THE SLUM KILLINGS. The Auckland suburb of Freemans Bay was long feared as a breeding ground of sickness, crime and unrest. In 1951, the city council decided on a slum-clearance plan. Dilapidated, cheek-by-jowl hovels would be replaced with modern, terraced housing. On the slopes below Nelson St, commercial and industrial buildings would be erected. In a convenient synergy of town planning, the motorway later ploughed its wide path through the area. The Herald looks back at six killings connected with the central city in the 1940s and 50s.

A packet of opium, a wild car chase across Auckland and a Chinese gambler who was murdered by axe blows to the head - this is the case of Lee Hoy Chong.

Lee, 46, had retired from market gardening at Te Papapa and had a share in a gambling syndicate 61 Greys Ave in the central city where the roulette-style game fan-tan was played. He lived at 11 Baker St in a dilapidated, two-story timber house.

From Canton, China, he had come to live in New Zealand in 1925 and had made two return visits to his homeland. He had a brother living in Auckland and a wife and 17-year-old son in China.

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Known to locals as "Jimmy", Lee gave icecreams to children and was liked by his neighbours, who said he was a quiet fellow.

Lee Hoy Chong, 47, was a retired market gardener. Photo / Herald archives
Lee Hoy Chong, 47, was a retired market gardener. Photo / Herald archives

Baker St no longer exists. It was consumed by the construction of the council's City Works Depot, now a precinct of shops and restaurants in an area below Nelson St described as "industrial and chic".

The approximate location of 11 Baker St is in a carpark at the City Works Depot between Cook and Wellesley Sts, central Auckland. Photo / Martin Johnston
The approximate location of 11 Baker St is in a carpark at the City Works Depot between Cook and Wellesley Sts, central Auckland. Photo / Martin Johnston

But in 1950 Baker St was part of the Freemans Bay slum which, a year later, the Auckland City Council decided would be demolished for terraced housing and industrial and commercial development. The motorway also ploughed through the area.

In the mid-1940s, from a dwelling in Greys Ave, a safe was stolen in which Lee had about £4700 (worth about $383,600 today). He also smoked opium and there was evidence he had tried to sell the drug, both of which had been illegal since 1901.

Francis Patrick O'Rourke, a 35-year-old labourer who worked briefly at the Westfield freezing works, in 1950 moved into a boarding house in 79 Vincent St, less than 1km from Lee's house.

On Monday May 22, 1950 O'Rourke spoke in a pub with Ronald Hugh Malcolm, a 22-year-old freezing works hand who lived in a single room in Hobson St with his wife.

According to the police in the Supreme Court, Malcolm had said O'Rourke told him he was hard-up and was going to "do a job". Malcolm explained when Lee would probably be away from his home.

Initially reluctant, Malcolm agreed to keep watch. At first, around 7pm, Lee was still at home. When they returned later O'Rourke forced a window open and the pair searched the house, finding a small amount of money and a paper parcel containing opium that O'Rourke estimated to be worth £400 (about $27,760 today).

Back at Malcolm's place, the opium was hidden in a chimney - and Malcolm played cards with his wife.

O'Rourke went home for a while. When he returned, he said: "I'm going to do the Chow, as he must have a bit of dough on him."

Malcolm was again reluctant, but agreed to keep watch while O'Rourke, at about 10pm, planned to go through Lee's clothes.

O'Rourke was rummaging through the house when Malcolm, on his account of events to the police, said Lee was back.

"O'Rourke says, 'Right, pass me the axe'." Malcolm refused and went into the back yard. He heard "three heavy thuds or smacks. I did not hear any yelling or shrieking, just a sort of groaning, and then everything was quiet". He heard three more smacks.

On O'Rourke's calling him into the torch-lit kitchenette, Malcolm saw O'Rourke going through Lee's clothes. He found only four 10-shilling notes in addition to 15 shillings found by Malcolm on the first visit (in total worth about $200 today).

"The Chinaman was not moving but was breathing very heavily and was sort of snoring. I saw blood all around the floor by the Chinaman's head, but I did not know that he had been wounded until afterward."

O'Rourke told Malcolm Lee was "only unconscious" and would be "all right in half an hour".

He was found dead the next day by a visitor.


Herald court report of the guilty verdicts. Source: Herald archives

Lee had offered to sell his opium at £25 a pound (about $3960 a kg today) but was told it was poor quality and no one would buy it.

O'Rourke thought it was worth far more than that. In the days after Lee's death he, accompanied by others, tried unsuccessfully to sell it on an opium tour of the provinces - two trips to Hamilton, one of which carried on to Tirau, Matamata and Rotorua and involved the taking of two cars, which both ran out of petrol.

The following week, O'Rourke picked up a worker at the freezing works, who was driving them home in the stolen car. But in Newmarket they were chased by a police constable in a taxi and raced across town, speeding through traffic lights, before they quit the car in Pitt St and took off separate directions. Both were soon caught.

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It was O'Rourke's efforts to sell the opium which had led to his identification and capture.

He told the police: "If I had had my way we would have burned that stuff. It's no good anyway."

One of the people he approached was a Chinese fruiterer and gardener in Hamilton. The police said the people who turned the opium down gave them a very good description of O'Rourke.

A blood-stained shoe whose sole exactly matched a footprint on a carpet from Lee's house was produced as evidence. The Crown said it was O'Rourke's, but his lawyer said this wasn't proven.

O'Rourke and Malcolm pleaded not guilty, but were convicted by a jury of the joint charge of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour. Eleven members of the jury had added a rider seeking mercy for Malcolm.

Malcolm unsuccessfully appealed on grounds that he had withdrawn from the common purpose with O'Rourke. It was also argued for him that the trial judge misdirected the jury by not stating it could find Malcolm guilty of manslaughter.

Lee was cremated and his ashes were returned to China.

O'Rourke died in 1978, Malcolm in 1991, both aged 63.

The series
• Govind Ranchhod, April 1949
• Lee Hoy Chong, May 1950
• Stephen and Peter Wingrove, December 1949
• Eileen Turner, July 1942
• Alan Jacques, July 1955, Sharon Skiffington, March 1955