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