Auckland: Flourishing society

By Manying Ip

As Auckland merges to create a supercity, the Herald looks back at how Auckland has changed over the years. Click here to view the full series.

Tom Ah Chee. Photo / Supplied
Tom Ah Chee. Photo / Supplied

The outbreak of World War II had been a major turning point for Chinese in New Zealand. Stringent immigration restrictions were temporarily relaxed in 1939 to allow the wives and children of long-time Chinese residents and itinerant workers to enter New Zealand as war refugees.

Japanese armies had overrun many of China's coastal provinces, including the home villages of the Chinese New Zealanders in Guangdong Province in the south.

Each refugee wife had to pay a £200 bond and promise to leave at the end of the war, taking all her children, including any babies who might be born in New Zealand.

A total of 249 wives and 244 children gained temporary refugee status - and this modest number transformed the Chinese community from being mainly a group of itinerant sojourners into real families.

Grey's Ave witnessed many patriotic activities. The colourful parades on "Double-Tenth" (October 10, , the National Day) were spectacular.

The Nationalist Party Headquarters was the centre of very effective fund-raising for the Chinese war effort.

The Q-Sing Times, an Auckland-based Chinese language newspaper, started in 1938 at 49 Grey's Ave. The fortnightly newspaper was a labour of love: all 30 pages were handwritten and then cyclostyled and distributed
to every Chinese household in the Auckland area.

It served to disseminate important homeland news throughout the war years and galvanise the patriotic weekly donation efforts.

The regular donation rate was 10 shillings for employers and 2 shillings for employees. Those who did not pay would be named and shamed in the newspaper.

The war years witnessed the flourishing of Auckland's Chinatown when the community took root.

Even more significantly the war in China forced a number of New Zealand-born Chinese young people, who had been sent to China for a proper Chinese education, to return hurriedly to New Zealand.

Many of these families lost their lands and property during the Japanese invasion and the subsequent Chinese Civil War.

Among them were the Ah Chee siblings. Tommy Ah Chee was only 3 when he left New Zealand, and he returned when he was 11, having totally forgotten his childhood English.

His father also lost much of the family fortune and he recalled the hardship of having to work long hours trucking apple cases for the family fruit shop.

The family made its fortune a second time through hard work and business acumen. Clement Ah Chee chose sites close to the tram stops so that customers could cart away heavy produce.

In 1958, Tommy Ah Chee launched New Zealand's first modern supermarket, Foodtown, in Onehunga, complete with roomy carparks, catering to the
new age of motor cars.

Aucklanders were so intrigued by the new experiment that cars blocked the motorway on its opening day, and special messages had to be broadcast on the radio to discourage customers from flocking in.

- NZ Herald

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