be planted in Leung’s memory near the Sun Yat-sen statue in Riverdale Park, where, as part of her daily practice, she would move freely and wield her tai chi sword.

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