Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Looking back at Kate De Goldi in the 1990s: Sanctuary; Love, Charlie Mike; Closed, Stranger

Looking back at Kate De Goldi in the 1990s
By Trevor Agnew
 
The 1990s are a long time ago. I was younger then and, reading Love, Charlie Mike, I was able to laugh at Gran’s argument with the taxi-driver who took her to the newly-built railway station. Gran declares, ‘This is not the station, young man…. Moorhouse Avenue, young man, quick smart about it.’

Now, the huge brick building in Moorhouse Avenue has vanished and I feel as confused and disoriented as Gran.

I remember being fascinated by the realities Kate de Goldie created in my mind. I actually went looking in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens for the Moreton Bay fig tree she describes there in Closed, Stranger. There isn’t one but Kate de Goldi needed it as a mood-setter, so she painted it in. I remember being surprised that the benches in the rose garden weren’t the same colour as in the book. Brown? Green? Who was right?

There is a nasty T intersection joining St Albans Road, with a concrete dome in the middle. One of the characters in Closed, Stranger  – Max perhaps – speeds over it in a car at one critical point in the story. I always thought of that story when I circled that dome. Now it’s gone, replaced by traffic lights. I remember the dome.

Sometimes the things she describes don’t even exist. A home in Closed, Stranger is given a real address and street number. I couldn’t resist having a look, but of course there was just a gap in the street numbering. I remember laughing as I strolled from letter box to letter box. No such number.

Then there’s Sanctuary. I remember a small family aquarium at New Brighton and a large crocodile in a small pond.   If you ever saw that crocodile, you understand everything that happens in Sanctuary. Kate De Goldi saw the crocodile.

Now it is 2018. Another century. Another millennium. These three novels have been reprinted. Are they as good as I remember them? I’m busy at the moment but one day I’m going to read them again.

Meanwhile, here are the entries I wrote for The Source website back in the 1990s. This is what I thought then. It’ll be interesting to see how the stories have aged. The characters are strong, so I think it’ll be like vintage wine.


Sanctuary Kate De Goldi (1996 rep. 2018) Penguin pb $18 ISBN 9780143772002
‘Kate de Goldi’s first novel for teenagers is Sanctuary, a romantic triangle which also mirrors Noah’s Ark in its treatment of an animal rights dispute. A small zoo owned by an elderly couple is about to close, and the fate of a panther becomes an obsession, leading to tragedy.
Catriona Stewart (called ‘cat’, which is symbolically interesting) is in a state of dispute with her erratic mother Stella. She is also attracted to two young men and makes an unwise choice. Personal anguish follows.
This is a fresh and exciting novel, with vivid descriptions of the seaside suburbs of Christchurch. The characters are all convincing and the problems facing Catriona are both plausible and unexpected.’
 

Love, Charlie Mike Kate de Goldi (1997 rep. 2018) Penguin pb 9780143772026
 ‘Christy loves her cousin Sonny who she met for the first time at their grandfather's funeral. Now he is a peacekeeper in Bosnia and his letters have stopped. Was it like this for Gran when Pops went away to war? Perhaps not, as their marriage failed, but why is Christy's dad so odd since the funeral? Two experiences of love, parting, war and betrayal are separated by two generations but Christy comes to see that her relationship with her cousin and lover Sonny echoes the experiences of her grandparents, Pops and Gran, the latter once a beautiful and imperious woman, but now so bewildered she does not recognise the son she lives with. The outcome of that earlier wartime story is influencing the present and Christy decides to try and uncover some family secrets from her demented grandmother. The situation is complex but clever construction makes for a novel impossible to put down once started.’
 

I also wrote a brief outline of New Zealand Young Adult fiction for Magpies magazine, and mentioned Love, Charlie Mike:

… ‘Few teen writers have looked as hard at social issues as Paula Boock, But Kate De Goldi in Love, Charlie Mike shows an equally caring and serious approach.   She manages to create such real worlds that the characters seem to live just round the corner.  In my day, we left mussels for the Maoris,’ says Gran, freed by Alzheimers disease from the rules of society.  It is Christy who has to take over the role of authority figure as she tries to find out why her love affair with her Maori cousin has ended, and what the secret is that has eroded the happiness of her family.  Christy’s mature self-confidence, her passionate enthusiasm for life and her eagerness for the truth make her a marvellous character.  Kate De Goldi is the best of the emerging teen authors. …’

Closed, Stranger Kate De Goldi (1999 rep. 2018) Penguin pb $18  ISBN 9780143772040

This novel follows two close friends, Westie and Max, through an emotional crisis which destroys both their lives. Max tries to tell what happened; his story plunges back and forwards in time but builds a convincing picture.
To Westie, adopted at birth, family barely matters and he looks forward to leaving home. At Max’s house, it is Dad who has left home to live with a woman half his age. Max’s highly eccentric mother, Dee, leans heavily on Psychic Hotline for advice, while his young brother Leon seems increasingly disturbed.
Then two women enter the young men's lives. For Max, it is Meredith bringing him music, compassion and love. For Westie, it is Vicky, his birth-mother bringing him a mother’s love and heartache. Max becomes obsessed by his new-found ‘real’ mother, and, in a brilliantly written passage, is unbelievably cruel to his adoptive parents. Some have raised eyebrows at the hint of incest between mother and son, but this is very skilfully, almost tactfully, handled. (Apparently such attraction between an adopted child and a ‘birth’ parent is not uncommon.) When Vicky comes to her senses and leaves, Westie seems to lose his senses, and the threads of Max’s tale begin to come together in a tragic climax.
Closed, Stranger is a splendid story, gripping and well told. It deals well with such issues as drugs and youth suicide, without losing the drama and intensity of the plot. The dialogue is marvellously accurate. Many readers will be unhappy about the swearing but Kate De Goldi’s young men talk just like young men. They don’t always get things right but the reader learns lots from what they see and say. Ultimately the book is about people and their relationships with each other, their families and friends. De Goldi's characters interact with each other and develop and change with a satisfying rightness.

Trevor Agnew (1990s and Sep 2018)

Monday, 13 August 2018

Why I Want to Live in Southland
by Trevor Agnew
 

I want to look up at night and see the stars, thousands of them.

 I want to tail lambs beside the Moderator of the Southland Presbytery.

 I want to sit on a grassy knoll at The Dunsdales and watch the wood pigeons soaring and tumbling over the bush at sunset.

I want to go on a five minute shopping trip in Winton, and take half an hour because I met friends up the street.

I want to smell the smoke from the Kingston Flyer.

I want to walk out into the bush at Borland and hear the tiny frogs whistling in the moonlight.

I want my daughters to speak with the soft Southland burr.

I want to write articles for the Southland Times.

I want to make the class I’m teaching stand up and look out the window at the sun reflecting off the upturned hull of the great Takitimu canoe, the Takitimu Mountains.

I want to drive a combine harvester once round a paddock of wheat.

I want to sit in the sunny wee cove where the Ngai Tahu pulled up their canoes at the village of Oui, and watch the falling tide reveal the cockle beds.

I want to cast dry fly on the Otapiri Stream and wet fly on the Oreti River.

I want to watch my wife win a prize for her pikelets at the Central Southland A&P Show.

I want to see the great dome of ever-changing sky over the Southland Plains.

I want to stand in the freezing rain at Turnbull Thomson Park and cheer on our daughter’s junior hockey team.

I want to go round a lambing beat at Dunearn.

I want a Hokonui farmer to show me an old whiskey still.

I want to live in a town where I know my children are safe; where I know all the gossip about my neighbours and they know all the gossip about me.

I want to see them mining coal at Nightcaps and peat at Hokonui.

I want to speak at the Anzac Day Dawn Parade at Winton and the Anzac Day morning service at Centre Bush, and drink the coffee that the RSA have spiked with rum.

I want to hear Alan Galt explain that the RSA coffee tastes funny because of the milk, “The cows have been in the swedes.”

I want to go to the graveyard at East Winton and read the names of my friends on their tombstones.

I want to catch blue cod off the coast of Stewart Island.

 I want to visit the remains of the Maori princess, dead 400 years, and still resting in her little cave on the island in Lake Hauroko.

I want to get my firewood by the trailer-load from the mill, and stack it neatly ready for the winter.

I want to teach at a school where the staff go netting flounders at Oreti beach.

I want to go to a meeting of Federated Farmers at Hokonui, with scones for supper.

I want to see the glow-worms at Te Anau and Deep Cove.

I want to walk through the ringing hard, frosty mornings that blossom into clear, sunny Southland days.

I want to dig in the sands of Te Wae Wae Bay for toheroa.

I want to eat toheroa.

I want to eat mutton-bird.

 I want to eat swedes that have had the frost on them.

I want to eat swedes that have had the frost on them, with haggis.

I want to eat swedes that have had the frost on them, with haggis, and mashed potatoes, and give the Address to the Haggis.

I want to live in Southland.

 
 - Trevor Agnew (2001)

  
NOTES:
Winner of a competition by ‘Country Life’ programme , Radio New Zealand.
Broadcast on 3 and 4 August 2001.
Reprinted in Christchurch Press, 18 Aug 2001
Reprinted in Southland Times, 23 Aug 2001
Reprinted in Winton Record, Sep 2001
Used in Newsgram (aerogramme for Kiwis overseas).

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Helen and the Go-Go Ninjas Ant Sang Michael Bennett

 Helen and the Go-Go Ninjas (2018)
Ant Sang (ilustrations)    Michael Bennett (text)
Penguin Random House NZ
Paperback  264 pages  NZ$40
ISBN 978 0 14 377124 1

Helen is a young woman, living in present day Auckland, whose concern with threats to the environment accidentally disrupts a biological research demonstration by her boyfriend Marion. Suddenly Helen is kidnapped by two female warriors from the future – the Go-Go Ninjas of the title – and swept off three centuries into the future. The world of 2355 is what remains after the destruction caused by global warming, wars, famine and floods.

In the first of several very good black jokes, Helen is called “world-wrecker” and is told that the devastation is all her fault. The ninjas, unaware that Marion can also be a boy’s name (if your mum is a John Wayne fan) have kidnapped the wrong person.

Along with Helen, we learn how Marion’s development of paramecia “peace balls” to create new ways of healing and communicating led to the near-extinction of the human race.  The peace balls - the red blob menacing Helen on the cover is one of them - destroy people's ability to think and communicate. Only three groups of humans now live in what used to be Auckland. The mindless Tree People are the slaves of The Riders who use a mixture of technology and cult theology to survive.  The third group, of course, are the Go-Go Ninjas who survive in Little Tokio, an underground shelter, where they have created a culture based on a few 1950s films which survived. The jokes about Bruce Lee and Go-Go dancing are a recurring feature of the story.     

Helen, quickly adjusting to her new situation, realises that the only way forward is to make another time-jump and help kidnap the right Marion. Needless to say, more complications follow, ensuring a fast-paced action story with several surprises and, unusually in a dystopian story, a reasonably happy ending

This graphic novel was originally conceived as a film script by Michael Bennett and it has the tightly-connected plot and well-constructed surprise twists of a good action film. At the same time Ant Sang’s illustrations bring an imaginary world into being, with convincing detail and skilfully shifting viewpoints. As soon as you have read this book, you immediately turn back to page 1 and start through again, this time appreciating the carefully planned structure and the careful placing of tiny hints (such as Helen’s cold) which will be significant later.

Ant Sang’s artwork (which has had some colouring assistance from Kiwi comic creators such as Adrian Kinnaird and Dylan Horrocks) is beautifully matched with the story and dialogue, making each sequence a tiny drama in itself. For example when Helen is draping an illegal protest banner from the Sky Tower, a drowsy security guard fails to spot her on the outer balcony. Then he thinks she’s going to jump. “Miss, don’t do it. …You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.” She slips but grabs on to the banner, “STOP GLOBAL WARMING.”

Such ironies, quirks of human behaviour and razor-sharp storytelling, as well as the ability to project some social issues of the present into the future, make Helen and the Go-Go Ninjas a winning graphic novel.

Ant Sang has an interesting website showing stages in the development of the illustrations, beginning  at http://www.antsang.co.nz/241-2/

Trevor Agnew
11 July 2018

Friday, 22 June 2018

The Mapmakers' Race Eirlys Hunter


The Mapmakers’ Race
Eirlys Hunter, ill. Kirsten Drake
Gecko Press
Paperback  NZ$25
ISBN 978 1 776572 03 8

Reviewed by Trevor Agnew
 
Books with maps have always been among my favourites, from Tolkien to Ransome, from the Hundred Acre Wood to Moomin Valley.  I have also long enjoyed children’s books where irritating parents were got out of the way early on. The Mapmakers’ Race has a map for every chapter and right at the beginning Ma Santander misses the train, and so her four children have to compete in the titular race by themselves.  The result is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure, with plenty of action and humour.

The Race is a contest for teams of surveyors and cartographers to lay out the best route for a proposed railway from Grand Prospect to Coalhaven. (We are in a steam-age fantasy world, where coal is vital.) The prizes total 3,500 guineas, so a remarkable range of well equipped (and sometimes unscrupulous) teams have entered.

Penniless and suddenly parentless, the four young Santanders have to improvise. Fortunately each member of the family has talents which will be useful in their quest.   Sal (14) is the sensible one with a good grasp of mathematics and surveying. Twins Joe and Francie (11) are strongly bonded. Francie doesn’t talk but Joe speaks for them both. Joe never gets lost, a handy skill for an explorer, while Francie, the cartographer, has an amazing talent which readers will enjoy learning about. Even young Humph and the family pet, Carrot the Parrot, are able to contribute. The Santander family are indeed a team; each of them has an ability that helps them towards their goal of making the perfect map.

Since they have to survive in the wilderness for four weeks, they are lucky to have the help of a slow-speaking local lad, Becket, a red-headed beanpole, who is a master of many practical skills; he can fish, hunt and cook. He’s also a dab hand at storytelling.

Can five children and a parrot head off half a dozen other teams, including the unscrupulous Roger’s Ruffians and the self-confident Monty’s Mountaineers (who are all mounted on mechanical horses)?
Of course it is the down-to-earth Beckett who points out that the other teams are also all “pompous asses.”

As well as being obtuse, the opposing teams are often funny. The scientists, of the SOLEM team (Society of Logical Explorers, Mappers and Navigators), for example, speak in such technical jargon that Sal has to translate what they say.
“The outcome was an inadequately nutritious calorific supply.”
“They didn’t take enough food,” Sal explained to Humph.

In fact, Eirlys Hunter’s dialogue is always enjoyable and often amusing:
What about the wolves?’
“High mountains.”
“Extreme weather conditions.”
“Nothing to worry about then,” they said together.

Illustrator Kirsten Slade has provided lively pictures and has also created a strip-map to give readers a bird’s-eye-view of each part of the dramatic landscape encountered by the Santander family.

The story trots along at a cracking pace. Bears and wolves and several other creatures make their appearance, the villains are villainous, there are plenty of jeopardies and the conclusion is very pleasing. Through it all, the Santanders are resourceful.

Humph gets the whole mood of this satisfying story in one sentence:
“I like being a venturing boy.”
“I do too,” said Joe.

 

Trevor Agnew    3 July 2018

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Sunken Forest Des Hunt





Sunken Forest    Des Hunt
Reviewed by Trevor Agnew

Sunken Forest
Des Hunt
Scholastic (2016)
269 pages, paperback
ISBN   978 1 77543 413 0

Given that New Zealand’s longfin eels can live for a century and grow to a length of two metres, it was a certainty that Des Hunt would one day write a novel with an eel as the hero. Or in this case, heroine. Elsa is the name young Matt gives to the queen-sized eel he encounters in Lake Waikaremoana. (Matt reads widely and has definitely been influenced by reading Born Free.)

Waikaremoana is not a lake to be messed with,” warns a fisherman and Matt would be the first to agree with him.

This was deep jungle – New Zealand style.”

Matt doesn’t want to be there, but he has been sent to this tightly-run wilderness camp because of his tainted reputation at his new school. Already suspected of theft, Matt has fallen in with bad company in the form of Cam and Jay. At the adventure camp at Lake Waikaremoana, which is run on semi-military lines by Mr Klineck, Matt is suspected of further misdemeanours. (It is interesting that Matt finds some literary comfort in comparing himself to the falsely-accused David Balfour in Kidnapped.)

He strikes up an odd companionship with the bookish Paul and comes a little closer to understanding girls like Azura and Maddy. When one of Cam’s vicious tricks has serious consequences for the group members, they begin plotting revenge but a natural disaster puts many lives at risk.

As always Des Hunt provides a strong element of science – in this case geology – but he also raises moral issues which will be important to his young readers. Matt’s reputation is repeatedly slurred by a caller on talk-back radio, and the powerful influence of social media on opinion is well shown. The harmful power of peer pressure and gossip is also sharply depicted. Words can wound and leave scars.  
There is also a strong moral issue. Are Matt and his friends seeking justice or do they just want revenge? The matter is well debated in a lively and satisfying adventure that manages to bring together unrelated events from decades earlier, and produce a satisfying conclusion, featuring the monster eel as a key player.  As Matt reflects, “Lions were animals that scare people… Eels were much the same, scary in form with a bad reputation.” 

Sunken Forest may indeed give us all a better appreciation of eels.

Trevor Agnew 
23 Jul 2016

 

Friday, 20 April 2018

Anzac Animals & The Treaty of Waitangi in Tauranga

The Treaty of Waitangi in Tauranga (2018)
(Te Tiriti o Waitangi ki Tauranga Moana)
Debbie McCauley, illustrated by Whare Thompson
Mauao Publishing (Tauranga), 48 pages
NZ$39.95  hardback ISBN 978 0 473 41214 2

Anzac Animals (2018)
Maria Gill, illustrated by Marco Ivancic
Scholastic, 64 pages
NZ$30  hardback  ISBN 978 177543 474 0

Two excellent non-fiction books for young readers have just been published, and should be on your shopping list for junior readers.

Anzac Animals is the most eye-catching of the two books. Maria Gill and illustrator Marco Ivancic have used the same clear, well-organised format as their award-winning Anzac Heroes, but here they are celebrating creatures rather than people.  The Anzac Animals of the titles are creatures which played a significant role in the wartime experiences of Australians and New Zealanders.

Some were beasts of burden like mules, donkeys and Beet Algar’s camel, which “smelled, spat and was often stubborn.” Some, such as the pigeons, carried messages. Others were mascots, like the many kangaroos taken to Europe and Africa. Dogs were common; the Maori Battalion had at least three. It will be the horses who will be the favourites. Maria Gill has selected Bess, who is immortalised in both the Troopers Memorial in Canberra and the Wellington cenotaph, and Bill, the waler who was buried at Gallipoli. Their lives and experiences are both fascinating.

I was surprised at the enormous range of creatures involved and also by the fact that so many of them survived the war. Marine Stupid, a highly intelligent macaque, served on two Australian warships, was at the surrender ceremony in Tokyo and retired comfortably to the Melbourne Zoo, where she had a baby in 1949. The longest lived is, of course, Torty, a Greek tortoise rescued by a New Zealand medical orderly in 1916, and still alive.

The text also sorts out the tangled history of Murphy the Gallipoli donkey, always a tricky matter but well handled here.

As well as the entertaining and lively biographies of the twenty selected animals, Maria Gill has also provided a brief overview of both world wars, along with accounts of veterinary services, and animal welfare concerns. A time line, glossary bibliography and maps are included.   

Marco Ivancic’s colour illustrations are realistic and attractive without being sentimental.

For young people who like going around quoting interesting bits from books, Anzac Animals has the story of Charles Upham sleeping on the floor because Mrs Rommel and her kittens were in his bed. Mrs Rommel was a cat.

**************************************************
 
Debbie McCauley’s first book, Motiti Blue and the Oil Spill (2014), took a local disaster (the wreck of the Rena on Astrolabe Reef) and used the resulting disaster and clean-up as a microcosm of international pollution and conservation issues. It was a brilliant example of a locally-produced, self-published book gaining national recognition.

Now she has repeated the process in The Treaty of Waitangi in Tauranga, by looking at New Zealand’s Maori-Pakeha relations by concentrating on exactly how the treaty of Waitangi has affected the Tauranga region.

It is not easy to pack two centuries of history into 48 pages, especially when they include events like Gate pa, but Debbie McCauley has done well. Not only has she written a simple bi-lingual narrative history (Maori translation by Tamati Waaka) but she has also provided a rich historical context with time-lines, fact-boxes, diary entries and brief biographies that bring history to life.
I like the way that we meet individuals and see how their attitudes were formed, so that the complexities of tribal allegiances, warfare and land negotiations become more comprehensible. Issues are carried right up to the present day.
A lot of information has been packed into this book, so some sections are in such small type that I had to use a magnifying glass. Younger, sharper eyes should be able to cope.

The book cries out for a clear map to show the relationship of the various pa sites, landscape features and settlements mentioned. The three maps provided are rather limited. Fortunately two of the first suggestions on the “Treaty Activities” page involve map drawing.

The index is excellent, and Whare Thompson’s pencil drawings add life to the pages. 
It is important to point out that this interesting book will not only be useful in the Tauranga area but will also be a superb exemplar for students of our history in all parts of Aotearoa New Zealand. My hope is that it will inspire young historians to start researching the finer details of what happened in their own region. This book has a great future.

 

Trevor Agnew
21 April 2018


Saturday, 24 February 2018

The Fruits of Our Labours: Chinese Fruit Shops in New Zealand

The Fruits of Our Labours:
Chinese Fruit Shops in New Zealand
Ruth Lam, Beverly Lowe, Helen Wong, Michael Wong, Carolyn King
Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust (2018)
904 pages, 2 volumes,
Hardcover       ISBN 978-0-473-41551-8       NZ$110
Softcover        ISBN 978-0-473-41550-1       NZ$90
[Special price for early orders – Softcover NZ$80]

Fruitful Research

The Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust has performed a valuable service in publishing The Fruits of Our Labours. It wasn’t until I started leafing through it that I fully realised that, in the space of a few generations, we have seen the rise and fall of the Chinese fruit-shop as an institution. Like so many other specialised services that we took for granted, family fruit-shops have been swept away by the changes in how we do our shopping. Here we have an important social document, which recognises a significant chapter in our nation’s history.

This book’s companion work, Sons of the Soil (2012) credited one of the earliest Chinese market gardens in New Zealand to Ah Poe in Dunedin.  In August 1867, he and five other Cantonese from Victoria began converting 3 acres of swampy land (now part of the Museum Reserve) into a market garden and began hawking vegetables. About 1868, on the Great King Street edge of his garden, Ah Poe erected ‘premises’ which seems to have been a shop, thus making Ah Poe our first Chinese greengrocer as well.  

Typical of the careful research behind this work, a fascinating graph shows that as the number of Chinese working at gold-mining declined, the number working in fruit-shops and market gardens began to increase. Every region has its own graph showing the number of Chinese fruit-shops over the years. In most areas the first shops opened in the 1880s, followed by a steady increase to the 1920s; the peak years were from the 1940s to the 1970s and then came a steady decline in numbers, attributed to the rise of supermarkets and introduction of weekend trading. 

The family-owned Chinese fruit-shop (like the market garden and the laundry) was a system which rewarded effort and expertise with a reasonable chance of prosperity. It was an escalator, driven by human toil, which conveyed people from life as Chinese peasants to life as New Zealand professionals. It wasn’t efficient, and there were casualties but over three generations it helped create a prosperous, well-educated group of New Zealanders.

When my sister, Pinky, moved to Wellington, she was so impressed by the service she received at Hoon’s Foodmarket, Newtown, that she insisted on taking me in there to talk to some of the Hoon family. We chatted about the importance of family history and family trees, and agreed that too many elderly New Zealand Chinese regard their life’s work as uninteresting and not worth recording. Fortunately the five authors have managed to record many accounts of the work and the people who did it – in many cases, just in time.

It is clear, after reading this work, that the Hoon family’s achievements are similar to many other family sagas. In fact, a clear pattern emerges for most New Zealand Chinese families’ fruit-shop experience.
 
First comes a brave individual. Only he’s not an individual; he’s part of a tightly-linked system of clan loyalty and obligation. Guided by letters from relatives, he arrives in New Zealand to face the poll tax, language barriers and racial hostility. He copes with long hours of tedious work and the stress of repaying loans but is helped and encouraged by a network of relatives, village cousins and local Chinese. Marriage becomes a possibility. He starts his own shop.  His children all work hard there. His wife works even harder. A generation passes. The family enterprise adapts. Everyone works hard. Signs of success may include acceptance in the community, buying a truck or opening another branch. Members of the next generation are able to gain professional qualifications and become doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers and engineers – and that’s only the girls.

There are dozens of variations on this theme in the sixteen regions covered in The Fruits of Our Labours, and every one of them carries a distinct fascination.

When I was asked to review The Fruits of Our Labours, it was suggested that I should indicate who would be interested in reading it. The answer has surprised me. A two-volume history of New Zealand’s Chinese fruit shops, weighing in at 3.8 kg, is not exactly bedtime reading but it is remarkably appealing. 

So who is going to read The Fruits of Our Labours? Obviously public libraries will buy it as a well-documented slice of New Zealand history. Equally obviously, secondary school libraries will find it useful as a social studies resource. Even more obviously, those elderly people whose stories are told in these pages will want a copy.

My concern is for a fourth group, those young family members – the doctors, lawyers, accountants, teacher and engineers - who barely remember the fruit-shop run by their parents and grandparents. It is vitally important for them to buy this book and use it as a base for building up their own detailed personal family history. There are plenty of good examples in these volumes, with Albert Young particularly evocative in listing his work as a five-year old in Timaru’s Crown Fruit Supply,
“… sweep the floor, open newspaper for wrapping, fill up bag racks, fill up cigarette stands, pre-bag onions and potatoes, carry parcels to customers’ cars, try to open wooden boxes of fruit, and anything else Dad could think of.”

As Daniel Wong puts it, “The shop taught us the value of money.”

The five authors of this book have done a brilliant job of assembling all the information they could find about every Chinese fruit-shop in New Zealand. (The criteria that were used are detailed on p.8.) The handy database at the end of Volume 2 is breath-taking in its scope, listing every known shop from Bluff (W. Wong, 1940s) to Kaitaia (Hop Hing & Co, 1942-59), along with their Chinese names, owners’ names, dates, and their original village and county origin.  There are maps, diagrams, graphs, shop plans and masses of photographs.

The arrangement of the two volumes is broadly geographical, beginning for historical reasons with Otago, then following the spread of the original Cantonese into Southland, Canterbury and the West Coast, then to Wellington, the centre for the second concentration of Cantonese settlers, and ending in the northern regions such as Auckland and Northland. Each of the sixteen regions has its own historical introduction and overview, so that we also learn about their cultural groups, produce markets, sports clubs, and Sunday screenings of opera films.

The most remarkable stories are related in a simple fashion, such as the account of stoker Li Sing Ah Lee (p.94) jumping ship at Lyttelton in the 1940s, evading arrest, and becoming an Oamaru market gardener and shop owner. Through hard work, an illegal immigrant, a Hakka orphan from Java, became a respected community figure and saw his family enter a range of professional careers.

This book contains dozens of equally gripping accounts of survival and success, and in each of them, we can only guess at the emotional strains behind the simple statements, such as for Wong Chik Kwan (p.214), “He came back to New Zealand, leaving behind his wife who later died.” The authors have carried out a wide range of interviews, so that often we hear the authentic voice of experience.

My wife, Jenny raised in a fruit-shop, recalls that as a young girl, she thought all Chinese were her relatives and that they all worked in fruit-shops. Reading here of the experiences of hundreds of fruit-shop families, it is easy to see why Jenny felt that way. For each family the fruit-shop  often absorbed all their efforts six days a week, so that it was only on Sundays (and on Double Ten) that there was time for families to socialise with each other or attend cultural or sporting events.

Of course this closeness also meant that weddings often linked fruit-shop families, so a complex network of relationships resulted. Inevitably the coverage of one fruit-shop family has cross-references to several others. I greatly enjoyed tracing various branches of my wife’s family tree and thinking of stories that aren’t in the book. (My lovely mother-in-law once seated our 2-year-old eldest daughter among the fruit displayed in her shop window, just so she could say to each customer, “That’s my granddaughter.”) 

 I hope that everyone with a fruit-shop in their family buys this book and uses it as a starting point to create their own family history.  If they do, the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust can be proud of their continued support for the preservation of Chinese New Zealand history.

Trevor Agnew
25 January 2018

NOTE: The Auckland launch of The Fruits of our Labours was on 23 February 2018 and each region will be having its own launch in the weeks which follow. Check the book's Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/fruitshopsnz) for locations and dates.