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The story of one of the first Chinese women in Auckland

Published: 10 October 2018
Joong Chew Lee - Used with kind permission from Tina and Ric Ah Chee

Avondale’s Chinese market gardens are a vital part of Auckland’s history. Operating from 1904 and went through to the early 1990s, the gardens helped supply homes all over the city with fresh vegetables and fruit.

The gardens were largely managed and worked on by Chinese men who came to New Zealand alone. Chinese women in Auckland at the time were rare and outnumbered, and few ventured to New Zealand in those early years.

However one of the few women who did was Joong Chew Lee. 

Life in Auckland  

Joong Chew Lee arrived in New Zealand from China in 1886 at a time when there were few Chinese women in Auckland - only nine in the whole of New Zealand according to the 1881 census. 

Madame Joong’s husband, Chan Dah Chee (known as Ah Chee) was a flourishing market gardener, and from the moment she arrived onshore Joong played a crucial role in his success. Able to read, write and speak English, she oversaw many aspects of Ah Chee’s business and acted as hostess to consolidate his position in the community, including on one occasion entertaining the governor’s wife Lady Glasgow.

The couple’s business quickly expanded from running market gardens to managing shops and restaurants, and importing and exporting food and fresh produce. They supported many of the Chinese men coming to New Zealand – including paying their poll taxes and providing work and accommodation to get them on their feet.

The story of one of the first Chinese women in Auckland (1)
Observer, 31 March 1894, p. 6.

Making home

Madame Joong and Ah Chee made their home at Chan Dar Chee’s market garden, known as Kong Foong Yuen 江风园 Garden of Prosperity, in Parnell – which later became the famous rugby league ground Carlaw Park.

Despite the couple’s success, Madame Joong faced significant discrimination throughout her life – she was not able to settle here until her husband had become a naturalized New Zealand citizen. Although she lived to see the passing of suffrage law, Chinese men and women were excluded from voting between 1908 and 1952. 

If you’re keen to discover more about the Avondale Chinese market gardeners, head along to a talk at Auckland Heritage Festival with historian Lisa Truttman this Saturday. 

Legacy 

Joong Chew Lee and Chan Dah Chee retired to China in 1920, and she passed away in the 1930s. Their descendants continued in business, with one of their grandsons going on to found Foodtown supermarkets.

While the home no longer stands, you can find out more about their daily life through the archaeological survey of the site, viewed here.

The story of one of the first Chinese women in Auckland (2)
Members of the present day Dah Chee family and Chinese community cleaning artefacts from Chan Dar Chee's Market Garden; the Kong Foong Yuen 江风园 or The Garden of Prosperity. Photograph from Archaeology Solutions Ltd.