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History of Auckland Chinese Community

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Old Chinatown:
Old Chinatown was once based in the Auckland Central, with the focus around Greys Avenue or Grey Street, as it was formerly known. Early shops included Thomas Humlog's business, which was listed in the 1895 Auckland Directory as a ‘Chinese Laundry’. This was located at the intersection of Grey Street and Shoe Lane, which is now the site of the Auckland Town Hall.

Wah Lee’s store opened in 1904 next to the Market Hotel on the corner of Cook Street and Grey Street. Besides being a food stuff retailer, Wah Lee was a bank, unofficial post office and a social centre for gossip for the Chinese. In addition to Wah Lee, the Chinese Masonic Lodge, known as the Chee Kung Tong, was established in 1914 and was subsequently followed by two Chinese laundries and a Chinese interpreter. Eventually Chinese lodging houses, opium dens and gambling houses were also established around Grey Street. According to records archived in the Central Auckland Research Centre, the gambling and opium dens were often raided by the police.

During 1924-1925, funds were raised by the Auckland Chinese Mission, in connection with the Presbyterian Church, for the purchase and renovations (a total cost of £1600) of a building at 43 Cook Street, near Nelson Street. This building became the Chinese Mission Hall and seated around 200 people.

The 1926 Auckland Directory lists the first Chinese restaurant. By 1927, Grey Street had been renamed Greys Avenue by Auckland’s civic authorities in the hopes of adding some respectability to the area.

In the late 1940s, many of Chinatown’s dwellings on the slopes of Greys Avenue were demolished and replaced with multi-storey state flats. By the 1960s, old Chinese stores, boarding houses and buildings in lower Greys Avenue were demolished. The twenty storey Civic Administration block and Aotea Square now stand where Old Chinatown buildings once existed. By 1964, Auckland’s Old Chinatown had disappeared and is now a distant memory to most.

Ref: 4-2212, Chinese Mission Hall, Sir George Grey Special Collections

Market gardens:
The first Chinese market gardens were recorded in 1866. With the influx of more Chinese immigrants, the number of Chinese market gardens steadily increased. During the period of 1880-1913, these immigrants were generally young male relatives of Chinese gold prospectors. As the goldfields in Otago became less prosperous, these young men took up market gardening, an employment that many would have been involved in back in their home country. They settled throughout New Zealand, including Auckland and leased land from Māori and European colonial settlers.

By 1917, there were 175 Chinese recorded as market gardeners in Auckland. Chinese market gardeners established tightly knit community groups and often supplied their produce to Chinese family run greengrocers as well as selling door to door, to local markets and occasionally to two of the smaller auction houses, Radley & Co. and Perkins & Sons Ltd.

Initially Chinese market gardens were located in the Auckland Central area and mainly to the east, south, and west of Auckland. In the central area, the majority of the early gardens were established during 1875-1900 in Parnell (Carlaw Park), Newmarket (the Domain, Carlton Gore and Khyber Pass), Ponsonby (Ponsonby Gardens), Grey Lynn - Arch Hill and Western Springs - Westmere (Great North Road and Bullock Track). These areas had rich volcanic soils perfectly suited to growing crops. Following this time, market gardens spread into nearly every suburb including Takapuna-Northcote in the North Shore and Pukekohe and Mangere in South Auckland.

Epsom was a prime area for Chinese market gardening and large parts of this rural area had been set aside by the government in 1875 for this purpose. There are references to the gardens in Onslow Avenue in Epsom, the gardens on both sides of Khyber Pass road in Newmarket and Great North Road in the Westemere - Western Springs area being known as Chinamen's Gardens or Chinaman’s Hill. The gardens in Newmarket made way for a sports ground in the early 1900s.

Articles in the Auckland Star newspaper reveal that Chinese market gardeners, who were describes as being of ‘alien status’, were not always looked upon favourably. The decade long economic depression starting in 1879, made many Europeans fear that Chinese workers were taking their jobs and this prejudice continued beyond this period. For example, in 1890 there was a call for all Unions to boycott and refrain from dealing with Chinese market gardeners.

During the 1930s, Aucklanders were encouraged to cultivate their own sections and sell their produce at market, rather than leave this to Chinese market gardeners. Also during this time, there was dismay at the amount of land being leased to Chinese market gardeners. The low wages being paid to Chinese market gardeners was another source of concern, since other market gardeners could not match the low priced Chinese produce.

However, attitudes did start to slowly change. Chinese and other commercial market gardeners in the Auckland Province were praised for their efforts to boost vegetable production for the troops during WW2. During this time, the Dominion Federation of New Zealand Chinese Commercial Growers was established as part of this wartime effort. This national federation, the only one of its type in the world, persists today, looking after the interests of NZ Chinese market gardeners.

During the 1950s-1980s, Chinese market gardeners started to grow a more diverse range of crops including greenhouse crops. In the 1960s-1970s, a growing interest in Chinese food was reflected in the crops that Chinese market gardeners were growing at this time.

As the value of land in Auckland started to rise, many Chinese market gardeners sold up and moved to other areas. This was noted as early as 1945, when the demand for fertile land in the Tamaki River area was in conflict with the growth in state housing being built in this area. From the 1950s-1960s, market gardening land was lost in Mangere and Panmure due to the steady creep of suburbia.

Although the export trade in the early 1970s boosted vegetable production, the end of the auction system and rise of supermarkets, led to the consolidation of market gardens during the 1990s. Much like the dairy industry in New Zealand, this has resulted in a small number of corporate growers with large scale holdings. Some Chinese market gardeners made the change and took jobs with these corporate growers.

Small family run market gardens have not been totally lost though. There has been a resurgence in organic produce and farmers markets, which has provided a niche market for produce from market gardens, including those run by Chinese market gardeners

Ref: AWNS-19010905-2-2, Chinese market gardener, Sir George Grey Special Collections    

Auckland Star via Papers Past website http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast
Te Ara website http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/market-gardens-and-production-nurseries
Eva Wong Ng, ‘Greys Avenue And The Auckland Chinese Scene 1890-1960’s’, paper presented at the ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Banana Conference, AUT, Auckland 4 June 2005.
Various records from the Central Auckland Research Centre at Central City Library, Auckland Libraries, Auckland, New Zealand including: Ruth Lam & Lily Lee, 'Sons of the Soil: Chinese Market Gardeners in New Zealand' (2012); Nigel Murphy, ‘Success through adversity: A history of the Dominion Federation for New Zealand Chinese Commercial Growers / Cheng gong de zi ku han lai’ (2012); Auckland Directory from 1895 and 1926.

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To access the 'Chinese communities in Auckland' collection, go to the Auckland Libraries, Heritage and Research channel/profile page on the Historypin website, scroll down the page and click on the Collections tab and choose the 'Chinese communities in Auckland' tour.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License
History of Auckland Chinese Community by Kun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License