Ho Sze/Mrs. Chow/Mama Chow/Auntie/Ama/Aiya passed away peacefully at Mount Sinai Hospital on the evening of February 11, 2020, a day after her 92nd birthday, surrounded by people who loved her, including her daughter Olivia Chow and son Andre Chow.
Born in the lunar Year of the Tiger in the Shunde District of Guangdong province in China, she lived true to her tiger spirit throughout her lifetime – a tiny, fearless woman who stood up to injustice wherever she found it. As a teenager, she survived the Japanese invasion of China by smuggling oil and sugar so she could feed her brother. After serving with the Chinese army, she later fled the war-torn country of her birth, and went to Hong Kong to seek new opportunities. She married Wai Sun Chow, a school superintendent and became an elementary school teacher herself, serving kids living in extremely poor neighbourhoods. She would often return home describing how difficult it was for her students to find space and time to do their homework, as even as young children they had to work to support their parents and siblings. There is no doubt that left a huge impression on her.
In 1970, Ho Sze and Wai Sun immigrated to Canada with Olivia and settled in Toronto, to provide a better life for their daughter. Life was extremely difficult. Wai Sun could not find work in his field, and Ho Sze became the main family breadwinner, working as a hotel maid, where she witnessed first-hand how immigrant women in Canada are so often exploited. She was subjected to racist slurs, difficult working conditions, and poor pay. She channeled her fierce sense of injustice and turned it into action. To gain better treatment and working conditions, she and her union went on strike, marching in freezing conditions on the picket line and defending themselves by taking on the scab workers brought in by the company.
Later in life, she defended women’s reproductive rights, by counter-protesting at the blockaded Morgentaler abortion clinic in Toronto. She was outraged and shouted in Cantonese at the anti-choice protesters blocking the clinic’s entrance, describing what it was like to have watched women die from back alley illegal abortions in Hong Kong. She questioned how they dared demand a reversal of rights that would cause so many women to suffer in the way she had witnessed.
Ho Sze always took great interest and pride in the political pursuits of her daughter Olivia, late son-in-law and former NDP Leader Jack Layton, and grandson Mike Layton. For many years, she read three Chinese newspapers every day and was always more than happy to provide very colourful commentary (and her strategic advice) on municipal and federal politics.
After a long day at work, Ho Sze would return home to manage the entire Layton-Chow household. Without her support: shopping, cleaning, and cooking for the entire family, Olivia and Jack (until his tragic early death) could not have immersed themselves in their social justice work for twenty-five years.
She loved nothing more than to feed people – the more the better around the table. Over many years, she created delicious multi-course Cantonese meals for hundreds of political organizing meetings at the home she shared with Olivia and Jack.
Legions of organizers over the last twenty-five years have been fuelled by “Mama Chow’s” cooking — to keep going hard on a campaign, or to unwind at the end of long days.
Ho Sze loved flowers, her cat Maui, watching Cantonese TV shows and “monitoring” Cantonese media. She was a master mahjong player and for many years played with her friends into the wee hours of the morning. She had an incisive wit, loved a good laugh, and enjoyed a fruity white wine.
She is survived by her daughter Olivia, son Andre, grandchildren Sarah Layton (Hugh Campbell), Mike Layton (Brett Tryon), Althea Chow (Ryan Liddell) and great-grandchildren Beatrice, Solace, Phoebe, Chloe, Kian and Sage and predeceased by her husband, Wai Sun Chow, and son-in-law, Jack Layton.
As Ho Sze became less mobile in the last few years, her dear friend Kathy Le would visit every day. They would chat, have lunch, and watch Cantonese sitcoms together (even though Kathy does not understand Cantonese), and make occasional outings to Chinatown. The family is deeply grateful for Kathy’s kindness and friendship.
Many thanks to Ho Sze’s personal support workers Ivy, Jackie, Ying, and Candy, to her family doctor Abe Hirsz, and to the dedicated medical team at Mount Sinai Hospital.
Memorial donations to commemorate Ho Sze’s commitment to social justice may be made to the Ho Sze Chow Scholarship to empower immigrant women through training at the Institute for Change Leaders at Ryerson University.