To celebrate Auckland’s 175th anniversary, its demisemiseptcentennial, the Weekend Herald continues its series celebrating the growth of the city with a look at people who shaped Auckland. Today, Suzanne McFadden looks at the Chinese settlers
Rugby league players thundered across Carlaw Park for more than 70 years, oblivious to the shards of broken crockery, rice-wine bottles, garden forks and meat cleavers that lay beneath their feet.
While the footballers faced no danger from the jagged relics buried deep in the rich volcanic soil, the progress of the city threatened to wipe out a treasure trove of history from Auckland's early Chinese pioneers.
As the Carlaw Park site, at the foot of Parnell, was about to be redeveloped in 2007 into offices, car parks and a student village, excavators unearthed fragments of the life of Chan Dah Chee, a Chinese immigrant who had toiled from humble market gardener to influential businessman in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Archaeologists discovered remnants of a large house where the gardener, better known as Ah Chee, had lived with his family. The artefacts they found — ranging from ginger jars and rice wine bottles to garden tools and medicine bottles — pieced together an important part of the city's social, cultural and economic history.
A 1921 Herald profile of the local business Ah Chee & Co verified the reputation Ah Chee had established, in a community that had not always been neighbourly to its Chinese members.
"Every resident of Auckland and every visitor knows the name of Ah Chee as standing for the best in fruit and vegetables. The business was founded about 40 years ago by Mr Ah Chee senior, and it has developed into the largest trading concern of its kind in Auckland, if not in the whole Dominion. This is a record to be proud of, because the enterprise was started in a very small way when Auckland was a very different place to what it is now."
Chan Dah Chee was a teenager when he arrived in New Zealand by ship in 1867, one of about 2,000 men from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong who had hoped to make their fortune in Otago's goldfields. But seasickness meant he travelled no further than Auckland.
Needing to make a living, Ah Chee hawked vegetables door-to-door along Auckland's waterfront. In the 1870s, he began leasing just under 3ha of land on Gillingham St (now Carlaw Park Ave) — which had already been the site of a flour mill, rope works and a tannery. The plot was perfect for horticulture, in a sheltered valley that was once a swamp, with soil rich in volcanic basalt and irrigated by the Waipapa stream. Like Maori gardeners before them, the Chinese recognised the best sites had reddish-brown earth and a good water supply.
Ah Chee called his garden Kong Foong Yuen — the Garden of Prosperity. He brought workers from China to help him in the fields, to hawk the produce from door-to-door in Auckland's burgeoning suburbs and deliver to his string of fruit and vegetable shops on Queen St. As demand grew, Ah Chee & Co reaped the rewards from gardens in Arch Hill, Epsom, Avondale and Mangere and ran at least seven shops in the central city.
After almost 40 years in Gillingham St, Ah Chee and his sons returned the land to its owners, who then leased it to the Auckland Rugby League Club. The planting fields became playing fields, and Carlaw Park opened in 1921.
One of Ah Chee's grandsons, Tom Ah Chee, continued the family tradition as a greengrocer until he opened the city's first supermarket, Foodtown, in 1958.
"You could say we are standing in Auckland's first Foodtown," archaeological consultant Hans Bader told the Herald, as delicate clay bottles and bowls were picked out of the Carlaw Park site. Many of those artefacts dug out of the Ah Chees' rubbish are now in the safekeeping of Auckland Museum.
Best land, hardest workers
Though the first Chinese market gardens sprouted up around the Auckland Domain and in Khyber Pass, by the early 20th century, they were all across Auckland — from Takapuna, to "Chinaman's Hill" in Western Springs, to St Heliers and Mangere. The Register of Aliens 1917 listed 175 Chinese market gardeners in Auckland. Many of them were sojourners — temporary residents with no intention to stay in New Zealand, who would send or take money back to family in China. Many leased land from Maori.
According to Lily Lee and Ruth Lam's book Sons of the Soil, the Chinese market gardeners had a distinct competitive edge over their European rivals. They adapted the traditional methods used in the paddy fields of their villages in Guangdong to grow a wide range of crops all year round, they chose the best land, and they worked long, hard hours on labour-intensive plots.
Their success sparked rivalry, often laced with discrimination. Newspapers ran headlines like "The Heathen Chinee" and "Scotchman vs Chinaman", and the Chinese were blamed for a dearth of jobs during an economic downturn.
Despite the prejudices, the Chinese continued in their toil. By 1900, Auckland's first Chinatown had formed in the narrow central-city streets around Grey's Ave, where families lived and worked, setting up small fruit shops, grocery stores and laundries. One of them was Wah Lee's — a co-operative fruit and Chinese food store that opened in Grey's Ave in 1904 and still exists today as an emporium in Hobson St.
"Grocers like Thomas Doo & Co and Wah Lee were never just stores," wrote Dr Manying Ip, professor of Asian Studies at the University of Auckland. "They were community centres, immigration agencies, motels, banks and post offices all rolled into one."
The city's Chinese population grew slowly. Anti-Chinese prejudice was rife throughout the country, and immigration was restricted by a controversial "poll tax" of £100 for new arrivals, halting the naturalisation of Chinese.
Very few Chinese women were able to join their husbands until the start of World War II when the laws were relaxed, allowing almost 500 wives and children into New Zealand as war refugees. Around half of those went straight into the gardens to help their husbands and fathers.
Many hands were needed — during the war, the importance of market gardening flourished. Classed as "an essential industry", Auckland's wealth of gardens were needed to feed the armed services — both the New Zealand troops and then the Americans, based here from 1942. Growers bought larger blocks of land to cope with the demand.
After the war, many Chinese gardeners moved south to Pukekohe and Bombay, pushed out by the growth of the city. But as supermarkets gained popularity, at the expense of small fruit and vegetable shops, family-run gardens dwindled. Research in Sons of the Soil shows where once there were 623 Chinese gardens nationwide in the heydays of the 1960s, today there are less than 150.
For more Auckland Stories, visit aucklandmuseum.com.
Prejudice grew too anti-Chinese
While the housewives in a fledgling Auckland blessed the success of the city's Chinese market gardeners, the "aliens" were a thorn in the side of their Pakeha counterparts.
In February 1878, the Herald reported on a meeting called by the European market gardeners in Newmarket concerned by the growth of Chinese business.
Their beef wasn't so much with the vegetable growers but with the Chinese hawkers who "after filling up their baskets, scour the adjacent neighbourhood; these indefatigable purveyors fast driving the European competitor out of the field."
They proposed to "remedy this evil" by making it compulsory for the Chinese gardeners to first take their produce to the city markets (as they did) and to ban hawking until midday.
But most at the meeting conceded they respected the Chinese for their industry, agricultural skill, business management and the high quality of their harvests: "In the growing of French beans, especially, they wholly excel their European competitors".
The Herald said: "A correspondent writing on the subject condemns the idea of stopping the hawking of vegetables by the Chinese whose visits are, he says, very welcome to many householders in both city and suburbs, being a great convenience.
'You might as well stop the baker, the butcher, and the grocer from bringing their portions of the commodities in daily consumption.
"The greengrocer is as necessary as any of them and to stop hawking until noon, would stop the production of many a dinner. '"
Despite a petition to the city council, no laws to stop hawking were put in place.
But as the city grew, and more auction houses sprung up around the turn of the 20th century, Chinese gardeners began to take their produce to market too.
Chinese-Kiwis: The Numbers
• 171,000 — total number of ethnic Chinese living in New Zealand
• One-quarter of those were born in NZ
• 4% of New Zealand's population is Chinese
• 1875 — First Chinese market garden set up by fancy goods merchant James Ah Kew in Khyber Pass
• 1,219 — Chinese living in New Zealand in 1867 during the gold rush
• £10 — poll tax demanded for Chinese entry to NZ in 1881 as anti-Chinese prejudice grew; increased to £100 in 1896.
• 9 — Chinese women (to 4,995 Chinese men) in NZ in 1881
• 25 — Chinese women allowed into New Zealand a year from 1920.