Chinese businessman who arrived as a boy in 1939 can look back on 75 years of fruitful life in NZ as a proud Kiwi.

Sometimes the picture tells the story. Other times, the story is in the picture. In this Herald photo of Chinese war refugees taken 75 years ago on their arrival in Auckland, both of those things are true.

Ken Chan, the boy with clasped hands in the photo, is now 81.

He's lived a full life, learning his impeccable English at Gladstone Rd School; furthering his education as Avondale College's first Chinese pupil; working in the family's Mt Albert greengrocery; and eventually playing a pioneering role in the wine and liqueur industry at the Chans' Totara Vineyard near Thames.

Ken produced the first kiwifruit liqueur, and his Totara Cafe coffee liqueur was once recognised as the world's finest. New Zealand has been good to the Chan family, and Ken feels their successes represent a bit of a payback.


"From a refugee's point of view, I think I've repaid my debt," he said. "I'm proud of the fact I am a Kiwi."

Ken's journey to Auckland began with a week-long walk along the train tracks from his village of Har Gee in Guangdong province to Hong Kong.

At 7 he was old enough to remember heading for the hills when the Japanese began bombing nearby.

Ken's father, Stan, was already living in New Zealand. So too his grandfather, who had been running a shop in Dannevirke since 1905. As the Japanese threatened to over-run Canton, the New Zealand Government granted permission for Chinese Kiwis to bring over their families.

"The members of the [30-strong] party appeared cheerful and showed no signs of the privation which attended their departure from China shortly before the fall of Canton," the Herald reported at the time. That, says Ken, is because an uncle had taken them shopping on a Sydney stopover.

"Look at my mother. In 1939 she would have looked like a model. We were better dressed than even the Aucklanders at that time."

Ken Chan. Photo / Dean Purcell
Ken Chan. Photo / Dean Purcell

Growing up in an insular and far less culturally diverse New Zealand than we know today was in fact just fine, says Ken. "I think my English was good enough that when they met me I didn't seem like a Chinese. In my case I had nothing but great friendships."

Alcohol-making has a strong tradition in the Chan family. Grandfather Chan owned a rice shop. Its offerings included rice wine and whisky distilled from the wine. A kung fu master, he also blended the alcohol with herbs to make medicines. The knowledge was passed down, leading eventually to the Thames venture. Says Ken: "I'm so pleased that I was able to do something for our country."



*30 refugees arrived from Guandong province in China in October 1939.
*They were the families of Chinese-Kiwis fleeing a Japanese invasion in World War II.
*A reunion of the surviving members of the group and their descendants, as well as other families from Har Gee village in Guangdong, was held at the Chinese Community Centre in Mangere yesterday.