Pioneer Chinese Market Gardener and Auckland Businessman[1]

 Lily Lee and Ruth Lam

Chan Dah Chee 陈达枝, or Ah Chee as he was more commonly known,[2] was one of the most prominent and influential businessmen in the early years of Chinese settlement in Auckland. From his arrival in 1867 to his departure in 1920, Ah Chee contributed greatly to the growth and development of the Chinese business and market gardening community. Ah Chee spent over fifty years in New Zealand and deserves to be remembered as one of Auckland’s first Chinese pioneers in market gardening and business.

This story of Ah Chee is not only of a pioneering entrepreneur, but serves to highlight the significance of the Chinese contribution to market gardening and fruit and vegetable retailing more broadly. This story is not a complete account of Ah Chee’s life, rather it seeks to provide an insight into how he lived and a sense of what it was like to be an early Chinese market gardener in his time.[3]

Figure 1: Ah Chee surrounded by his grandchildren and children of his nephew Sai Louie. Back from left: Robert Ah Chee, Norman Ah Chee. Middle from left: Dorothy Ah Chee, Gordon Sai Louie, Rona Sai Louie, Bruce Ah Chee, Alice Ah Chee, Roxford Ah Chee. Front from left: May Sai Louie, Alec Ah Chee, Marjorie Ah Chee (c. 1918, Bruce Ah Chee)

The Story of Ah Chee

Born in 1851, Ah Chee grew up in the village Mong Ngow Dun望牛墪, Tung Goon东莞, China. At the age of 16, Ah Chee and his two brothers left their village in search of greater opportunities and the sun gum saan, meaning ‘new gold mountain’, the colloquial Chinese name for New Zealand and Australia. In 1867[4] Ah Chee and his brothers arrived in Auckland.  Originally they had planned to travel to Dunedin (possibly to the Otago goldfields), but such was their seasickness that when the ship stopped in Auckland they too stopped to get off and stay.[5]

From the time of Ah Chee’s arrival it is believed that he worked as a gardener. In the 1870s he was a familiar sight as an itinerant hawker along the foreshore area of Mechanics Bay, Parnell and Lower Queen Street, Auckland.[6]

Chinese market gardener Sing Chow

Figure 2: Chinese market gardeners such as Sing Chow, were a familiar sight in the late 1880s to early 1900s as they carried their baskets for hawking vegetables (October 1898, 1249, Akaroa Museum).

Market Gardening: Kong Foong Yuen 江风园

Ah Chee’s first recorded market garden was established on 7 ¼ acres (2.93 hectares) of leased land in Gillingham Street Parnell. The market garden had the auspicious name of Kong Foong Yuen 江风园 and was also known as ‘the garden of prosperity’.[7] The gardens were central to the success and achievements of Ah Chee and provided him with a platform to expand into a number of business enterprises.

Family history records Ah Chee growing vegetables on the land as early as the 1870s. Land registry records show that the land was formally leased to Ah Chee and Ah Sec in August 1882. [8]  The lease was for 7 acres 1 rood 20 perch (just over 7 ¼ acres), ‘with all buildings thereon erected’, for a term of 21 years, at the annual rental of £95, in advance, payable on the 24th of October and April each year. The lessees were not to carry on any noxious or offensive trade or business on the said premises and ‘in the event of the lessees cultivating the said premises or any part thereof they shall do so in a proper and husbandman-like manner and so as not to unduly impoverish the soil.’[9]  Fifteen years later in 1897, Ah Sec’s share of the lease was assigned to Ah Chee.  It was leased again in 1903 under Ah Chee’s name and then renewed up until 1920.[10] In all, Ah Chee’s market garden was located at Gillingham Street for thirty-eight years.

Signatures of Ah Sec and Ah Chee

Figure 3: Signatures of Ah Sec and Ah Chee on the 1882 lease. (D13.891, LINZ records, Crown Copyright.).

The Kong Foong Yuen Garden was an ideal place for growing vegetables.  It was situated in a small sheltered valley, with a northerly aspect and had soil of volcanic origin.  The valley was once a raupo swamp,[11] a natural collection point for the runoff from the slopes to the south and east. The Waipapa stream, fed by the springs in the Domain, flowed through the valley on its way down to Mechanics Bay. Over the years, the course of the stream had been dammed to run the flourmill, diverted to supply the rope works and the tannery with water, and channeled to irrigate vegetable crops.

A bird’s-eye view of Parnell

Figure 4: A bird’s-eye view of Parnell, showing James Robertson’s house on the southern edge of the valley, the stream running through the market garden, Ah Chee’s house beside the stream (centre of image), and the rope walk. (George Treacy Stevens, c. 1886, NZ374, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland City Libraries).

The gardens over the years accommodated a large number of Ah Chee’s immediate and extended family. Ah Chee’s wife and three sons lived in the main house and his nephew Chan Ying Kew[12] (more commonly known as Sai Louie), his wife and young children were known to have been living in one of the adjacent cottages.[13]  As the families grew, it is likely the main house and other buildings were extended to accommodate the whole clan.

It is likely that Ah Chee and the family would have participated with friends and workers at the gardens in many of the Chinese customary celebrations.

According to Sai Louie’s daughter May, the Ah Chees lived quite lavishly.  There were servants who helped with the housework and handcrafted their clothes. They had a privileged upbringing with extensive trips back to China.[14] Ah Chee was also prominent within Auckland social circles, as this article from the Observer and Free Lance (1894) shows:

On a recent Monday afternoon Lady Glasgow sent a note to her greengrocer (Ah Chee) that she and her daughters would pay him a visit at his home at Mechanics’ Bay Gardens on the following day. At the time appointed the ladies duly arrived, and were entertained by Mrs Ah Chee. The Ladies Boyle played and sang, partook of afternoon tea, fruit, etc., and the whole party (yellow and white) had a good time. Lady Glasgow requested a photo of the Chee family group for her album, and the delighted Chee immediately ordered a splendid enlarged photo. Ah Chee forwarded Lord Glasgow a present of half-a-dozen silk handkerchiefs from the Flowery Land. Aren’t the opposition greengrocers just mad![15]

Ah Chee assisted many Chinese workers to come to Auckland where he provided work and accommodation on the gardens.  The men were sponsored by payment of travel expenses and the poll tax.  They were offered work on the market gardens, in fruit shops and other enterprises. Some of the men working at Ah Chee’s garden were named by Alexander Don[16]  as living at ‘Ah Chee’s Gardens, Parnell’ in 1904. These were:


Chau Kee   周基                                 Chan Yee Tim   陈汝恬
Wong Shee Kwun   黄树羣               Kwan Yee Woon   关汝焕
Shum Yung Mui    关汝焕                 Lai Moon Gum 黎满金
Wai Chung Leung   韦仲良               Ng Hin Ting   吴衍庭


Immigration records show numerous Chinese were beholden to Ah Chee for work and aid during the turn of the century.[17] The Presbyterian missionary, Alexander Don (1857–1934), recorded a number of Chinese who gave their place of contact as Ah Chee’s Queen Street shop or Ah Chee’s garden.[18]

This cluster of kith and kin living and working at Kong Foong Yuen was most likely to have cultivated vegetables using methods that were familiar to them from rural Kwang Tung.  It is likely that seeds were saved from harvest to harvest, leaving the heads or pods to dry in the sun on large circular bamboo trays. The seeds sown in smaller beds were transplanted as young plants and carefully tended, weeded, and watered to ensure that they grew into mature crops. The gardeners would probably have used a bamboo pole with buckets attached to each end to transport water around the garden, and may have even used a chain pump to irrigate their crops.[19] Blood and bone and other manures such as horse or fowl manure, and perhaps even night soil[20] were used to enrich the soil.  It was common to use draught horses to till the soil and with Auckland’s warm, frost free climate at least two or even three crops could be grown from the same piece of land each year.

The main vegetables in demand in Auckland during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century included cabbages, peas, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, pumpkin, kumara and potatoes. The vegetables, freshly harvested, were often sold directly to the Auckland housewife; Chinese men hawking their produce from house to house were a familiar sight in the suburbs of Auckland. In Epsom the hawkers were described as ‘Chinese with pigtails and cone shaped straw hats with long poles over their shoulders, and baskets suspended from each end with vegetables.’[21]

Ah Chee also employed workers to distribute vegetables to boarding houses, hotels and his shops in Queen Street.  One such worker, Wong Mong Jook, who arrived in New Zealand on 27 November 1907, took up his first job in Ah Chee’s market garden. His initial tasks included delivering vegetables to shops by horse and dray.[22]   Ah Chee’s nephew, Sai Louie, also sold produce. May Sai Louie recalls that: He used to drive a horse and buggy delivering the goods to the hotels and carrying the heavy bags of potatoes and carrots up the stairs.’[23]

In 1905 with the purchase of 35 acres of market garden in Avondale, it is likely that the relatively small garden at Gillingham Street was also used as a depot for processing and packing vegetables and other goods such as ginger and picked vegetables. It is not known when members of the Ah Chee family moved away from Gillingham Street.  It may have occurred as the individual families became more established and the children grew older.  It is probable that the market garden workers would have stayed on, living in the houses and working the fields.

In 1920, after at least 30 years as a market garden under Ah Chee family’s care, the land and buildings were returned to their owners who were to lease it to the Auckland Rugby League Club for their playing fields. Using horse-drawn equipment, picks and shovels, volunteers helped shift the old house down from the southern ridge and turn it into the first dressing rooms for the players. The volunteers also constructed a 640-seat grandstand and the park, named after James Carlaw, was opened on 25th June 1921.[24]

Ah Chee’s garden at Gillingham Street

Figure 5: Ah Chee’s garden at Gillingham Street showing house on southern ridge with addition to eastern side, remnants of market gardens, and horses preparing the ground for sports fields. (c.1921, Auckland Rugby League Museum).

Archaeological findings at Kong Foong Yuen

The archaeological discovery in 2006 of Ah Chee’s market garden provides a great insight into how Ah Chee, his family, relatives and workers lived and functioned.  This discovery is significant as it is one of the first, and largest, archaeological excavations of an early Chinese site in the North Island.[25]  It is also an important addition to the historical record of Chinese market gardens in early Auckland. The final report will soon be available through the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.[26]

Of interest amongst the artefacts are the brown bulb-shaped clay bottles used to hold ng ka pei, a rice wine infused with the skins of five different fruits. This wine was very common amongst the early Chinese gold diggers who drank it for medicinal purposes. Likewise market gardeners, who suffered from foong sup (the rheumatic pains resulting from long hours of physical work in all weather conditions), often drank it to ease the pain.[27] The large quantity of rice wine bottles found suggests that it was commonly used at Kong Foong Yuen.

Implements typically used by Chinese market gardeners

Figure 6: Implements typically used by Chinese market gardeners such as hoes, pitchforks and grubbers were found at the site. Also found were shards of crockery typical of chinaware of the time. (2007, Lily Lee)

A letter to the editor, written to the local newspaper when the Auckland Rugby League Club started converting the market garden to a sports field, mentions two cottages that were occupied by the Chinese.[28] This letter probably refers to a house that was uncovered during the archaeological excavation: the house that was on the southern ridge which was destroyed by the establishment of the southern grandstand of the rugby field (formerly James Robertson’s house).  Ah Chee and his family probably lived in one, and Sai Louie and his family probably lived in the other. Sai Louie may have lived in the house on the ridge as a photo of Sai Louie’s wife shows a stepped ramp up to the front door.[29]

Foundation of brick chimney with two fireplace openings

Figure 8: Foundation of brick chimney with two fireplace openings, one facing north and the other (larger) facing south. (2007, Lily Lee)

Ah Chee probably extended the buildings and storage sheds as his business expanded and by the late 1890s there were a number of buildings on the site. A mortgage deed of 1897 (R57-183) suggests that the buildings were already established at this stage. Dr Bader gives his description of the site:

A 1908 survey map shows the area around the flour mill occupied by several buildings,mainly one storey buildings, mainly along the back of the ropewalk, intersected by a drainage channel. The buildings form a small precinct, possibly gated with a small stream running throughout the complex. A bridge links the buildings on either side of the stream… This gated building complex was probably used for the accommodation of workers as well as the place to prepare the produce for the two greengrocer shops Ah Chee owned on Queen Street.[30]

A large part of the precinct including the earlier flour mill was not excavated and is still in situ beneath the playground of the kindergarten currently occuping the site.

Survey map showing clusters of buildings on both sides of stream

Figure 9: Survey map showing clusters of buildings on both sides of stream and additions to Ah Chee’s house. (City of Auckland map, 14 May 1919, ACC014 F15, Auckland City Archives)

Establishing other Market Gardens

Ah Chee looked to establish more market gardens as demand for fresh vegetables increased. He provided produce for his own shops, which also supplied bulk orders to shipping lines, boarding houses and hotels. His gardens also supplied other shopkeepers and wholesalers throughout Auckland.

In the 1890s Ah Chee and three others (Ah Chong, Ming Ling and Ah Hing) leased one of the first recorded Chinese market gardens in Epsom from the Potter family.[31]  The district of Epsom was ideal for market gardening with its fertile volcanic loam soil, and as early as the 1870s the Government had earmarked Epsom for this purpose.[32] In 1904, Alexander Don records the following eight kinsmen as living at Ah Chee’s garden in Epsom.[33] They were:


Chan Chee Pui 陈柱培,                                  Chueng Chun 张春,
Wong Tung Ying黄同英,                               Lu Shack Chuen 卢石泉,
Chan Yun Hee 陈仁禧,                                  Chau Kin Wah 周健华,
Chau Hin Yueng 周显扬                                Chau Gee Sing 周志成.

From 1905 Ah Chee was noted as the owner and occupier of 35 acres of land in Rosebank Road Avondale.[34]  This was another fertile volcanic site ideal for market gardening. At the time Ah Chee’s garden was the biggest market garden on the Rosebank Peninsula. It continued to be used as a market garden until World War II when it became the site of the US Navy hospital. In 1945, after the war, the site was used for the establishment of Avondale College and Avondale Intermediate. Another Chinese family, the Ah Joongs who were related to Ah Chee, also gardened in Rosebank Road.

Aerial view of Avondale College and Avondale Intermediate School

Figure 10: Aerial view of Avondale College and Avondale Intermediate School, the site of Ah Chee’s market garden from 1905 to 1943 (27 February 1967, 580.14527, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland City Libraries)

Another market garden was established at Patumahoe, eight kilometres from Pukekohe, in 1925.  It was located in Day Road and covered thirteen acres.[35] Both the Avondale and Patumahoe market gardens were involved in a 1929 Government enquiry into the conditions and wages of Māori women working on Chinese market gardens. Although the committee found that as a general principle it was not in the interests of public morality for Māori women to work in Chinese market gardens, it was often out of economic necessity and any prohibition would result in hardship.[36]

Map showing location of market garden in Day Road, Patumahoe

Figure 11: Map showing location of market garden in Day Road, Patumahoe owned by Ah Chee & Co from 1925 to 1930. (Brian Foote Associates Ltd, 1999, Franklin District Council)

It is thought that there were other market gardens leased by Ah Chee over this period, however no accurate details have been found.  For instance, Cleave’s Auckland Provincial Directory for each of the years from 1894 to 1898 lists a market gardener by the name of ‘Ah Chee’ in Kuaotunu, however it is not known whether this refers to Chan Dah Chee.  In another example, the same Directory for 1919 and 1920 has listings for ‘W. Ah Chee’ in Marua (Whangarei), but it is not known whether these refer to market gardens or not.

Business Enterprises

It was the success of his gardens that enabled Ah Chee to move rapidly into other business enterprises.  By the 1880s and 1890s he had established a number of businesses.  The Auckland Star of 7 January 1929 described how he achieved success with ‘his baskets filled with produce harvested from his leased gardens in Gillingham Street … and … by honest trading and attention to business he climbed slowly up the ladder of business success….’

It was not long before the volume of trade produced by Ah Chee’s businesses had grown large enough to warrant a fleet of carts to transport goods around Auckland. From 1895 to 1899, he had four horse-and-cart teams based at Mechanics Bay. There was also an additional one based at Arch Hill in 1897.[37]

Ah Chee & Co delivery truck

Figure 12: Ah Chee & Co delivery truck (c. 1920s-1930s, Mavis Lowe)

In the 1880s Ah Chee established a string of shops along Queen Street in Auckland. Trading as Ah Chee & Co, he acquired his first fruit shop at 13 Queen Street, opposite the Chief Post office in 1880.  Although this shop started in a small way, by 1894 it had expanded to include imported Chinese groceries and merchandise. It was ideally situated for the public and remained the main shop until closing in 1928.  The Auckland Star records:

It was with a foresight that was characteristic of him that the founder of the firm chose his place of business, as it was immediately opposite the Auckland railway station, close to the waterfront, and ideally situated to cater for the requirements of the growing population of the North Shore suburbs.[38]

The second shop was at 1 Queen Street, at the corner of Quay Street opposite the ferry building. This shop was known as a major supplier to the shipping lines and hotels.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Ah Chee was also involved in running dining rooms, or small restaurants, firstly in Customs Street East in 1887 and 1888, and then at 29 and 187 Queen Street in 1889 to 1893.[39]

Ah Chee Dining Room at 29 Queen Street

Figure 13: Ah Chee Dining Room at 29 Queen Street (Josiah Martin, 29 January 1890, 7-A7720, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland City Libraries)

In 1919 the company opened a new shop at 242 Broadway, Newmarket.  Its position alongside the entrance to the Newmarket railway station made it ideal for sending fruit and vegetables to out-of-town customers.[40]  At about the same time, Ah Chee & Co opened another shop, with accommodation above it, in Parnell.[41]

In December 1927 a new shop was opened at 61 Queen Street, opposite the Dilworth building, to replace the main shop. On the occasion of the opening of the new fruit shop, the Auckland Star wrote that ‘The firm has had a most successful history, for the reason that the endeavour has always been made to give the utmost satisfaction to the public, and thus business connections made have always been maintained.’[42]

Alice Wong (daughter of Clement Ah Chee) recalls six shops owned by Ah Chee in Queen Street. There was ‘one at the bottom of Queen Street, one opposite the Chief Post Office, one where the Great Northern Arcade is now, one above the junction of Queen Street and Victoria Street, one by the Regent Cinema, and one by the BOAC office in Queen Street.’[43]  

Through all of his shops Ah Chee built up a large clientele and their operations were considered of a sizeable scale.   He set high standards amongst all his shops and had a policy of only selling goods of the best quality and value.

Ah Chee’s shop at 13 Queen St

Figure 14: Ah Chee’s shop (on right) at 13 Queen St in 1890s (c. 1890s James D, Richardson, 4-284 Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland City Libraries)

Exporting of Fungus

The dried fungus called muk yee meaning ‘wood ear’ is much sought after by the Chinese as a culinary delicacy. [44]  In 1871 Chew Chong discovered the fungus growing abundantly in Taranaki and began purchasing it from Europeans and Māori to export it to China. The trade soon flourished and many others became involved in the collecting, buying and selling of dried fungus.  In 1890, fungus represented 46 per cent, compared with gold that represented 32 per cent, of the total value of exports to China and Hong Kong.[45]

Very early on, Ah Chee branched out into the exporting of the dried fungus. He purchased fungus from agents who had set up depots around New Zealand, as well as buying it directly from the people who had collected it. Kathleen Garner was one such person. She remembers as a young girl collecting fungus for Ah Chee at Grahams Beach on the Awhitu Peninsula. She recalls ‘collecting sugar bags of fungus off the fallen karaka trees from down in the gullies, drying this out on sheets of iron, having to ram it into bags, and then selling it to Ah Chee in Auckland to make some money.’[46]

Ah Chee’s supply depot in Little Queen Street

Figure 15: Ah Chee’s supply depot in Little Queen Street, with truck parked outside, between Wingate & Co Ltd and Whitehead’s Silver Grid. (James D. Richardson, 27 August 1927, 4-7647, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland City Libraries)

The exporting of fungus was a very successful enterprise for Ah Chee.  Such was the strength and volume of his fungus exporting business that there was a dedicated supply depot located in Little Queen Street which was between Lower Albert Street and Queen Street.  The cable address of the company was “Fungus” and it warranted two telephone lines.[47]

‘Fungus put grandfather on his feet,’ Tommy Ah Chee has observed.[48]  Exporting of fungus to Hong Kong certainly provided Ah Chee with greater credentials to go on to import goods into the country. An example from the correspondence files of the Customs Department illustrates:

Ah Chee is either a partner or a close business connection of Kwong Tai Ou. He ships fungus to Kwong at cost price and receives silk in return at cost. Ah Chee says that local houses such as Milne and Choyce and John Court could not buy off Kwong at the prices on the invoice because there would be no profit for Kwong; it is only in consideration of Ah Chee acting as a buyer of fungus that he can get these prices.[49]

Other Business Interests

Ah Chee established banana and ginger plantations in Fiji. This was to ensure a continuous supply of bananas for the shops, and ginger for the pickling factories that were owned by the company.  Ah Chee entrusted his nephew Sai Louie to oversee the plantations.  Ernie Sai Louie said, ‘because of his business acumen, his Uncle Ah Chee sent him to Fiji where he was made responsible for starting and maintaining a banana and ginger plantation. This was to ensure that Ah Chee would have a continuous supply of these products for his factories and shops that were based in Auckland.’[50]

Correspondence between the Customs Department and Ah Chee serves to illustrate the range of goods that Ah Chee & Co imported, for example, preserves, fireworks, and Chinese groceries.[51]  At the time of a shortage of eggs in Auckland, he imported Canadian chilled eggs which were of great demand in his Queen Street shop.[52] Ah Chee also had a rabbit business in Rosebank Road, where skins were sorted, cured, sold and exported.  Prior to export they were stored at a depot in Stanley Street, at the bottom of Constitution Hill, where trucks and vegetables were also kept.[53]

Further interests included sheep farming and a poultry farm near his gardens in Rosebank Road, Avondale.  There he adopted the technology of egg incubators, which had been recently introduced into New Zealand.[54]

Photo of Ah Chee’s bulk store in Stanley Street

Figure 16: photo of Ah Chee’s bulk store in Stanley Street. It was taken over by Sai Louie after 1930. (James D Richardson, 1923, 4-1956, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland City Libraries)

Ah Chee’s family

Ah Chee was a family man who surrounded himself with his clan. Kong Foong Yuen provided a place where he could house and care for his family, close relatives and other fellow countrymen.  He lived and socialized communally with them and also involved many relatives in his business enterprises.  In particular his wife, nephew and two sons played a pivotal role in contributing to his business success. In 1882 Ah Chee became a naturalized New Zealander which allowed him to bring his wife Joong Chew Lee out from China.[55] She arrived in 1886, and was one of the very few Chinese women in New Zealand at that time. The 1881 census records only nine Chinese women in the colony compared with 4995 men so it was certainly unusual for Chinese women to be with their menfolk.  Joong Chew Lee was a very capable and strong woman. Her grasp of the English language and ability to read and write Chinese greatly assisted Ah Chee. She played an important role in overseeing many aspects of her husband’s business. Grandson Bruce Ah Chee, now aged 93, recalls that his grandmother was very supportive of her husband.  Joong Chew Lee was also known to be prominent in Auckland’s Chinese Christian community.[56]

Ah Chee and Joong Chew Lee had five children all born in Auckland.  Their first two children were twins who died at birth.  William Ah Chee 陈华富 (Chan Wah Fook) was born on the 25th December 1889, then Clement Ah Chee 陈华东 (Chan Wah Dong) born on the 29th November 1892, and lastly Arthur Ah Chee 陈华英 (Chan Wah Ying) born on the 19th March 1895.

Ah Chee’s three sons were amongst the earliest group of Chinese youth in Auckland and also amongst the earliest full-blooded Chinese to be born in New Zealand.[57] They had a privileged upbringing attending Wellesley School and Auckland Grammar School. The fact that Ah Chee was a prosperous businessman meant that the boys as they became young men had access to wealth and opportunity.[58] William and Clement both worked in their father’s company Ah Chee & Co from an early age.  They took on a number of responsibilities and were able to utilize their education and skills to assist their father to progress the business. The youngest son Arthur left New Zealand to live in China in 1915.

Nephew Sai Louie was another important family member.[59] Ah Chee brought him to New Zealand at the age of 16 in 1894. Sai Louie was to play an integral role in Ah Chee’s businesses and success and was known as an astute and clever business man.  His roles included the purchasing and exporting of fungus, the importing of Chinese foodstuffs, managing the fruit and vegetable businesses and handling all Chinese correspondence.[60]

It is evident from the family’s involvement in the business, that Ah Chee relied greatly upon the skills and abilities of his sons and nephew to assist him.  He provided them with much responsibility and felt confident that they could continue his business once he returned to China.

Joong Chew Lee, wife of Ah Chee

Figure 17: Joong Chew Lee, wife of Ah Chee (c. 1920s, Bruce Ah Chee)

End of an era

In 1914, Ah Chee handed over the management of the company to his two sons William and Clement.[61] Both were astute businessmen and had spent time working in different parts of the various business enterprises.  William initially took the reins of the company and it continued to prosper and expand for a decade or so.

William continued to successfully manage the fruit shops and the import and export businesses until he became ill in 1927. During William’s illness, Clement looked after the company and then when William died in 1929, Clement took over the reins and continued the family business until he and the family returned to China. About this time Clement proposed the idea of a Chinese market. Negotiations between A. B. Donald Ltd and the Chinese growers led to the establishment of a new company called ‘Produce Markets Ltd’. Both the Chinese growers themselves and the Donald family were shareholders in the new produce marketing company.[62]  Despite Clement’s original proposal, he was not included as a director but in 1931 he became a shareholder.[63]

However, as James Ng commented, Ah Chee’s sons were ‘typical of the second generation, they expanded very quickly, borrowed money and in the end could not repay it.’  The leases ran out on the market gardens and were not renewed or were taken over by others; most of the businesses were sold.[64] In the 1930s Clement left the company and New Zealand to live in China. The Great Depression had brought about a downturn in trade and the consequent financial collapse of many businesses throughout New Zealand; Ah Chee & Co was but one of them.

Unfortunately the demise of the company also coincided with the death of Ah Chee in Hong Kong in March 1930, aged 79 years. Madame Joong wrote to her grandson Norman (William’s son) to tell him of Ah Chee’s death and funeral arrangements.  Ah Chee’s funeral was held in Kwang Tung and it is highly likely that he was buried within the grounds of his mansion at Tung Shan. Within the next five years Madame Joong also died.[65]

From humble beginnings as a market gardener and produce hawker in New Zealand, Chan Dah Chee became a successful and prominent businessman.  He worked hard and made the most of opportunities that came his way.  He certainly fulfilled the dream of going to a strange land to make his fortune and he returned to his homeland of China with his wealth. The mansion that he built in Tung Shan is testament to his success.

Ah Chee was known as one of the ‘leading Chinese’ in Auckland. In this capacity he was called upon, along with James Ah Kew and Thomas Quoi, to ensure that Chinese language versions of the newly-passed Opium Act were distributed to every Chinese household in the Auckland area.[66]

James Ng remarked, ‘Ah Chee was a true pioneer of his times, he was one of Auckland’s founding fathers of Chinese “the Sew Hoy of Auckland”. His influence was of a huge magnitude’.[67]

Appendix: Chinese market gardens in early Auckland

On 23 October 1866, a ‘party of 16 Chinese arrived at Auckland and established market gardens.’[68] There is no further information relating to this newspaper report but this group could be considered to be among the first Chinese market gardeners in Auckland. According to the Census for 1867, the total population of the Auckland province at that time was around 48,000. However as the Census did not collect any information either on the Chinese or on market gardening, we can only imagine the situation from 1871 onwards. The Census for 1871 recorded a total of only eight Chinese living in Auckland. In that same year, a report to the Chinese Immigration Committee noted that 49 Chinese gave their occupation as market gardeners however the majority of them lived in Otago and Westland.[69]

According to the census figures for 1874 there were fifteen Chinese (fourteen men and one woman) living in Auckland in contrast to a total population of 67,451.  By 1886, the number of Chinese in Auckland had increased significantly to 163 persons (157 men and 6 women) with the total population nearly doubling in numbers to 130,339. It is not known how many of the Chinese in Auckland were working in market gardens.

The New Zealand-wide economic depression of 1886 to 1893 was severe and impacted on the whole population. Chinese market gardeners were also affected. Ah Quoi, a prominent Aucklander who was also known as Thomas Quoi, was reported as saying:

They used to earn on an average £2 to £4 a week, now they do not earn ten shillings. New chums cannot get a living if they come out, and the Chinese at Arch Hill are in a very bad state just now, they are not earning tucker. They work from daylight to dark. They do not look at the clock to see when it is time to stop…[70]


Our grateful thanks are extended to the descendants of Ah Chee who helped us write this story by sharing their lives and experiences, their personal information and photos, and by verifying information found in other sources.

Bruce Ah Chee, son of Clement Ah Chee and grandson of Ah Chee. On his return from China, Bruce attended Newmarket School for a couple of years then worked for Francis Wong Hop for three to four years before starting his own carrying business. In 1944, he married Grace Gee (Gee Mu Duk) the daughter of Gee Dong from Gee Wong Tong, Jung Seng. Bruce was interviewed by Lily Lee in August 2006 and October 2007.

May Sai Louie, daughter of Sai Louie. May (Chan Sen Keen) and her family lived with Ah Chee in Tung Shan from 1924 before returning to New Zealand in 1929. She worked with her parents in their shop in Onehunga for 59 years. May was interviewed by Eva Ng on 27 December 1987 and by Lily Lee on 21 December 2007.

Gwen Sai Louie, Ernie Sai Louie’s wife and daughter-in-law of Sai Louie. Gwen (Wong Koon Wun) is the daughter of Robert Wong Toi (Wong Yeu Toi) from Ging Boi, See Yip and Gock Oi Toi of Jook Sow Yuen, Chung Shan. She married Ernie Sai Louie (Chan See Chun) in 1952. Ernie’s father took over the dried fungus trade from Ah Chee & Co and then started up a fruit and Chinese grocery shop at 171 Queen Street, Onehunga. It was Ernie’s job to collect the dried fungus that was sold to agents in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. On his frequent trips down country he would take Chinese foodstuffs with him to sell. Gwen was interviewed by Lily Lee in November 2007 and September 2008.

David and Susan Wong, children of Alice Wong Hop (nee Ah Chee) and grandchildren of Clement Ah Chee.  Alice and her husband Francis Wong Hop had a fruit shop in Symonds Street, Royal Oak. Francis also transported produce twice a week to provincial towns such as Cambridge, Morrinsville, Te Aroha, Waihi and Paeroa. Susan compiled the family history booklet titled ‘A Brief History of Chan Dar Chee and his two sons, William and Clement.’  David is writing a family history of Clement Ah Chee and his descendants.

Mavis Lowe is the eldest daughter of Norman Ah Chee and grand-daughter of William Ah Chee. In 1930, when Mavis was two years old, her mother died. She was then looked after by her grandmother Loo Yuk Ngan at Ah Chee’s house in Tung Shan with other members of the Ah Chee family until she was about ten years old. Mavis remembers her grandmother talking about Kong Foong Yuen. Mavis and her grandmother returned to New Zealand with Clement, Tom and Betty in 1938.  In 1951 Mavis married Harry Lowe (Lowe Yee War) from Yuen Ha, Poon Yue.  They grew kumara and glasshouse tomatoes and cucumbers in Roscommon Road, Wiri for eleven years before moving to Alfriston Road, Manurewa to grow strawberries, glasshouse tomatoes and glasshouse grapes.  Mavis and Harry retired from growing in the early 1990’s. Mavis was interviewed by Lily Lee in May 2009.


Unpublished Sources

Archives and Manuscripts:

Archives New Zealand, Customs & Marine Department, Inward Correspondence, 1865-1890, BBAO 5544 190a 1886/702.

Archives New Zealand, Customs & Marine Department, Inward Correspondence, BBAO 5544 236a 1913/2591.

Archives New Zealand, Customs & Marine Department, Inwards Correspondence, BBAO 5544 105a 1908/796; BBAO 5544 124a 1910/1537; BBAO 5544 148a 1913/1446.

Archives New Zealand, Customs & Marine Department, Inward Correspondence, 1865-1890, BBAO 212a 5544 190a 1902/1105.

Archives New Zealand, Franklin County Council Rate Books, Mauku Riding, 1925 to 1930.

Archives New Zealand, Report to Chinese Immigration Committee, Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR), 1871, H-5A, p. 13.

Archives New Zealand, Report of Committee on Employment of Maoris on Market Gardens, Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR), 1929, G-11, pp. 1-6.

Auckland City Archives, Avondale Road Board rate book, AVB 005/1.

Auckland City Archives, City of Auckland map, 14 May 1919, ACC 014 F15.

Auckland City Archives, Valuation Field Sheets, ACC 213/25b Box 25, Letter to the Editor of an Auckland newspaper, c. 1920-1921.

Auckland City Archives, Register of Licenses: Drivers; Porters; Carriages; Carters; Private Carts, 1895-1899, ACC 343 Item No 1, Pages 83, 91, 98, 101, 105, 112.

Auckland City Archives, Burgess Roll, 1890-1891, ACC396 Item No 1d Page No 1.

Personal Papers:

Produce Markets Ltd, Minutes of Shareholders meetings, Auckland, 1930.

Unpublished Reports:

Hans-Dieter Bader, Research Strategy: Carlaw Park, Auckland, Geometria Ltd, October 2006.

Hans-Dieter Bader, Preliminary Archeological Excavation Report: Carlaw Park, Auckland, Geometria Ltd, April 2008.

Hans-Dieter Bader and Janice Adamson, Kong Foong Yuen- the Garden of Prosperity. Final Report on the Archaeological Excavations at Carlaw Park, Auckland, Authority 2007-48 (Auckland: report for Haydn and Rollett Construction, 2011).

Theses and Research Papers:

Jessica Heine, Colonial anxieties and the construction of identities: The employment of Maori women in Chinese market gardens, Auckland 1929, MA thesis, University of Waikato, 2006.

Eva Wong Ng, Greys Avenue and the Auckland Chinese Scene 1890-1960s, presented at NZCA Conference, 4 June 2005, p.3.


Bruce Ah Chee, interviews, August 2006 and October 2007, Auckland, Lily Lee.

Ernie Sai Louie, interview, 8 May 2004, Auckland, Celine Kearney.

May Sai Louie, interview, 27 December 1987, Auckland, Eva Ng.

May Sai Louie, interview, 21 December 2007, Auckland, Lily Lee.

Personal Communications:

Turner, Jack, Turners and Growers and the New Zealand Chinese, personal papers, 1990.

James Ng, 4 December 2007, personal communication with Lily Lee.

David Wong, 22 October 2009, personal email communication with Ruth Lam.

Published Sources


Auckland Star, 3 December 1927, p. 12

Auckland Star, January 7, 1929

Auckland Star, 23 October 1956

New Zealand Herald, 29 August 1919, p. 9

New Zealand Herald, 3 July 1976, p. 15

Observer, 31 March 1894

Wanganui Herald, 7 May 1888, p. 2.


Outlook, 1 August 1908, p. 13

Auckland Museum, ‘The Ah Chee family’, MQ: Museum Quarterly, Issue 110, 2007, p. 4

Auckland Rugby League, ‘Carlaw Park’, Rugby League Annual , 1933, pp. 197-199.

Rose Hoare, ‘Parnell – Metro magazine’s walk’, Metro , November, 2004.

Rachel Macdonald, ‘Mixed-use facility’, Heritage New Zealand , Autumn, 2008, pp. 20-24.

Joyce Powell, ‘The Chinese Experience’,  New Zealand Historic Places, 2000, pp. 21-22.

Gilbert Wong, ‘The Originals’, Metro, June 2004, no. 276, p. 64-73.


A Brief History of Chan Dar Chee, and his Two Sons, William and Clement,  Auckland, New Zealand, 1991.

Susanna Burton & Jack Leigh, Parnell, Auckland, Millwood Press, 1978.

Graham William Bush, The History of Epsom, Auckland, Epsom and Eden District Historical Society, 2006.

Nerida  Campbell, ‘Auckland’s original shoreline’, Auckland city heritage walks , Auckland,  Auckland City, 2005.

Henry Chan, Zengcheng New Zealanders: a history for the 80th anniversary of the Tung Jung Association of New Zealand Incorporated,  Wellington, Tung Jung Association of New Zealand Inc., 2007.

Manying Ip, Dragons on the Long White Cloud: the making of Chinese New Zealanders, North Shore City, Tandem Press, 1996.

Manying Ip, Home away from home, Auckland, New Women’s Press,  1990.

Lucy Miles, With a Ciew to the Future, Auckland, Museum Circle Foundation, 2006.

James Ng, Windows on a Chinese Past, Vol. 1,  Dunedin, Otago Heritage Books, 1993.

James Ng, Windows on a Chinese Past, Vol. 2,  Dunedin, Otago Heritage Books, 1995.

James Ng, Windows on a Chinese Past, Vol. 3,  Dunedin, Otago Heritage Books, 1999.

James Ng, Windows on a Chinese Past, Vol. 4,  Dunedin,  Otago Heritage Books, 1993

Ron Oates, The Challenge of the Whau: A History of Avondale 1750-1990, Avondale,  Avondale History Group, 1994.

Ken Stead,  One Hundred I’m Bid: A Centennial History of Turners & Growers,  Auckland,  Kestrel Publishing, 1977.

Non-written material:

Alma Aspin, Sports/Memories. Retrieved from Custodians for a century: 1881-2001:

Timespanner blog

[1] This is an abridged version of Lily Lee and Ruth Lam, 陈达枝 Chan Dah Chee, 1851-1930: Pioneer Chinese Market Gardener and Auckland Businessman (no place: Lily Lee and Ruth Lam, 2009). This was a report prepared for and funded by Hans-Dieter Bader and Janice Adamson on behalf of Haydn and Rollett Construction, Auckland. The authors thank Drs Bader and Adamson for permission to draw from that research for this paper. A copy of the original publication can be obtained by contacting the authors: [email protected]; [email protected]

[2] Chan Dah Chee is Ah Chee’s full name. It has been spelt in various ways over the years, however the Romanisation used in this document reflects the pronunciation chun daat jee favoured by Bruce Ah Chee, grandson of Ah Chee.

[3] This story has been pieced together from a range of sources which include historical records and archives, interviews with family members, the findings from the archaeological discovery in 2006 and articles written by researchers.

[4] Ernie Sai Louie, interview, 8 May 2004, Celine Kearney. In the Brief History of Chan Dar Chee, and his two sons, William and Clement, written for the Ah Chee family reunion, Chan Dah Chee is recorded as coming to New Zealand between the late 1860s and early 1870s.

[5] Ah Chee’s older brother Chan Yun Gee (Sai Louie’s father) did not like the Auckland climate and returned to China.

[6] From 1850 to 1875, the part of Queen Street north of Victoria Street was known as Lower Queen Street.

[7] Bernard Orsman, ‘Chinese reflect on colonial roots’, New Zealand Herald, 18 September 2009.

[8] The land (Pt. Allotment 1 Sect 98 & 99 Suburbs of Auckland, CT 6/180) had been part of the 1856 Auckland Hospital Endowment, and was granted by the Crown to the Auckland Hospital Board in 1859.

[10] James Ng, Windows on a Chinese Past, Otago Heritage Books, Dunedin, 1993, Vol. 4, pp. 156-157.  Alexander Don’s Roll noted that in 1904 the rent on Ah Chee’s 6 acres at Parnell gardens was £90 per annum.

[11] In the years to come, the low-lying, poor-draining land was to become the bane of the Auckland Rugby League Club; Carlaw Park was well-known for its muddy sports fields.

[12] Although Chan Ying Kew was his proper name, he was given the nickname sai nui which means ‘little girl’, to protect him against ill-fortune. It was then recorded by immigration officials as ‘Sai Louie’.  He was also known as ‘Chan Sai Louie’. Wong, Gilbert, ‘The Originals’, Metro, June 2004, no. 276, p. 64-73.

[13] Ng, Vol. 4, p. 158-159.  Alexander Don’s Roll gave the address for Chan Ying Kew (No. 2226) as Parnell Gardens in 1904.  Sai Louie’s daughter May was born at Gillingham Street in 1912 and his son Gordon was also born there in 1915 (see May Sai Louie, interview, 21 December 2007, Lily Lee).

[14] May Sai Louie, interview, 27 December 1987, Eva Ng.

[15] Observer, 31 March 1894.

[16] Ng, Vol. 4, pp. 160-161. The names were translated into English by Reg Wong Toi.

[17] Ng, Vol. 3, p. 235.

[18] Ng, Vol. 4, Alexander Don’s Roll.

[19] Ng, Vol. 1, p. 19 has a photo of the type of chain pump used for irrigating crops in China in the 1900s.

[20] Using human waste was a very common practice in South China until more recent times. It was highly unlikely to be practised in commercial gardening in New Zealand, but was not unheard of in home gardens.

[21] Bush, Graham William, The History of Epsom, Epsom & Eden District Historical Society, Auckland, 2006, p. 17.

[22] Chan, Henry, Zengcheng New Zealanders: A History for the 80th Anniversary of the Tung Jung Association of New Zealand Incorporated, Tung Jung Association of New Zealand Inc., Wellington, 2007, p. 44.

[23]May Sai Louie, interview, 21 December 2007, Auckland, Lily Lee.

[24] James Carlaw was the chairman of the Auckland Rugby League committee that secured the land and developed the ground.

[25] Rachel Macdonald, ‘Mixed-use Facility’, Heritage New Zealand, no. 108, 2008, pp. 20-24.

[26] Hand-Dieter Bader and Janice Adamson, ‘Kong Foong Yuen – The Garden of Prosperity. Final Report on the Archaeological Excavations at Carlaw Park, Auckland, Autority 2007-48’ (Auckland: unpublished report for Haydn and Rollett Construction, 2011).

[27] According to Gwen Sai Louie (Ernie Sai Louie’s wife), this was one of the main reasons for its use.

[28] Letter to the Editor of Auckland newspaper, c. 1920-1921, in Auckland City Council Valuation Field Sheets, ACC 213/25b Box 25, Auckland City Archives.

[29] This is the building that the Rugby League club volunteers eventually moved down from the ridge to use as their dressing sheds. Auckland Rugby League, ‘Carlaw Park’, Rugby League Annual, 1933, pp. 197-199.

[30] Bader, Hans-Dieter, Research Strategy: Carlaw Park, Auckland, Geometria Ltd, 2006, pp. 6-7.

[31] Bush, p. 77.

[32] Bush, p. 17.

[33] Ng, Vol. 4, pp. 160-161.

[34] Avondale Road Board rate book, Auckland City Archives,  AVB 005/1.

[35] Franklin County Council Rate Books, Mauku Riding, 1925 to 1930.

[36] Report of Committee on Employment of Maoris on Market Gardens, Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR), 1929, G-11, pp. 1-6.

[37] Auckland City Archives Register of Licenses: Drivers; Porters; Carriages; Carters; Private Carts, 1895-1899, ACC 343 Item No 1, Pages 83, 91, 98, 101, 105, 112.

[38] Auckland Star, 3 December 1927, p. 12.

[39] Auckland City Archives, Burgess Roll, 1890-1891, ACC396 Item No 1d Page No 1.

[40] New Zealand Herald, 3 July 1976, p. 15.

[41] Bruce Ah Chee, interview, August 2006, Lily Lee.

[42] Auckland Star, 3 December 1927, p. 12.

[43] A Brief History of Chan Dar-Chee, and his Two Sons, William and Clement, 1991.  Alice refers to the locations of the buildings as they were during the 1960s.

[44] Botanical name, auricularia.

[45] Ng, Vol. 3, p. 304.

[47] Ip, Manying, Dragons on the Long White Cloud: The Making of Chinese New Zealanders, Tandem Press, North Shore City, 1996, p. 41.

[48] New Zealand Herald, 3 July 1976, p. 15.

[49] Customs & Marine Department, Inward Correspondence, BBAO 5544 236a 1913/2591.

[50] Ernie Sai Louie, interview, 8 May 2004, Celine Kearney.

[51] Customs & Marine Department, Inwards Correspondence, BBAO 5544 105a 1908/796; BBAO 5544 124a 1910/1537; BBAO 5544 148a 1913/1446.

[52] A Brief History of Chan Dar Chee.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.

[55] The Brief History of Chan Dar Chee, and his two sons, William and Clement names Ah Chee’s wife as “Rain Chee” and said she was born about 1869; the actual date is not known.

[56] Outlook, 1 August 1908, p. 13.

[57] Ip, p. 42.

[58] Mavis Lowe says her grandfather William Ah Chee was friends with the Kerridge family.

[59] For more information on Chan Ying Kew, see Chan Ying Kew and Chung Han Lim based on an interview with Ernie Sai Louie, 8 May 2004, Celine Kearney.

[60] May Sai Louie, interview, 21 December 2007, Lily Lee.

[62] Stead, Ken, One Hundred I’m Bid: a Centennial History of Turners & Growers, Kestrel Publishing, Auckland, 1997, p. 47.

[63] The first general meeting of shareholders of Produce Markets Ltd was held 17 October 1930 with Fong Foo Soo, Thomas Wong Doo Senior and Thomas Wong Doo Junior as directors, and W. A. Donald as Chairman.

[64] A few of the businesses were taken up by other family members. For example, Norman Ah Chee (William’s son) continued the Newmarket fruit shop for a time before renting a premise and moving his fruit shop to Remuera Road. Nephew Sai Louie took over the fungus trade and set up a fruit and grocery business in 171 Queen Street, Onehunga in 1929.

[65] David Wong, 22 October 2009, personal email communication with Ruth Lam.

[66] Customs & Marine Department, Inward Correspondence, 1865-1890, BBAO 5544 212a 1902/1150.

[67] James Ng, 4 December 2007, personal communication with Lily Lee.

[68] Auckland Star, 23 October 1956. From a chronology, compiled by Mr Forbes Eadie between 1937 and 1940, of the information found in the shipping lists of the troopships that arrived in Auckland between the 1860s and WWI.

[69]Report to Chinese Immigration Committee, Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR), 1871, H-5A, p. 13.

[70] Report from Auckland correspondent in Wanganui Herald, 7 May 1888, p. 2.