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Greys Avenue and the Auckland Chinese scene from 1890 to 1960s

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A paper presented at the 2005 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Banana Conference by Eva Wong Ng at AUT on 4 June 2005.

There is a saying “Wherever ocean waves touch; there are Overseas Chinese”.  So it was in 19th Century New Zealand. Within 30 years of European settlement the Chinese arrived to become the earliest non-Polynesian, non-European arrivals.

These early Chinese came in 1866 as sojourners not settlers.  They were men of peasant background from the Kwangtung Province in southern China.  They headed for the goldfields of Otago where they hoped to strike it rich then return to China.  However by 1866 most of the easily worked alluvial gold had been worked out by the European miners who had moved on to other goldfields.  The lure of gold was irresistible and the flow of Chinese to New Zealand became a torrent.  In 1881 they numbered more than 5000.

From 1879 there was more than a decade of economic depression. The sudden influx of so many Chinese into New Zealand, stirred up resentment from the European population who feared that if more Chinese came, there would be no jobs for anyone else.  Anti-Chinese feeling ran high and scarcity of work was blamed on the Chinese.

In the following years anti-Chinese attitudes worsened.  Legislation was introduced to restrict the number of Chinese coming into the country; a poll tax was imposed and other discriminatory measures were legalised.  Throughout the world, anti-Chinese feeling in host countries results in the establishment of Chinatowns.  In New Zealand cities, the so-called Chinatowns were small compared to their counterparts in USA and Australia.

Faced with hostility, little prospect of gold and economic recession, the Chinese who stayed on in New Zealand moved to urban areas and to main cities in the North Isalnd.  At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 155 Chinese in the Auckland area; by 1919, the number had more than doubled; in 1945 Auckland’s Chinese population was around 1200.

In the Auckland area the Chinese turned to what they had known in China, market gardening.  Others became fruit and vegetable hawkers, cooks or workers in domestic service..

Early market gardens in Auckland began in the 1870s.  These were near Carlaw Park area and the  KhyberPass,Carlton Gore Road area.
Another of the earliest Chinese market gardens in the Auckland started in 1901, on the corner of what is now Pilkington and Point England Roads.  Soon there were others; in Mt Eden,Glen, Onehunga, Avondale, Mt.Wellington, Western Springs, in the area which became known as Chinaman’s Hill and Mangere.

In 1901 NZ,  660 Chinese were involved in market gardening, 131 in fruit and vegetable shopkeeping or hawking.  I don’t have a figure for laundrymen but the 1906 figure is 243.

Chinese market gardening in New Zealand reached a maximum in the 1920’s.  Since then the number has declined as urban Auckland expanded and the early market garden land is being used for housing.  For example in the 1920’s there were 32 Chinese and 6 European market gardens in the Mangere district.  Today there are less than a dozen gardens.

Chinese greengrocery shops show a similar pattern.  In 1934 there were 44 Chinese fruit and vegetable businesses in urban Auckland, by 1944 there were 78. The Chinese fruitshop’s  heyday was the 1940’s and 50’s. My father was a greengrocer in Broadway, Newmarket for more than 40 years, until he closed down around 1968.  He maintained it was the advent of frozen peas that did him in, but it was changing market forces that hastened the fruitshop’s demise. Supermarkets were becoming established and younger generations of better educated Chinese were turning their backs on the traditional Chinese occupations.

The once ubiquitous Chinese laundry too has disappeared.  Laundering was an occupation which required little capital and minimal knowledge of English.  Often a laundry would be set up by two or three kinsmen or friends who shared the work and took it in turns to return to China for short spells.  Chinese laundries increased in number from the 1890s, to peak in the 1920s and 30s.  In the 1934 Auckland area there were 34 Chinese laundries listed, by 1947 there were 18.  .Drycleaning was introduced in the 1930s and home washing machines were becoming affordable.  These factors as well as the advent of synthetic materials which did not require starching,  (Chinese laundrymen were expert at starching) meant that the Chinese laundry had become an anachronism.  By the 1970s they had all but disappeared.  On a visit to New York

several years ago I was intrigued to see Chinese laundries amongst apartment blocks on Manhattan Island.

From early in the 20th century Greys Avenue or Grey Street as it was then called, became a focus for the Auckland Chinese.  Grey Street was formed in 1864 west of Queen Street.  Opposite the intersection where Grey joins Cook and Queen streets was an area known as Market Square,
where the first City Markets were built.  

During the 1870s houses were being built further up the slope of Grey Street where panoramic views of the harbour made the climb worthwhile.
The plane trees which have always been a feature of Greys Avenue were planted in 1873.  There were 60 planted but I am not sure whether the trees there today are the originals

By the 1880s the lower Grey Street buildings were vacated in favour of the more desirable dwellings further up the hill.  The empty buildings gradually became rundown and decrepit.

A common sight in those days was the horses and carts of market gardeners hitched along both sides of Grey Street.  With so many gardeners coming into that area it was not long before a store selling Chinese goods opened up

Exactly when Auckland’s ‘Chinatown’ began has not been recorded.  For practical reasons lower Grey Street was an ideal location.. Rentals were cheap and it was close to the city markets.

The first Chinese entry I found in the Auckland Directory was in the 1895 edition.  A Thomas Humlog was listed as having a ‘China Laundry’ at the intersection of Grey Street and Shoe Lane.  In 1899 the corner of Grey and Queen Streets was chosen as the site for the Town Hall, on the site of Thomas Humlog`s laundry. Building began in 1909 and was completed in 1911.

Wah Lee’s store was one of the earliest Chinese operated shops in Grey Street.  About 1904, it began selling Chinese food stuffs in premises next to the Market Hotel.  As well as retailing, Wah Lee`s acted as a bank for the Chinese, a depot for letters arriving from China and was an important social centre where gossip was shared and news from home exchanged.  

New arrivals in Auckland would stay in rooms above Wah Lee`s until they found other lodgings and work.  About 1914, the Chinese Masonic Lodge, the ‘Chee Kung Tong’, was established in the rooms above the shop next to Wah Lee`s.  Soon, other Chinese rented buildings and before long Grey Street had Chinese boarding houses, opium dens, fan tan, pakapoo and gambling houses.

The civic authorities became concerned about the bad image Grey Street was acquiring. Hoping to add some respectability to the area, in 1927 Grey Street was renamed Greys Avenue on account of its trees.

In 1938 the Japanese invaded the Kwangtung Province, the home counties of the Chinese in New Zealand.  On humanitarian grounds, the Labour government of the day allowed those Chinese men who had been long time residents in New Zealand to send for their wives and dependent children.  This was on condition that they pay a deposit of 200 pounds, stayed for only two years, then returned to China with any children born in New Zealand.  Over the next few years, 249 wives and 244 children came to New Zealand.  Many settled in the Auckland area, several joined their husbands in Greys Avenue and lived in accommodation above or behind the shops.

Auckland’s Chinatown population expanded.  There were now three or four stores, restaurants, boarding houses- some of which were used as gambling or opium dens.  There was a long-established Chinese laundry at the Pitt Street end of Greys Avenue, two hotels- the Market and further up in the next block, the Carpenter’s Arms.  Greys Avenue became a busy area.  In 1928, the Salvation Army built its Citadel near Myers Park entrance, and further up Ross & Glendinning had premises.  A Mission House and other businesses were established.

The gambling and opium dens were often raided by police.  Again, Greys Avenue earned a reputation as an unsavoury area.  The old buildings had deteriorated further, and according to Europeans who remember Greys Avenue in those days, it was a scary, dark, and mysterious place and one to be avoided.

However, those who grew up there tell a different story.  As children they had wonderful childhoods.  Sure, there were dangers to be considered, for this was the time of the six o’clock pub closing and after 1942 there were many American and New Zealand servicemen around.  But with the
company of other Chinese children and Myers Park nearby, they made their own fun.

During WW2, New Zealand and China became allies.  China was fighting Japan, the common enemy.  The worst of the racist discrimination had been removed from the statutes but there was limited immigration, and prejudice against the Chinese lingered.  The war lasted longer than the two years of the refugee allowance and when the Chinese communists came to power in 1949, the New Zealand Chinese Association and Reverend George McNeur, a Presbyterian Church leader, lobbied Prime Minister Peter Fraser to allow the families and others to stay in New Zealand.  The request was granted and a total of 1323 Chinese consequently gained permanent residence.

In 1947, houses further up Greys Avenue were demolished and replaced with multi-story State flats.  In 1959, news came that all the “Chinatown” buildings in lower Greys Avenue were to be demolished for a twenty storey Civic Administration block and the Aotea Centre and Square.

By then, the Chinese children had grown to adulthood.  Many families had already moved to the suburbs and the Chinese shopkeepers and restaurant owners were ready to move to other areas.  Wah Lee’s moved to Hobson Street where it still operates.  In 1964 the last Chinese occupied buildings in Greys Avenue were demolished.

Auckland’s first and only Chinatown disappeared and has never been replaced.  This surely is testimony to the acceptance New Zealand Chinese people have today in what can be called a culturally diverse society.

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Greys Avenue and the Auckland Chinese scene from 1890 to 1960s


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