Behind the bright, inquisitive eyes is Eileen Wing. She is a minority of a minority – Chinese and somewhere beyond her 90th year. She is the stereotypical Chinese nonagenarian: fit, diminutive and eternally youthful. Her teeth are her own and her walking stick an optional accessory. She still lives in her family home, cooking her own meals and quietly tending her garden, much as she has for decades.
Eileen is intensely private and makes me feel like my questions are nonsense. “Gosh, is that relevant?” is her formidable retort. “I’m happy to be anonymous – one of the little people.”
Eileen’s story is typical. “My father arrived in New Zealand in the early 1900s and moved straight to Ohakune. His uncle grew vegetables there. My father couldn’t speak a word of English, but he was willing to work.” The Chinese have always been willing to work. “For us there is no 40 hour week,” she declares.
The old Chinese
In the early days of New Zealand’s colonial development Chinese immigrants were seen as ‘undesirables’ and thumped with a poll tax. Initially the poll tax was set at £10, but when that seemed an inadequate ‘deterrent’ it was raised to £100 in 1896. In today’s terms £100 equates to more than $18,000. This tax was particularly severe as many immigrants initially thought their stay in NZ would be temporary. They thought they’d make their fortunes in the gold fields and return to China wealthy men. The fortunes proved elusive.
The poll tax meant that for two generations the Chinese community was made up almost exclusively of men. They couldn’t afford to bring their wives to New Zealand. This suited policy makers of the time who sought to control Chinese population growth. A year apart from their wives, became a decade quite quickly. So it was for Eileen’s parents. As was commonly the case, her father’s fare and poll tax was sponsored by his uncle.
It was a long road to repaying the debt. “My mother came in after the war started”. By then the poll tax had gone and a flood of wives entered the country on two-year permits. War prevented them from returning to China when their permits expired.
The great policy concession on family immigration didn’t arrive until 1948, when men who had been resident in NZ for 20 years were allowed to bring in their wives and children.
After the gold rush days the Chinese moved on to dominate three businesses: laundries, market gardens and greengrocers. The laundries died with the evolution of washing machines and, more recently, the Chinese greengrocers have become scarce. Chinese market gardens have proved more durable. On the land neither technology nor large scale corporates have been able to squeeze them out. The reasons are simple – the work is still hard, the hours long and the profits modest. There are no market gardeners that have grown rich from leeks or lettuces.
Eileen followed in her father’s footsteps. With her husband Alan, they grew vegetables their whole lives and ran a small shop in Eskdale. In the days before supermarkets, Alan’s father, then his uncle, ran Ah Wing greengrocers in Heretaunga Street.
These were the days of 1950s prosperity. On Friday nights families shopped for groceries at Willie Matt’s or Charlie Lusher’s, then they stopped to get vegetables from Ah Wing or Loo Kee and then to Bott’s bookstore for a copy of the Auckland weekly. If children were well behaved they might even get an icecream from the characters at the XL Dairy – Mario and Olga Cessarini. The best restaurants were grandly named ‘The Empire’, ‘The Dominion’ and ‘The Queen Mary’. They were Greek-owned fish’n’chips shops, albeit with the option of dining in-house.
The Chinese market gardeners are one of the few surviving relics of this bygone era.
As it is for many third and fourth generation Chinese, Eileen’s generation will be the last to farm the land. The Chinese community recognise their market gardening fame will soon be consigned to the annals of history. Earlier this year, Sons of the Soil, a book commemorating Chinese market gardening history, was released. Authors Lily Lee and Ruth Lam took six years to write the book, meticulously researching the historic records.
The ‘old Chinese’ deserve our respect. Like many new immigrants, they did the jobs no one else wanted to do, usually for less money than they deserved. They had to overcome a myriad of anti-Chinese policies. Such sentiment still exists in New Zealand today, but not like it did in our past. Given the Chinese have always been underrepresented in the dole queues, prisons and heart bypass waiting lists, I’m not sure why pastey New Zealand doesn’t warm to them. Fears of ethnocentricity in Auckland are well-founded, but Aucklanders are surprised to hear you can go for days in Hawke’s Bay without seeing anyone Chinese.
The new Chinese
Now there is a new wave of Chinese immigration. They have little in common with the old brigade as three generations have passed since the last peak of Chinese immigration. “The Chinese festivals here are funny” one young man said to me. “The old people here celebrate their culture like my grandfather used to. We don’t do that in China anymore.” And so it is. When a culture is threatened it goes into preservation mode, keeping the old ways that might not have endured otherwise.
There is also a gulf between the two cultures in terms of language and lifestyle. “The young people can’t even speak Chinese,” says Eileen. “They eat McDonalds and have become very westernised.” These New Zealand Chinese are sometimes called ‘bananas’ – yellow on the outside, but white in the middle. When a fourth generation Chinese and a new urban immigrant meet in the streets it must be an odd occasion indeed.
The old ways are certainly ending as far as the Chinese market gardeners are concerned.
You can still see older Chinese men in the fields, but their numbers grow few. They stoop and cut and breathe deeply; the air infused with the scent of sweet loam and bitter herbs. “The young people don’t want to do it anymore,” says Eileen as I leave. They are now obstetricians and lawyers and living better lives.
But the absence of young Chinese market gardeners doesn’t seem to bother Eileen greatly. There is no sadness in her voice. “Good luck to them” she says warmly. “It’s nice to see them doing so well.”
“Can I send someone around to take a photo of you?” I ask when leaving. “Certainly not!” she replies emphatically. “I don’t want a photograph taken. Please thank the photographer for leaving me alone.” Eileen’s philosophy is simple … “When I’m gone my friends and family will remember me. The opinions of other people don’t really matter.”
Eileen might avoid the camera, but not so fellow master gardener Ken Gee, the familiar face of the industry on