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Stories

A New Zealand Chinese family in Remuera

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

A NEW ZEALAND CHINESE FAMILY IN REMUERA, by Phillipa Wong, age 13 years 

Today, in the Remuera shopping area, there is only one fruit shop, Jack Lum and Co. But in 1951, there were three. Frank Wong and his family and Fred Chin each had a fruit shop, and in that year, James Wong, his wife Ida, their young son Ron and baby daughter Lotus moved into number 387 Remuera Road, and opened the third fruit store, James Wong Fruiterer. It is interesting to note that Chinese owned all these shops. 

James, Ida and Ron had previously lived on the corner of Manukau Road and Alba Road, above Ida’s mother’s fruit vegetable shop. James worked for his father, who owned a market garden and a fruit and vegetable shop in Belmont. Ida helped her mother in her fruit shop, as well as raising Ron and Lotus. They decided to move to Remuera to start their own business. Like many other families, James and Ida lived on the second storey of their shop. On this level there were two bedrooms, one large and one small, and a bath with a gas cal font to heat the water. Downstairs, behind the shop itself was the kitchen. Although the bath was upstairs, the toilet was at the end of the garden. This was a long and dark journey in the night.  The paper used to pack fruit in crates served as toilet paper. This was softer than newspaper, which was commonly used. 

Everyday, James would have to go to market very early to get fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers for his shop. At the markets, the produce was auctioned, and James would have to bid to get what he wanted. Occasionally the children would accompany him. He would take back his good in his truck, and drive back to Remuera. At the shop, James and Ida would sort the vegetables out, and arrange the fruit in neat piles for display. Vegetables would be trimmed or bagged by hand, and washed. Beetroot was also cooked to sell. 

As well as this, there were customers to be served. When the children were old enough, they too would help in the shop, serving the customers and working in the back. James also would deliver to people’s houses. He had scales in the back of his truck, which he would use to weigh fruit and vegetables. Annette Faigan, the owner of the Print Shop, whose shop is now where James Wong Fruiterer was, comments that it was extremely useful for mothers with young children. Next door to James and Ida’s shop was Mr. Lovell who owned a jewelers shop, and on the other side was the bookshop Wheelers, which is still here today. Bruce Culpan arrived when Ron was in primary school and set up his chemist store. Ron remembers helping Mr. Culpan to make a concrete path in his backyard. He was popular with the youngsters, and gave Ron and his friends sulfur and other chemicals to make gunpowder. He also helped Ron to make homemade fireworks. 

The Wong families fitted easily into the Remuera community, and were close to their family. They spoke good English, as Ida was born in New Zealand, and James was educated at Sacred Heart College. Ida’s mother lived in Epsom, which made settling in much easier. However, James’ parent lived further away, in Belmont. There they had a large market garden and shop. As the harbour bridge had not been built yet, James’ father Wong Kam would take his fruit and vegetables to the markets via the vehicular ferry, and he would bring other produce back for his own shop in Belmont. James and Ida would also use this ferry to bring the children to visit their grandparents, until the harbour bridge opened in 1959. 

In 1952, Ron started school at Remuera Primary. He swapped his lunch on his first day of school, leaving his mother very surprised when she found the remains of a lettuce sandwich instead of the marmite one she had made that morning! Ron’s aunty Edie picked him up after school, or he would walk home. There were three other Chinese students at the school. David Wong, the son of Frank Wong, who was older than Ron, and later on David’s sister Susan and Ron’s sister Lotus. Ron remembers little discrimination from his peers. 

Remuera Intermediate was a new school when Ron began there in 1959. It had been opened on 19 of June 1954. Girls were able to learn cooking and sewing and like the other boys, Ron was able to begin metalwork and woodwork. He enjoyed these subjects, as he liked making things at home. He made a trolley, using an apple box. This was not a cardboard box like those that are used today, but a sturdy wooden crate which apples were held in. He would race down the length of St. Vincent Ave, from the very top to the bottom. However, this item was not so popular with his parents and Lotus, as he had cut the wheels off his sister’s pram. 

Ron’s next school was Auckland Grammar, and Lotus was continuing at Remuera Primary. The children were both doing well at school, and the shop was fine, but Ida wanted to move. She wanted to live in a real house, not on top of a shop. So in the 1960’s the family sold their shop and moved to Ellerslie. Although the Wong family did not spend their entire lievs in Remuera, they were one of the few Chinese families in Remuera in the 1050’s and 1960’s. Along with Fred Chin, Frank Wong, and other Chinese who lived in Remuera in this period and earlier, these people deserve to be recorded in Remuera’s history as they have played a part in shaping Remuera,that many have forgotten. The early Chinese market culture and adaptation to live in New Zealand is a fascinating subject that should be researched in further depth.

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[1] 387 Remuera Rd 2014, showing The Print Shop and Remuera Pharmacy.