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 ( for locations and dates.

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