Some of the earliest Chinese who arrived in New Zealand in 1865 came from the gold mines in Victoria at the invitation of the Otago Chamber of Commerce. They were to rework the central Otago claims abandoned by gold miners who had headed to the new goldrush on the West Coast.
Thousands followed. The following year the Chinese population was recorded as 1219, peaking at 4,700 in 1872 after some 2,000 more came directly from China.
These were not the first, however. Appo Hockton (Wong Ah Poo Hoc Ting) is recorded as the first Chinese immigrant to New Zealand, having jumped ship in Nelson in 1842 – apparently because the captain refused to supply soap with which to wash clothes. On 3 January 1853 Appo became the first naturalised Chinese New Zealander.
Additionally, James Williams, “a native of the Celestial Empire” as described by the Southern Cross, and a “Chinaman” by the New Zealander, was living in Chancery Street in Auckland in 1862. And in Wellington, John Ah Tong, born c.1838 in Canton, on 15 May 1866 became the second Chinese person to be naturalised in New Zealand, after Appo Hockton. By that stage Ah Tong was already established as a businessman (cabinetmaking and upholstery) in Willis Street and his son was born in 1865 to his wife, Caroline Tolhurst.
The majority of Chinese immigrants came from a cluster of counties in the Pearl River Delta region in Guangdong province in southern China, near the capital Guangzhou - also known as Canton - and spoke Cantonese.
Village life revolved around a farming or peasant culture. Some villages were surrounded by rice paddies which grew all year round, producing usually 2-3 crops each year. Land that wasn’t planted with rice might grow sugar cane, peanuts, a Chinese version of kumara, bananas, lychees and water chestnuts.
The villagers were tenant farmers who rented land from the local land-owner, working seven days a week from sun up to sun down. They were so poor they couldn’t afford rice or meat, but had to eat taro-like vegetables and Chinese kumara. They might have pork once a year, and if they were lucky, a fish from the nearby stream.
Forced abroad by poverty and overpopulation, men from Guangdong sought their fortunes in the goldrushes of California (known as Gum Shan or Gold Mountain), Canada, Australia and New Zealand (collectively known as Sun Gum Shan or New Gold Mountain). They were sent by their village or family to work in New Zealand and to send money back home. The money to send them was borrowed with interest, and often the accruing interest was greater than the men could send, and the debt just kept increasing.
Some did well in the gold fields, but the majority didn’t find wealth, and as the gold ran out, rather than ‘lose face’ returning with nothing, many rented land from Māori and European settlers, and took up market gardening, hawked vegetables and in later years opened small businesses such as fruit shops or laundries.
Facing prejudice in New Zealand
The Chinese looked different, dressed differently, ate different food, spoke a different language and had a different religion from most other immigrant New Zealanders of that time.
The decade-long economic depression, which started in 1879, made many Europeans fear that Chinese workers were taking their jobs. Anti-Chinese sentiment became wide-spread, and in 1881 a poll tax was introduced, forcing every Chinese person entering New Zealand to pay £10. Additionally, ships arriving in New Zealand could only land one Chinese passenger per 10 tons of cargo. The Chinese population peaked at 5,004 that year and then began to decline. In 1888 the cargo restrictions increased to one Chinese per 100 tons of cargo.
Racist opinions were widely expressed, even in parliament. In 1895 Mr Rigg said in the House: “And these are the persons we admit among us for a poll tax of £10 whilst a highly bred Berkshire pig has to go into quarantine for six months.” The following year Prime Minister Richard Seddon’s government raised the poll tax to £100 and restricted entry to one Chinese per 200 tons of cargo.
The severe restrictions for entry into New Zealand meant that the Chinese population was largely a male society, though dozens of intermarriages are recorded with both Maori and Pakeha. The men regarded themselves as ‘sojourners’ rather than citizens, sending money home to support their family. Always their goal was to make money and eventually return home for good. Those who could afford it returned to China periodically, and later brought their China-born sons to join them in New Zealand. A small fortunate number were able to bring their wives and children to join them. In 1886 the population of Chinese males was 4,527, while Chinese females was just 15.
“Aliens” were able to become naturalised New Zealanders, and in 1882 the fee for this was reduced from £1 to 2s 6d – except for the Chinese who still had to pay £1. In 1892 the fee was abolished – except for the Chinese who now had to pay £1, 2s 6d, or 22 shillings. By 1908 Chinese could no longer become naturalised, and nor could their NZ-born children.
It was against this backdrop of hardship, anti-Chinese sentiment and restrictions that Chinese lived and worked in New Zealand. They were spread throughout New Zealand in occupations such as labourers, launderers and shopkeepers, and a large number became market gardeners. With growing vegetables a necessity in their home villages, they excelled at it, adapting their methods to New Zealand soils and conditions.
Chan Ah Chee
One of the most prominent and influential Chinese personalities in early Auckland, was Chan Ah Chee.
Born Chan Dar-Chee in Mook-Ngou-Deng village in Canton, China around 1851, he arrived in Auckland 1877 with his two brothers. Their father supported their journey to Australia - the common route at that time being via America and New Zealand. However, they were so seasick on the journey that they decided to stay in Auckland.
Ah Chee quickly became established as a gardener, possibly working as a vegetable hawker for Thomas Ah Quoi in the early years, eventually leasing his own land and becoming a market gardener in his own right. He established his garden Kong Foong Yuen, or “Garden of Prosperity” on 7 ¼ acres in lower Parnell on land which eventually became Carlaw Park.
A successful businessman, Ah Chee was naturalised in 1882. His wife-to-be, Miss Joong Chew-Lee, also known as Rain See arrived in Auckland in December 1885. Chinese women were rare in New Zealand, and their wedding in January 1886 was the first Chinese wedding in New Zealand. The occasion was attended by many Chinese and European friends, and was noted in the newspapers of the day.
Mrs Ah Chee was educated; she could read, write and speak English well, and in later years was a Christian. She also acted as a hostess to consolidate his position in the community, including hosting the governor’s wife, Lady Glasgow and her daughters. She was a credit to Ah Chee, overseeing many aspects of his business. Mr Ah Chee was well received by the Auckland business and social communities and he supported clansmen and the small Chinese community in Auckland.
Their four sons, George, William, Clement and Arthur were born in Parnell and educated in Auckland. Between 1906 and 1908 William and Clement travelled to Canton to marry. They returned with their wives to Auckland and were widely accepted by the European and Chinese communities. William enjoyed boxing, and in the 1920s he and Clement enjoyed car racing at Muriwai Beach.
William’s wife and their five children returned to live in Canton. In January 1929 they were in Sydney returning to Auckland when William died in Auckland of pleurisy at the age of 39. The funeral was delayed until their arrival, and was one of the largest funerals seen in Auckland. In 1931 the family left again for Canton, staying until late 1939 when they all returned to Auckland.
Mrs Clement Ah Chee’s three children, Alice, Roxford and Bruce were born in Auckland, but she died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. Around 1922 Clement travelled to Canton, married again and returned to Auckland. Their two children, Betty and Thomas’s early years were in Auckland.
By the early 1920s Mr and Mrs Chan Ah Chee had retired to live in Canton, accompanied by their grandchildren Roxford and Bruce. He had purchased land in Canton and built a large villa for himself and his sons. William and Clement were left in Auckland to manage the Ah Chee & Co business in Auckland.
Mr Ah Chee died in March 1931 in Hong Kong. Not long after, Clement was in Canton to support his mother, but she died in July.
Mrs Clement Ah Chee with Betty and Thomas went to live in Canton at the Ah Chee villa until 1939 when they all returned to live in Auckland, and Clement opened a small fruit shop ‘Fruitworth’ in Newmarket. In 1949 Betty married Ken Choy in Wellington and they came to live in Auckland.
In the 1950's Clement's health declined. Thomas continued the family business and Betty and Ken opened a small grocery next door; together they experimented in fruit shop and grocery retailing. In 1958 Thomas (known as Tommy Ah Chee) co-founded Australasia's first supermarket in Otahuhu -Foodtown (now Countdown), and soon after Betty, Ken and two friends opened the Great Eastern Supermarket in Panmure.
Ah Chee & Co had become very successful by the mid-1880s and employed many Chinese in its market gardens around Auckland, supplying its flagship fruit shops in Queen Street and later Newmarket, and was a large supplier of fresh vegetables to the Auckland market. The company also had a restaurant, boarding house, Chinese grocery store, scrap metal and marine supplies.
Ah Chee’s nephew Chan Ying-Kew (known as Sai Louie) arrived in the mid-1890s to help his uncle in the rapidly expanding business. From the early 1900s Ah Chee & Co imported bananas, oranges, ginger and other tropical fruit for the Auckland market. It processed the ginger and exported this and fungus to China.
In the mid-1910s Sai Louie, after visiting Fiji to inspect bananas to import for Ah Chee & Co, was so impressed by local Kuo Min Tang (Chinese Nationalist Party) branch supportive activities with the Chinese in Suva, Sai Louie, with Ah Chee’s support, established the Auckland branch. This coincided with Chinese in Hamilton, Christchurch, Dunedin and Wellington opening branches there.
The Market Gardeners of Avondale
In the 1880s the Avondale peninsular, known as the Avondale Flat, became established as a market gardening area. The soil was light and free draining but not very fertile, so had to be built up with horse manure. prominent European gardeners Ernest and Alfred Copsey commenced growing there in the 1880s and continued until the 1950s.
Many Chinese market gardeners also made their livings in the Avondale area. These are some of their stories:
Chan Ah Chee
In 1905 Chan Ah Chee purchased 26 acres from the Wymer family. The property was on the corner of Rosebank and Victoria Roads (now Victor St) and was the largest Chinese garden in Avondale. It continued to be worked by various members of the Ah Chee family, including the Ah Joongs, until the beginning of WWII when a US Navy hospital was established there. Later Avondale College and Avondale Intermediate School were built on the site.
In 1917 sons William and Clement, who were by now running the family business, purchased 10 more acres on Eastdale Road.
The death of William Ah Chee in 1929 also saw the demise of the company. The Rosebank Road property was sold to Rowley & Co and Turners & Growers. The Great Depression saw the collapse of many companies. Ah Chee & Co was just one of them.
Also known as Lim Pee or Lam Pei hailed from Ah Woo, Poon Yue. Around 1906 he leased a large garden from Peter Robertson, who lived halfway down Rosebank Road. The farm was north facing, and sloped gently to the Whau River.
In 1912 Ah Lim was 42 and had been in New Zealand for 17 years. He also was one of the very few Chinese who had a wife. Li Ho Pee was the only woman in listed in Avondale in the Register of Aliens 1917. She had been in New Zealand for five years and was 26 years old.
When Ah Lim died in 1925, at 36 Li Ho Pee was still very attractive and very much sought after. A man named Ah For won her hand, but not before he was set upon by jealous suiters who chased him down Rosebank Road, hitting him with a hoe and a large knife. The two attackers were fined for their troubles.
Charlie Lawgun (Ng Law Gun) was born in Tien Sum, Jung Seng, in 1916. He arrived in New Zealand with his mother in 1920 and was reunited with his father, Ng Yee Ching. Three more children were added to the family, and in the early 1930s they returned to China so the children could be educated there. Charlie returned in 1936, his brother Ken in 1937, and the rest of the family followed in 1939.
Charlie and his wife Lowe Yuk King had six children. In 1949 Charlie purchased a three-acre market garden with four glasshouses, in Avondale Road. The whole family helped with the glasshouse tomatoes and outdoor crops such as lettuces, beans, peas and cucumbers. He also had feijoa trees. The whole family helped with tasks such as packing tomatoes, weeding and picking feijoas, and Lowe Yuk King would drive the tractor to help with ploughing.
The family lived above their fruit and vege shop in Dominion Road, Mt Roskill. A cousin, Ernest Ching, was employed to work in the glasshouses and grow vegetables, and lived in the house on the Avondale property.
Charlie died in 2008 having sold the garden and glasshouses in 1953. The remainder of his working life he spent as a fruiterer.
The Market Gardeners of Blockhouse Bay
Joe and George Ah Chan
Chan Hock Joe, known as Joe Ah Chan, was born in Har Gee, Jung Seng county, in 1882, the son of Chan Yook Ngan, the principal of the local school, and his wife, Ng Chu Hwa. He married Yip Kue Sum and arrived in Wellington around 1905 where he was a fruit and vegetable hawker before returning to China in 1916 to help his wife learn English.
He returned to New Zealand the following year and opened a store in Matamata. Joe’s wife joined him in 1920 and they started a market garden in Thames in 1923, growing both indoor and outdoor tomatoes. At that time tomatoes were largely imported from the Pacific Islands and Joe was among the first to grow them commercially in New Zealand.
Joe began growing grapes in 1925 on four acres he leased at Totara, and established Gold Leaf Vineyards, producing his first batch of wine in 1929. He was reputedly the first Chinese in the Southern Hemisphere to do so.
A founding member of the Chinese Nationalist Party, the Kuo Min Tang, Joe was president of its Waikato branch, and fiercely patriotic. Like many Chinese in New Zealand, his dream was to make his money and return home to China. He intended returning home after the war, and had in fact bought a property in Canton (Guangzhou) in preparation. However, the situation in China had worsened with the Communist takeover and the family moved to Blockhouse Bay instead where they bought a five-acre property with six glasshouses. Joe died in 1959 and his wife Kue Sum died in 1967.
Joe’s son George Ah Chan married Annie Ng, who was born in New Zealand. Along with her brothers Annie was educated in China and returned with her mother to New Zealand in 1939.
George and Annie worked in the market garden in Blockhouse Bay. They had five hothouses in Boundary Road and had Dutch and Maori employees who came on bikes looking for work. It was a country road in those days, and even White Swan Road had no houses.
Annie recalls: “I drove, because there were no buses in those days. George taught me but he was more scared than me. He said “you had better give up. You’re not born to drive.” At the time Leighton’s Driving School advertised every 15 minutes on the radio. I had eight lessons with them as I had no confidence. I drove to Queen Street and K Road in the 4pm traffic and to Newmarket. I got my licence, before returning home to pick the tomatoes.”
She also recalls filling and driving the two-ton truck to get the tomatoes to market after her husband was in bed sick.
George was also president of the Mt Roskill Athletics Club. George’s parents continued to live on the Blockhouse Bay site, while George and Annie purchased a small cottage elsewhere.
The land with the glasshouses was later sold to build Lynfield College.
David Wong Hop is one of Clement Ah Chee’s grandsons through his mother Alice, Clement’s eldest child.
David is also the family historian and has spent more than twenty years talking to Ah Chee descendants, Chinese friends and relatives to uncover Ah Chee’s history in New Zealand and their background.
He published a comprehensive summary of Mr Ah Chee and his descendants’ history, which he took to Dong Guan county, China in about 2013-14. Officials helped him locate Ah Chee relatives who had survived the WWII fighting in Canton and those relatives confirmed all the important details. David also interviewed many old Chinese who came from the villages in the area.
Later, an uncle came to Auckland to meet long-lost relatives at an Ah Chee reunion.
On behalf of the New Zealand Government, in 2002 Prime Minister Helen Clark issued a formal apology to the families and descendants of the Chinese Poll Tax immigrants.
Of the four main countries Chinese emigrated to – Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand – only New Zealand has acknowledged the hardship and unfair treatment meted out to the Chinese at the hands of the New Zealand government of the times.