Life Before Plastic: An Introduction

‘Rubbish’ is the most common thing we find on our 19th century archaeological sites. I have ‘rubbish’ in quotation marks because to us what we find isn’t rubbish, it’s the material evidence of what life was like in the early years of colonial New Zealand. The everyday items and the more unusual objects that help to tell us more about the successes and struggles of New Zealand’s first settlers and their families. Yet, to the people these items belonged to, they were rubbish; products that had served a purpose and were no longer needed. As archaeologists, it’s exciting that we’re finding 150-year old rubbish. As humans living at a time where global warming is an imminent threat to our own society, it’s concerning we’re finding 150-year old rubbish.

In the 19th century people would often dig holes in their backyard to dispose of rubbish. These rubbish pits are one of the most common features we find on archaeological sites in Christchurch. Image: T. Anderson

This is the first of a series of blog posts looking at the archaeology of 19th century Christchurch through the modern lenses of climate change and the growing problem of plastic pollution. Normally, when we write on the things we find we use an archaeological lens, asking questions like why were these artefacts disposed of? Who do they belong to? Where did they come from? Were they common or rare? What do they say about the people who disposed of them? Can they tell us more about what life was like in Christchurch in the 19th century?

In this blog series we’re going to take a different approach, asking questions like what did people use when they didn’t have plastic? How does life in the 19th century compare to now? What materials, objects and practices were present then that don’t exist now? Were these precursors to current ways of doing things? Were they better for the environment? Can we look to the past to help us now in the present? We’re still going to be looking at the archaeology of Christchurch, just interpreting it in a slightly different way.

I have multiple reasons for wanting to do this blog series. I’m 24, climate change is going to affect my life and it’s definitely going to impact on the lives of any children I have: it’s in my best interests to start debate on the topic and provide new ways of approaching it. I also want to write on this topic because it is current. One of the things we face all the time as archaeologists is having to justify our work. There are so many people out there who don’t understand what we’re doing/don’t see the value of recording our heritage/think that it’s a waste of time. When we can take what we find and put it into a framework that uses archaeological evidence to tackle modern problems then that adds even more value to the (already valuable) work we do. Finally, I want to write on it because I’ve never lived in a world where plastic doesn’t exist. Plastic has played a role in every single thing I have done in my life, from the plastic car seat I went home from the hospital in, to the plastic drink bottle I’m sipping out of now. I don’t think there’s been a single day of my life where I haven’t used a plastic object, so I think that looking at life before plastic is really interesting because modern society is untenable without it.

Count the plastic in the picture. I can see at least 25 items made of plastic, many of which I use daily to do my job (the Favourites are definitely essential). Image: C. Watson.

The Victorian era is a particularly interesting period to look back at through this modern lens of plastic pollution because it was during this time that so many of the things we now take for granted were invented. The Industrial Revolution began roughly a hundred years before the Victorian era. Technological developments in the textile industry led to more technological developments that could be used in other industries which led to even more technological developments and before you know it we went from writing with ink and quill pens in 1750 to typing on laptops in 2019 (John Green does a far better quick explanation here).

A few of the many things invented just prior to and during the Victorian era are:

  • Tin cans: In 1810 Peter Duran patented the idea, in 1813 the first commercial canning factory was opened and in 1846 mass-manufacture of tin cans began.
  • Cardboard boxes: Single sheet cardboard boxes were in use around 1817, although the exact inventor of them is not known. Corrugated cardboard was invented in 1856 and in 1871 Albert Jones patented an early style of cardboard box. It wasn’t until 1879 that the single sheet cardboard folded boxes that we use today were invented.
  • Paper bags: In 1799 Louis-Nicolas Robert invented a machine that produced rolls of paper. These were used to make rudimentary folded bags, but it wasn’t until 1852 that envelope-style paper bags were invented. These were surpassed in 1871 when Margaret Knight patented her machine that produced flat-bottomed paper bags, similar to what’s available today.
  • Plastic (kind of): The first man-made plastic was invented by Alexander Parkes who displayed it at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London. Called Parkesine after Parkes, it was derived from cellulose. Another early plastic was celluloid, invented by John Wesley Hyatt in 1868 as a substitute for ivory in billiard balls. Further advances took place at the end of the 19th century, with Bakelite invented in the early 20th

What’s notable when we look back at the Victorian era is that many of the things we now view as being more environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic were only just being invented. We predominantly excavate archaeological sites that date between 1860 and 1900. These sites were occupied throughout these years of invention, meaning we can see what people used prior to new technologies being developed, the adoption of new technologies, and then their success as they became widespread and mass manufactured. You may have picked up that all the new technologies I’ve listed above are forms of packaging. That’s because in the second part of this series we are going to look specifically at packaging, what we find in the archaeological record and how it differs to what is used today.

The second half of the 19th century strikes me as an exciting period to have lived in. It was a time of possibility: new things were being invented regularly and people were wealthier, healthier and better educated. All of this is similar to the period we live in now. Yet for the people of the 19th century there was a cost to this development, particularly for those who worked in large industrial factories and lived alongside them. In the same vein, whilst we might be benefiting from the technological developments of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, we’re currently having to deal with the consequences of those developments.

Plastic pollution is just one of these consequences, and it’s something us archaeologists see all the time. Whilst we only investigate features that were created prior to the year 1900, we come across lots of 20th century rubbish pits. Many of these 20th century pits contain plastic objects, and these objects don’t look like they’ve aged a day. When we put plastic into the ground it’s going to be there for hundreds of years- no doubt future archaeologists will study plastic artefacts in the same way we study ceramic and glass now. By looking at life before plastic hopefully we’re able to imagine a future without it.

Spot the plastic. Image: A. Trendafilov.

Clara Watson

 

The Ng King Brothers Chinese Market Garden Settlement

Today on the blog we’re talking about an exciting project that we’ve been involved with over the past few months. In 2013 the Ashburton District Council took over stewardship of the Ng King Brothers Chinese Market Garden Settlement on Allens Road, Ashburton, making a commitment to administer the land as a reserve and to preserve the heritage values of the property. The Ng King Brothers were Chinese market gardeners, owning and operating the largest market garden in the South Island. In its heyday the gardens served people across the Ashburton district, with over 80 people lived at the property. Today it appears to be the only Chinese market gardening settlement with original buildings still intact in New Zealand (Baird 2017: 22).

Buildings from the Ng King Brothers Chinese Market Garden Settlement. Image: Baird 2017: 36.

The Ng family were a group of brothers from Taishan in the Guangdong province, China. The family settled in Gore in 1905, opening a laundry and a market garden, with more family members arriving from China in 1917 (Baird 2017: 7). Market gardening had become a common occupation for Chinese following the end of most goldmining in the 1890s. The Chinese adapted the gardening skills they had brought with them to the New Zealand climate, purchasing or leasing land to grow fruit and vegetables on that they then sold at markets or in shops.

The arrival of the Ng family to New Zealand came after the main period of early Chinese immigration that took place during the 1860s Otago goldrush. Chinese miners had gained a reputation on the Australian goldfields for working hard and living frugally and were invited to the Otago goldfields following the initial rush. The first Chinese miners arrived in Otago in 1865, providing a new workforce for the region after many of the original miners had moved on to goldfields in Hokitika and Nelson. By 1872 there were 4,700 Chinese in New Zealand, with many coming directly from China rather than via the Australian goldfields (Baird 2017: 7).

The move to a foreign country with a different people, language, culture and customs must have been daunting for the Ng family. This move was likely made even more difficult by the open hostility of New Zealanders towards the Chinese.  Despite the Chinese being invited to New Zealand in the 1860s, anti-Chinese sentiments had developed within the mostly white New Zealand population over the following decades. In 1881 the New Zealand government introduced a poll tax of £10 per person to discourage further Chinese immigration. This increased to £100 per person in 1896, with a reading test introduced later as well (Lam et al. 2018: 12). Further anti-Chinese legislation was introduced during the twentieth century, with a 1908 act denying the Chinese the right to become naturalised. This act remained in place until 1951, and under it Chinese had to register and report any changes to their name, address or employment with the police. Anti-Chinese settlement was strong at the start of the twentieth century, with organisations such as the Anti-Asiatic League, Anti-Chinese League, and the White New Zealand League appearing (Lam et al. 2018: 14).

A common sentiment among anti-Chinese groups was the perception that Chinese market gardeners were taking business away from European market gardeners. This view, expressed in newspapers of the time, was somewhat unfounded given Chinese fruiterers and greengrocers always made up less than half of the total fruiterers and greengrocers in New Zealand between 1874 and 1945 (Lam et al. 2018: 16). Image: Observer 12/12/1896: 11.

Following a flood that damaged their gardens in Gore, the Ng family moved to Ashburton in 1921 and established a market garden on Allens Road, trading under the name of King Bros. The name ‘King’ came from a mixture of the European pronunciation of Ng as ‘Ning’ and the name ‘Kane’ which was the middle part of four of the Ng brothers birth names (Baird 2017: 9). The King Bros were highly successful, and their garden became the largest in the South Island. The brothers travelled by horse and cart around the district to sell their vegetables, also running a store from one of the sheds in the yard on Allens Road. The horses and carts were replaced with trucks in the 1940s, with these travelling to Mt Somers, Mayfield, Chertsey, Rakaia, Hinds and Methven once a week to sell vegetables to the farms there (Lam et al. 2018: 113). In 1945 the King Bros established a fruit shop in Burnett Street. With the expansion of the business they began travelling to Christchurch to buy additional produce to sell at the store.

The King Bros partners in the 1930s. Image: Ashburton Museum and Historical Society Collection and Ng Family (Baird 2017: 7).

In 1964 Young King, along with his sons Yep, Hong and Tong, formed a partnership and took over the King Bros fruit shop in Burnett Street (Lam et al. 2018: 114). Young King was one of the original Ng brothers who formed the King Bros partnership. He came from the Wing Loon village in Taishan at age 15 to join his brothers in New Zealand. Like the rest of the Ng family members that were living in Ashburton, Young had a wife and children back in China, and he made several trips back to Taishan to visit them during the 1930s and 1940s. The poll-tax and other anti-Chinese legislation prevented Young from moving his family to New Zealand.

In 1938 the Japanese forces, that had previously invaded China in 1931, moved into southern China attacking the home villages of the New Zealand Chinese. Young’s family village was in the south and his family were living with the threat of the Japanese. After appeals by the New Zealand Chinese Association and the Presbyterian Church, the New Zealand government allowed Chinese refugees to flee to New Zealand. Between 1939 and 1941, 249 women and 244 children made the journey to New Zealand, joining their husbands and fathers that had previously been living alone (Lam et al. 2018: 17). In 1949 Young’s family was allowed to immigrate to New Zealand as war refugees and, following the legislation changes of the 1950s, the family became New Zealand citizens in 1963. The reuniting of families resulted in a new generation of Chinese New Zealanders that were born in New Zealand during and following the war years.

By the mid-twentieth century New Zealand perceptions of the Chinese had changed, and some of the outright racism seen in earlier decades had disappeared. During the war there were Chinese who enlisted to fight overseas, whilst others served the country by producing food for troops. In the 1950s the New Zealand government changed its stance on the Chinese, allowing them to become naturalised again. However, it wasn’t until 1986 that the immigration status of Chinese and European migrants was made equal. In 2002 the New Zealand government apologised to the Chinese people for the racist legislation that was enacted during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and established the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust as compensation.

View of a Chinese market garden during World War II. Ref: 1/4-001319-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.  /records/23130866.

The 1964 partnership between Young King and his sons Yep, Hong and Tong resulted in a new period of prosperity for the business. After they had taken over the shop on Burnett Street, the father and sons gutted and refitted the store, with the 1965 grand reopening reported in the newspapers. In 1966 they expanded, opening an additional store on Harrison Street. Young and Yep managed the daily running of the shops, whilst Hong and Tong bought produce at the markets to supply the shops, wholesale orders and the country runs (Lam et al. 2018: 114). The King Bros dominated the Ashburton market, supplying hotels, dairies, grocery stores, hospitals, boarding-houses, ski lodges, shearing gangs and Ministry of Work camps with fruit and vegetables (Lam et al. 2018: 115).

Richard Yee (left) and Young King (right) in a 1957 parade. Image: Ashburton Museum and Historical Society Collection and Ng Family (Baird 2017: 9).

The King Bros were one of the most well-known businesses in Ashburton and generations of Ashburtonians purchased their vegetables from the shop on Burnett Street. However, with the advent of supermarkets, business slowed. Hong left the partnership in the early 1980s whilst Tong managed the shop on Harrison Street until it sold in 1986. Family members moved into other ventures, with several shifting out of Ashburton. Yep King continued to run the shop in Burnett Street until his retirement in 2006 (Lam et al. 2018: 116).

The settlement on Allens Road played an important role in the development of the King Bros business. Buildings on the site included bedrooms for single men, houses for families, communal eating and dining rooms, a kitchen, an office, food storage sheds, garage and work sheds, a laundry and washroom, a school room and, of course, the shop. It was the home of various generations of the Ng King family and was once a busy and vibrant community. With the closing of the business and various family members embarking on other ventures, the settlement now sits empty.

As part of the Ashburton District Council’s stewardship of the property, the council has agreed to preserve the heritage values of the site. From this, Heritage New Zealand became involved in the project, and through them we were asked to volunteer our time. Whilst the Ng King Chinese Market Garden Settlement might not meet the definition of an archaeological site under the 2014 Pouhere Taonga Heritage New Zealand Act, it is still an archaeological site in its own right. Archaeology is the study of human history and culture through material remains, and is not limited to a specific time-period. Anything and everything from stone tools created by early hominids to flip-top cellphones from the early 2000s is and can be considered archaeology.

The Ng King Brothers Chinese Market Garden Settlement is significant for many reasons. It’s important to the descendants of the family, many of whom have fond memories of the place, it’s important to the Chinese community as the only known Chinese market gardening settlement that still has buildings intact, it’s important to the Ashburton district with the King Bros playing a prominent role in the history of the town, and it’s important to anyone who has a passion for local history and believes in the recording and protection of heritage. Treating the settlement as an archaeological site and using archaeological methods means that objects, that might be seen by some as old junk, are viewed as being part of the social fabric of the site and are properly catalogued and researched.

Our role in the project has been doing just that, cataloguing the objects that were found during some of the works at the site. We’re still in the middle of analysing the artefacts, and we’ll likely write a follow-up blog post later on in the year that goes into more detail on what exactly was found. But so far one of the most interesting classes of artefact material that we’ve found has been shoes. Lots of complete shoes, 29 so far, were recovered from the site, along with fragments from at least another 40. Shoes are one of those interesting artefacts as they’re so personal. Everything from the style of shoe to the wear patterns on the sole and if it’s been repaired speaks to the choices and actions of the person who wore it. It’s like that saying, “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”. Whilst the King Bros are still well-remembered by current Ashburton residents, that won’t always be the case as more time passes. By preserving the King Bros settlement, future generations may be able to walk around the buildings, look at items like the shoes and wonder what it was like to be a Chinese worker at a market garden in the mid-twentieth century.

Some of the many shoes found at the Ng King Brothers Chinese Market Garden Settlement, each able to tell a different story about the person who wore it. Image: E. Warwick.

Clara Watson

 Acknowledgements

Thanks to members of the King family for their feedback on this blog post and support of the project.

References

Baird, A. 2017. Ashburton Chinese Settlement Allens Road, Ashburton: Heritage & Restoration Assessment. Unpublished report for the Ashburton District Council.

Lam, R., B. Lowe, H. Wong, M. Wong, C. King. 2018. The Fruits of Our Labours: Chinese Fruit Shops in New Zealand Volume 1. Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust, Wellington.