The first Chinese migrants arrived in Wellington in the 1870s and their successors, and the generations that followed, have had a fascinating influence on the city, especially in Te Aro. Poet Chris Tse traces that history to remind us that Wellington and China go back a long way.

Chinese Wellington: Wellington’s Chinese history

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Kaiyuan Kang (2yrs) gets ready to take part in the Chinese New Year Parade: As part of the Chinese Language School group. 2 February 2014. Photo by Mark Tantrum | www.marktantrum.com

Kaiyuan Kang (2yrs) gets ready to take part in the Chinese New Year Parade: As part of the Chinese Language School group. 2 February 2014. Photo by Mark Tantrum | www.marktantrum.com

Most major inter­na­tion­al cit­ies have a Chin­atown. They’re often loud, chaot­ic places that assault all your senses, and they’re where you’ll find the best-kept secrets for authen­t­ic cuisine and stores with Asi­an gro­cer­ies and curi­os­it­ies (or knock-off design­er wares). These areas are also often sat­ur­ated with the pain­ful his­tory of their ori­gin­al inhabitants.

Some Chin­atowns, such as the one in San Fran­cisco, were areas where loc­al city offi­cials allowed Chinese people to live or own prop­erty. Oth­ers were formed more organ­ic­ally as the num­bers of Chinese arriv­ing in a city grew. It made sense to go where your fel­low coun­try­men were, for safety and for the com­fort of the familiar.

I’ve always made an effort to vis­it these neigh­bour­hoods when I travel, often with a mix of curi­os­ity and trep­id­a­tion. Hav­ing grown up and lived in Lower Hutt and Wel­ling­ton all my life, I’ve always been inter­ested in how such com­munit­ies oper­ate and exist. Some­times it’s like being trans­por­ted to the back streets of Hong Kong. Oth­ers are more integ­rated and simply add fla­vour to their par­ent city.

Hain­ing Street, which runs between upper Tory and Tarana­ki streets, is con­sidered Wellington’s his­tor­ic­al Chin­atown. In the late 19th cen­tury, the European set­tlers saw it as a ghetto, where the Chinese gathered to engage in their filthy habits. How­ever, Wel­ling­ton has nev­er had any­thing we could call a mod­ern-day Chinatown.

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Clip­ping from the New Zea­l­and Mail fea­tur­ing a pho­to­graph of Hain­ing Street (1904)
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The Tung Jung Asso­ci­ation din­ner at their hall, 26 Fre­d­er­ick Street (1943), Wellington

Accord­ing to 2013 Census data, 4.3 per­cent of New Zealand’s pop­u­la­tion iden­ti­fies as being of Chinese eth­ni­city. Wel­ling­ton is home to about 9.5 per­cent of this group — approx­im­ately 16,400 people.

Although the Chinese pop­u­la­tion in Wel­ling­ton has stead­ily increased dur­ing the last dec­ade, the effect of Chinese on mod­ern-day Wel­ling­ton is not as vis­ible as it is in, say, Auck­land, a city that is home to a stag­ger­ing 68 per­cent of New Zealand’s Chinese population.

Des­pite this imbal­ance between our two largest cit­ies, Wel­ling­ton is home to a not­ably high­er pro­por­tion of New Zea­l­and-born Chinese. This could stem from the Chinese who settled in Wel­ling­ton at the end of the 19th cen­tury after the roar of the gold rushes. At the time, Wel­ling­ton had recently become the nation’s cap­it­al, and many Chinese saw it as a place of great eco­nom­ic oppor­tun­it­ies and polit­ic­al influ­ence. The high pro­por­tion of New Zea­l­and-born Chinese in Wel­ling­ton might also reflect the close polit­ic­al and edu­ca­tion­al ties the city has had with Asia since the 1950s, which weren’t as appar­ent in oth­er parts of the country.

The Chinese have had a stor­ied and col­our­ful past in Wel­ling­ton since they began set­tling here in the 1870s. Back then, there were parts of Wel­ling­ton that had a vis­ible and dis­tinct Chinese pres­ence. Most well known, and notori­ous, was Hain­ing Street.

 

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Old shop on the corner of Tory and Hain­ing Streets (1947), Wellington

These days, Hain­ing Street is a rather non­des­cript street, a mix of low-rise apart­ments and busi­nesses. Its ordin­ar­i­ness belies the fact that it was once the most infam­ous hub of Wellington’s Chinese com­munity. More than a hun­dred years ago, it was where many Chinese lived and worked. Ori­gin­ally con­sidered to be a respect­able res­id­en­tial area, the street’s deteri­or­a­tion into slum con­di­tions meant that the cheap rent attrac­ted Chinese immigrants.

Wheth­er deserved or not, the street in par­tic­u­lar earned itself a notori­ous repu­ta­tion and became fod­der for urb­an legends about all the unseemly things Chinese enjoyed to do. In real­ity, it was just home to many people strug­gling to make a liv­ing like their fel­low European set­tlers. Prop­er­ties on Hain­ing Street became the tar­gets of raids in an attempt to crack down on opi­um dens and illeg­al gambling. Although it was well known that these activ­it­ies did occur, the stor­ies of licentious­ness were greatly exaggerated.

It was actu­ally the Chinese com­munity who ral­lied togeth­er to pro­hib­it the import­a­tion of opi­um because of its effect on the com­munity and its expense. Inter­est­ingly, they used a rather cun­ning tac­tic to peti­tion Par­lia­ment to restrict it — by stok­ing people’s fear that opi­um habits could spread to Europeans.

There are no longer any traces of the street’s infam­ous stature as Wellington’s Chinese ghetto. The only ref­er­ence to the past is a small plaque out­side 13 Hain­ing Street — a remind­er of one of the darkest moments in Chinese-New Zea­l­and history.

 

 

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Chinese sunday school chil­dren out­side the Chinese Mis­sion Church in Fre­d­er­ick Street (1922), Wellington

 


Lionel Terry, a noted white suprem­acist and extrem­ist, had what could be simply described as a per­son­al cru­sade against the Chinese. In 1905, he trav­elled from Man­gonui to Wel­ling­ton, hand­ing out cop­ies of The Shad­ow, a self-pub­lished pamph­let that con­tained his views on, among oth­er things, the danger of the so-called ‘Yel­low Per­il’ to the Empire. Once he reached Wel­ling­ton, his attempts to con­vince the gov­ern­ment to ban any fur­ther Chinese immig­ra­tion failed. That’s when he took mat­ters into his own hands. Terry had a point to make, and he would do so in the most chilling and sen­sa­tion­al way possible.

Terry headed for Hain­ing Street. It’s there that he knew he would find an appro­pri­ate and help­less target.

On the night of 24 Septem­ber 1905, Terry shot and murdered Joe Kum Yung, an eld­erly Chinese man, in Hain­ing Street. The murder was planned, but the vic­tim was chosen at ran­dom. Even in the con­text of the racist atti­tudes towards Chinese at the time, many con­sidered the crime to be out­rageous and hein­ous. Today, some might even view it as an act of ter­ror­ism designed to instil fear in the Chinese pop­u­la­tion at the time. Indeed, some Chinese saw the pub­lic reac­tion towards the murder as evid­ence that the loss of a Chinese life was hardly worth report­ing. The media placed great­er focus on Terry and his ques­tion­able motive. Joe Kum Yung was reduced to a foot­note while Terry got all the attention.

In 2005, on the cen­ten­ary of the murder, a plaque was installed on Hain­ing Street to com­mem­or­ate the memory of Joe Kum Yung.

Although many stor­ies about Hain­ing Street describe it as being Wellington’s Chinese ghetto, by the mid-20th cen­tury it had already begun to shake off its infam­ous reputation.


Run­ning par­al­lel to Hain­ing Street is Fre­d­er­ick Street, anoth­er import­ant street in the his­tory of Chinese set­tle­ment in the area. This was the site of sev­er­al key Chinese build­ings, such as the former Tung Jung Asso­ci­ation headquar­ters and the Anglic­an Chinese Mis­sion Hall. These remain some of the few build­ings that evoke the stor­ied past of the area’s con­nec­tion to the Chinese.

Recently, the Wel­ling­ton City Coun­cil approved $35,000 to be giv­en to the own­ers of the former Chinese Mason­ic Lodge in Fre­d­er­ick Street for earth­quake strength­en­ing. Between 1925 and 1975, the lodge was the Wel­ling­ton headquar­ters of the Chee Kung Tong, more com­monly known as the Chinese Mason­ic Soci­ety. The word “Mason­ic” is a red her­ring — the soci­ety had no con­nec­tion what­so­ever to the West­ern concept of free­ma­sonry. But per­haps it was this that helped it to become a vis­ible and integ­rated part of the wider Wel­ling­ton community.

When the lodge was opened in 1925 with a gala ban­quet, the may­or and arch­deac­on of Wel­ling­ton and a Cab­in­et min­is­ter were among the not­able guests. This was a sign that atti­tudes towards the Chinese were begin­ning to shift. In some ways, it also marked the begin­ning of the end of Wellington’s Chinatown.

Although the soci­ety was held in high regard and took part in many char­ity fun­drais­ing activ­it­ies, its main focus at the time was its con­nec­tion to Chinese polit­ics. The Chee Kung Tong was one of two main groups with the goal of over­throw­ing the rul­ing Qing Dyn­asty in China. The oth­er was the Kuo­mintang, whose nation­al headquar­ters were also in Wel­ling­ton. Both groups raised money to sup­port the causes of their respect­ive parties in China.

There were also a num­ber of oth­er groups in Wel­ling­ton that had more of a social focus. The ori­gin­al Chinese Asso­ci­ation was formed in 1909 as a way to bring the loc­al Chinese com­munity togeth­er to over­see its own affairs and to provide train­ing courses. Many county clubs were also formed in Wel­ling­ton, includ­ing the Poon Fah Asso­ci­ation, the Tung Jung Asso­ci­ation and the Seyip Soci­ety. County clubs allowed those from the same Chinese counties to social­ise with each oth­er and main­tain ties with their home vil­lages back in China. These clubs were where most Chinese social­ised and, par­tic­u­larly in the case of today’s older gen­er­a­tion of Chinese New Zeal­anders, are where they still do.

If the afore­men­tioned clubs and groups were designed to allow the Chinese to address their own affairs and social­ise among them­selves, then more out­ward-look­ing groups like the New Zea­l­and China Friend­ship Soci­ety (NZCFS) brought Chinese cul­ture and lan­guage to the wider com­munity. A Wel­ling­ton branch of the NZCFS was formed in 1956, and since then has been a driver in pro­mot­ing aware­ness of China and its cul­ture. One of the society’s early aims was “To clear the mists of ignor­ance and provide accur­ate inform­a­tion lead­ing to mutu­al under­stand­ing and mutu­al respect between our two peoples”.

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Chung Kung Tong Chinese Free­ma­sons pro­ces­sion Fre­d­er­ick Steet (1924), Wellington

Des­pite set­tling in the nation’s cap­it­al, loc­al Chinese very rarely involved them­selves in New Zealand’s polit­ic­al affairs of the day. There was the afore­men­tioned Chinese-led cam­paign to pro­hib­it opi­um and a peti­tion against the poll tax, but most res­id­ents were more con­cerned with polit­ics in China.

The Chinese trait of keep­ing a low pro­file might explain why most did not seek pub­lic roles in loc­al and cent­ral gov­ern­ment. Many were happy to be invis­ible mem­bers of soci­ety — if they kept their heads down and weren’t ‘too Chinese’, they could be con­sidered hon­or­ary New Zeal­anders. Those who did seek to involve them­selves in polit­ics and pub­lic affairs have been exceptions.

George Gee and his wife Dorothy ran a fruit and veget­able shop in Jack­son Street, Petone. George was also heav­ily involved with­in the Chinese com­munity. In 1965, he was elec­ted to the Petone Bor­ough Coun­cil before being elec­ted may­or in 1968, mak­ing him New Zealand’s first may­or of Chinese ethnicity.

George didn’t need a groundswell of sup­port from the Chinese com­munity to secure the pos­i­tion. His oppos­i­tion admit­ted that he was simply the best man in their group to run for may­or. He served for 12 years, before stand­ing down because of ill health. For his ser­vice to the pub­lic, George was awar­ded the Queen’s Jubilee Medal in 1977 and the Queen’s Ser­vice Order in 1981. George Gee Drive in Korokoro is named after him.

Anoth­er not­able Chinese Wel­ling­to­ni­an who took part in loc­al polit­ics was Mol­lie Ngan Kee, who was heav­ily involved in the wider com­munity, par­tic­u­larly in Stokes Val­ley, where she played a major role in set­ting up the loc­al pool and estab­lish­ing the Stokes Val­ley Com­munity House. In 1977, she was elec­ted as a Lower Hutt city coun­cil­lor before becom­ing deputy may­or in 1980. Her drive and lead­er­ship were evid­ent in the many com­munity pro­jects she took part in, and in her con­tri­bu­tions to the Wel­ling­ton Hos­pit­al Board and the Hutt Region­al Com­munity Men­tal Health Services.

Stan Chun grew up in New­town in the 1940s, and he fondly remem­bers a child­hood in what was then a pre­dom­in­antly Chinese neigh­bour­hood. As well as being home to a large num­ber of Chinese fam­il­ies, the area had argu­ably the greatest con­cen­tra­tion of Chinese fruit­er­ers. Stan’s fam­ily was just one of the many who oper­ated a fruit and veget­able store. He and his sib­lings all played their part in the fam­ily busi­ness, from child­hood right through to adult­hood. As a child, Stan would race home after school to help at the fam­ily store. As an adult, one of his respons­ib­il­it­ies was pur­chas­ing the stock for the store.

Back in the mid-20th cen­tury, Wake­field Street, and Allen and Blair streets in upper Cour­tenay Place, were a thriv­ing area of activ­ity. It’s here that fruit­er­ers from around Wel­ling­ton would gath­er every morn­ing from about 7am to pur­chase from the mar­kets. They were unof­fi­cially ‘Chinese-owned’ streets because of the high num­ber of Chinese present with their trucks, and so the area became a meet­ing ground of sorts.

 

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George Gee, May­or of Petone (1975)

There were some Wel­ling­to­ni­ans at the time who believed that the Chinese and Indi­ans had a mono­poly on fruit shops and laun­dries. There was a fear that more Chinese would arrive and take jobs from the European set­tlers. This top­ic was a recur­ring theme in let­ters to the edit­or pages. Iron­ic­ally, a lot of Chinese migra­tion to New Zea­l­and dat­ing back to the gold rushes was a res­ult of loc­al Europeans ‘import­ing’ work­ers from China as cheap labour or to drive wages down.

Stan argues that the Chinese and Indi­ans were simply pre­pared to put in the long hours and very phys­ic­ally demand­ing work required in this type of busi­ness. Because the Chinese weren’t trus­ted or entirely wel­come, these labour-intens­ive jobs were often the only way for them to earn a liv­ing. By tak­ing them on, how­ever, Chinese fam­il­ies were able to save up money to cre­ate oppor­tun­it­ies for the young­er generation.

Stan is one of the most respec­ted and well-known t’ai chi teach­ers in Wel­ling­ton. From the late 1960s he taught mar­tial arts, before offer­ing t’ai chi les­sons after demand from loc­als. He estim­ates that, since the mid-1970s, he’s taught more than 600 stu­dents t’ai chi, a sig­ni­fic­ant num­ber of them non-Chinese. Through­out the years, Stan’s t’ai chi classes have been an oppor­tun­ity for him to share Chinese cul­ture and philo­sophy with Wel­ling­to­ni­ans from all walks of life.

 

Today, New Zeal­anders embrace oth­er cul­tures with a spir­it of interest and kin­ship. Fest­ivals such as Chinese New Year have become a major fix­ture on Wellington’s mul­ti­cul­tur­al cal­en­dar, but it’s hard to ima­gine that such a well-known fest­iv­al had its first pub­lic cel­eb­ra­tion in our city just 12 years ago. Though the effect of Chinese in Wel­ling­ton might not be so obvi­ously appar­ent now, the city’s streets and faces all hold the story of a dif­fi­cult but import­ant past.

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Memori­al plaque in Hain­ing Street for Joe Kum Yung, the miner killed by Lionel Terry in 1905
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Park­ing and unload­ing at the fruit and veget­able mar­kets in Blair Street (1958)