Where there's a will, there's a shopping centre

By Andrew Stone

The Northcote shopping centre has developed into a hub for Chinese business, with immigrants keen to take on small businesses with manageable risk and decent rewards. Photo / Paul Estcourt
The Northcote shopping centre has developed into a hub for Chinese business, with immigrants keen to take on small businesses with manageable risk and decent rewards. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Drive in every direction in Auckland and you'll soon pass shops with Chinese characters above the street frontage.

Go far enough east, north or west and you'll encounter not so much a Chinatown as an ethnic precinct, a collection of small businesses dominated by Chinese store owners where shoptalk is in Mandarin and a solid majority of customers are Chinese.

Kit Wong, developer of Somerville and Botany Park Estate, two Chinese retail hubs in east Auckland, would love Auckland to have a pulsating Chinatown like the vibrant and slightly mysterious attractions in other Pacific rim cities, such as Sydney or Vancouver.

Wong spent much of the 90s creating Somerville, one of Auckland's ethnic destinations.

The Hong Kong migrant sensed that newcomers from Asia were hankering to get into a small business, an enterprise with manageable risk and reasonable rewards.

The Auckland University property graduate put together a syndicate of investors and created what he called an "incubator", where shop owners could buy a cleverly designed space which doubled in size if trade took off.

Wong knew the Somerville neighbourhood was made up of what researchers called "ethno-burbs" - areas with clusters of Chinese-born residents.

So he made sure the retail centre had a covered area where elderly Chinese could gather for morning exercises such as t'ai chi. Shops were built so owners could keep an eye on their neighbours for security and to stay in touch.

"I could sense that for the project to work we had to create a place where new migrants could stay close together and support one another."

Signs show Somerville is working: Wong reports 100 per cent occupancy.

Closer to central Auckland, two areas of Dominion Rd have become Chinese real estate - food stores, restaurants, small business enterprises, beauty parlours, internet cafes. The precincts are backed by banks, real estate, insurance and finance firms all with China specialists.

And a fair number of the Chinese shopowners along the famous strip of bitumen bought their premises from business broker Yong Wu.

A hospital physician in his native China, Wu got to selling businesses via a route familiar to many migrants. Faced with language tests and costly bridging courses to work in New Zealand as a doctor, Wu found himself running a fish and chip shop in Epsom.

Five months of long hours and lack of family contact was enough. He found he had a knack for selling and became a broker with Affiliated Business Consultants, specialising in the Chinese market. Handily, ABC is on Dominion Rd.

Wu has been in the market long enough to see his clients return after two or three years, swapping their first takeaway bar for a cafe.

"They want more time with their family. They want to shift from seven days to five. They'll say 'We don't need to work these hours anymore'."

From his perspective, the most difficult challenge facing his clients is language. "All new migrants find communication in English difficult. That's why they choose a business they can manage and control and why they tend to cluster."

Wu says heat has gone from the market over the last three or so years, when sellers could charge a new owner $30,000 in key money. He feels the change coincides with rising incomes in China, and New Zealand's persistently flat economy . "I think as a country we need to watch these trends. If China is getting bigger and better then we should be too."

Tofu entrepreneur Ron Hoy Fong has shifted from working "in" his nine-store grocery chain to working "on" it. He has franchised the stores, which he started in 1987 as a hobby from home.

Chinese migrants arriving under relaxed immigration rules couldn't get enough of Hoy Fong's bean curd, so Roy took the plunge and quit his career at Social Welfare.

The first store bearing the distinctive Tofu Shop sign opened on Dominion Rd in 1992.

New Zealand-born Hoy Fong, 62, wanted a broad customer base, so he hired Chinese staff with a good command of English who could handle the bartering of "rich Chinese guys who would turn up in a gold Merc and want to knock a few cents off the price".

Two decades later he's getting out of the day-to-day grind, preferring to manage supply links to the stores, handle advertising and be on hand to help the new owners.

He has no doubt the new wave of mostly Chinese entrepreneurs who have bought the franchises will succeed with energy and ideas. In the Newmarket shop, the new owner has sublet a tiny part of the shop to a Chinese finance service where students can do transactions far more cheaply than in banks.

Sitting in a food hall as an afternoon rush of students arrives, Hoy Fong considers that Auckland is lucky with its legacy of Chinese settlement.

He grew up among Pakeha; now his networks are dominated by Chinese newcomers: "They're people with energy. They are succeeding, not because they're shrewd, but because they're prepared to work hard."

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