The appearance online, via Papers Past, of the Auckland Star up to 1903 has been a boon for studies into personalities where, before, there were brick walls in research due to a lack of Auckland-based newspaper coverage by the service. One such personality is Chinese merchant in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chan Dar Chee.
Additional information has been found in the records of the Epsom Road Board, held at Auckland Council Archives, and Waikumete Cemetery Burial Books.
This post incorporates, adds to and corrects these previous posts:
The Ah Chee family on Rosebank (October 2008)
The Domain's three Chinese gardens (August 2009)
As more comes to light, I'll update this post.
31 May 2012: Update to 1926.
31 May 2012: Update to 1926.
7 May 2013: Updated with NZ Herald references from 1883.
The family’s actual surname is Chan – Ah Chee who emerged as a successful merchant and market garden owner was known as Chan Dar Chee (1851-1931) in his native village of Tarp Gwong. His descendants believe he arrived in New Zealand in 1877.
On 24 October 1881, the Crown, in the form of the Public Buildings Commissioner of the City of Auckland, entered into a lease agreement with Chan Dar Chee and Ah See (also known as Ah Shea or Ah Sheea), described as two market gardeners of Auckland. The lease was formalised on 28 August 1882. This was for 7-1-20 acres, just over 7 1/4 acres, "with all buildings thereon erected", for a term of 21 years, at an 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 (ironic, seeing as there had been a tannery there two decades before), and "in the event of the lessees cultivating the said premises or any part thereof they shall do so in a proper and husbandmanlike manner and so as not to unduly impoverish the soil."
The lease was signed by Sir John Prendergast, Wellington, for the government, and by "the said Ah See and Ah Chee after the same had been fully explained to them by the undersigned Thomas Quoi, in the presence of Thomas Quoi, Chinese interpreter."(D13.891, LINZ records)
Ah Chee became a naturalised citizen in 1882, and by 1883 was described as a Queen Street merchant. (NZH 10 May 1883)
Ah Chee was attacked in the garden in 1885. At this stage, Thomas Ah Quoi, as with the Tanyard Gully lease, served as interpreter.
ASSAULTING Ah Chee.—Malcolm Mackenzie was charged with striking Ah Chee, a Celestial, in the face and knocking him down, also with destroying 10s worth of cabbages and cucumbers on the 5th inst. Prisoner pleaded not guilty…Ah Chee, who had two black eyes and had evidently received brutal treatment, took the English oath, being a believer in the Bible, deposed that he was lessee of the gardens, Mechanics' Bay. On Thursday last, he saw defendant in his garden. He was passing through and loitering about. Prisoner then commenced pulling up various vegetables. He told him to desist and clear out. Prisoner immediately struck him a violent blow between the eyes. Knocked him down, and held him there. As soon as he regained his liberty, he sent his man for the police.The judge found McKenzie guilty, and ordered him to pay 40s and costs, and to find security for his good conduct for three months, himself in £10, and one surety to the same amount.
Auckland Star 7 February 1885
Two of the workers at the garden with Ah Chee that day were named in the press as "Ah Quoi" and "Young Chee". (NZH 9 February 1885)
This wasn’t the only time Ah Chee had been attacked. In July 1890, Frederick Frowein tried to garrote him on the way from the city to the Tanyard Gully gardens at Mechanic’s Bay. (Auckland Star, 11 July 1890)
This wasn’t the only time Ah Chee had been attacked. In July 1890, Frederick Frowein tried to garrote him on the way from the city to the Tanyard Gully gardens at Mechanic’s Bay. (Auckland Star, 11 July 1890)
"The Tanyard Gully gardens, a detail from George Treacy Steven's 1886 bird's eye view of Auckland, NZ Map 374, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries"
On 21 January 1886, Ah Chee married Rain See at the Auckland Registry Office.
A CELESTIAL MARRIAGE.On Thursday morning (says the Bell) a marriage took place at the Registry Office, Auckland, of Ah Chee, gardener, Mechanic's Bay, to Rain See, of Canton. The bride and bridegroom were accompanied by a party of friends. The ceremony took place at the Registrar's office. The bride, who presented an extremely interesting and pretty appearance, was dressed in Chinese costume, and manifested considerable shyness during the ordeal. She had a clear complexion, and looked about eighteen or nineteen years old; had a delicate round face, with a pair of dark eyes, which she kept fixed on the floor most of the time. Her hair was gathered on the top of her head in Chinese style, and fastened with artificial Chinese flowers. She was dressed in a dark blue underskirt, richly embroidered, cut just short enough not to encumber her in walking; a light blue jacket of some delicate material trimmed with light green silk. The jacket hung loose and had wide sleeves. Rich, and apparently gold, bracelets were on her wrists, and her fingers were encircled by two or three gold rings. She also wore gold earrings. On her feet she wore white silk Chinese shoes with flowers embroidered on and around them.
Taranaki Herald, 26 January 1886
The marriage of Mr and Mrs Chee on Thursday last, by Mr Lord, Registrar, has afforded a subject for conversation at tea tables, it being, we understand, the first real Chinese wedding that has occurred in Auckland. Ah Chee and the lady of his love having been solemnly joined together in holy matrimony, the thoughtful couple conceived the happy idea of the celestial bride-cake, a piece of which we have duly received with compliments, nicely tied, and surmounted by a white rose, emblematic of purity and conjugal affection. We wish the happy pair long life and domestic peace.
Auckland Star 23 January 1886
Ah Chee the businessman
From this point, Ah Chee’s dealings took on a pattern of diversification within the late 19th century commercial environment in Auckland. From October 1886, he took over a restaurant business formerly carried on by Lum Yut & Co, the Scandinavian Dining Rooms, Customs Street East, in his first trading foray in the central city. (Auckland Star, 4 October 1886) But two months later, he was charged with leaving stagnant water in the basement of the premises, and fined 10s and costs. (Auckland Star, 2 December 1886)
By March 1887, Ah Chee & Co as his business was now known operated a grocers and fruiterers on Wakefield Street, in the vicinity of Lyndock Street, probably a short distance downhill from the Fitzroy Hotel. (Advertisement, Auckland Star, 23 March 1887) The firm’s first fruit store ran in legal trouble at the end of June that year when it was raided by the police who seized “12 cases of Chinese brandy and other varieties of spirituous liquid dear to the Celestial palate.”
Ah Chee's shop has for a long time been a rendezvous for his compatriots, and it has been an open secret that opium smoking and fan-tan were amongst the amusements provided by Ah Chee for his almond-eyed patrons. When the proprietor had recovered from the surprise caused by the descent of the police, he explained that the liquor was Chinese wine, and was made from the decoction of a root. He stated that he had received it from Sydney, that it had passed through the Customs in the ordinary manner, and that he had paid 5s per gallon duty on it. In a back room Detective Hughes found an opium den—beds, pipes and all the other requisites complete, while down stairs was an apartment apparently used as a gaming room, as there were a number of fan-tan counters, etc., lying about. The bottles are valued at 4s 2d each.
Auckland Star 30 June 1887
Ah Chee was charged with a breach of the Licensing Act by being the occupier of unlicensed premises situated in Wakefield-street Auckland, in which intoxicating liquor, to wit, mykuito, was sold. Mr Cotter, who appeared for the defendant, pleaded guilty, but urged that the liquor was essentially a Chinese drink, and sold only to Chinamen. He was certain that no hotelkeeper in Auckland kept it, but, like the persons in the King Country who were prosecuted for selling hop-beer, Ah Chee was liable under the Act owing to the intoxicating nature of mykuito. He mentioned that the defendant had already suffered considerable loss through the forfeiture of the liquor, and urged the infliction of a small penalty.Sergeant Pratt put in a document showing the result of Mr Pond's analysis, which, he said, showed it was stronger than case brandy.The Bench inflicted a penalty of £5 and costs. Another charge for selling, and a charge against Chee Chang of also being an occupier of the house in Wakefield-street, were withdrawn.
Auckland Star 9 July 1887
But at the Wakefield Street shop, the company also began trading in fungus, a business which was to prove to be a mainstay for Ah Chee & Co. (Advertisement, Auckland Star, 12 August 1887)
He soon branched out further, purchasing the Temperance Boarding House on the corner of Wyndham and Albert Streets in January 1888. (Auckland Star, 18 January 1888) This business appears to have started around 1883, under G. Johnston. In 1888, Charles Ling appeared to be in charge, described as a partner of Ah Chee's. (NZH 15 September 1888) By August 1889, however, the Temperance Boarding Hotel was up for let “as a shop, store, etc.” (Advertisement, Auckland Star, 20 August 1889)
In October 1888, Ah Chee purchased the Auckland Coffee Tavern on Queen Street Wharf from Thomas Henry Brister. (Auckland Star 3 October 1888) Ah Chee may have had prior dealings with Brister at the Temperance Boarding Hotel, where the latter had one of his Coffee Palaces (another was at Cook Street in the mid 1880s.) Ah Chee re-opened the Queen Street Wharf business as a restaurant, going back to his prior experience with the Scandinavian Dining Rooms in Customs Street, but also offering board and rooms for 6d to 13d per week. By December, it had become the hub of his enterprise.
Auckland Star 24 December 1888
In May 1889, Ah Chee purchased another restaurant, this one at 201 Queen Street, just down from the intersection with Victoria Street (now all part of the ANZ Bank building).
CITY DINING ROOMS, Next Union Bank, Queen-street.AH CHEE Begs to inform his friends and patrons that he has purchased the above Restaurant, and on completion of alterations will re-open the same on MONDAY, 27th inst. Meals, 6d each. Board and Residence, 13s to 15s per week. Beds, 9d to 1s. The whole of the Establishment being Refurnished, visitors will find the Comforts of a Home.
Auckland Star 15 May 1889
Mr Ah Chee has now taken ever the restaurant adjoining Cochrane's mart, known as Cox's. The new proprietor has made extensive alterations at a cost of £250, and everything has been done in order to make this a really good restaurant. In the kitchen a first-class heating apparatus and washing stove has been admirably fitted up by Mr J. Broady, of Durham-street. A hot plate has been fitted on the stove by means of pipes. A large boiler of hot water is kept in operation over a sink where all the washing up is done, when the plates are placed in a drying rack just overhead. The whole of the arrangements are well carried out.
Auckland Star 29 May 1889
In late 1889, one could buy turtle soup and steak, advertised as being “on table at noon”. (Auckland Star, 17 October 1889)
For the 1890 jubilee celebrations, he and other Chinese businessmen contributed two barrow-loads of Chinese crackers for the occasion, and also took part in a race on the Domain “for Chinamen, which will take place in the afternoon. It is a half-mile race got up chiefly by Messrs J. Ah Kew and Ah Chee. We shall leave the public to pick the winner.”
Auckland Star 29 January 1890
Extending the market garden business
From around May in 1890, Ah Chee & Co were involved with a tobacco growing operation on McCrae’s Farm in Mangere. (Tenders advertisement for drying and curing sheds, Auckland Star, 28 May 1890) The exact location is, at this stage, still uncertain.
In July 1891, the Mangere tobacco farm had brief prominence in the local newspapers, when a Chinese man named Ah Pi or Ah Py deserted from the HMS Cordelia and found his way to Mangere. While on board the Cordelia, he had served as a fireman. The authorities duly rounded him up, and shipped him back to the Cordelia’s base at Sydney the following month.
Ah Chee’s market garden enterprise was extended three years later, when the City Councils Finance Committee recommend a lease of land at Arch Hill in June 1894 to Ah Chee at £3 per acre for six acres. (Auckland Star, 22 June 1894). Ah See reassigned his share for the Tanyard Gully garden in Mechanics Bay to Ah Chee in 1897.The agreement was signed in the presence of W Ah Chang, Book keeper, Auckland, and by Chan Dar Chee in the presence of Joseph Sykes, solicitor, Auckland.
The following month, 18 May, Chan Dar Chee had to provide security to the National Bank of New Zealand. The document found during the recent Geometria research into the Ah Chee market garden site wasn't a mortgage so much as it was a promise of collateral, as Chan Dar Chee was "already indebted and may become further indebted." Also, the mortgage was dated 1897, not the 1882 date as had been stated by the Historic Places Trust. The amount he owed isn't recorded on the deed, but it was "for advances and business accommodation". Whatever it was, he had fully paid it off by 25 March 1901, and the lease was cleared. (LINZ records)
On 15 December 1897, Ah Chee took out a lease on land at Epsom, comprised of four separate but adjoining lots, for four years at £30 per year in total. The gardens were bounded by The Drive, Onslow Avenue, and Manukau Road. (Lease document 1576, LINZ records)
Lot 1 & 2 -- From the estate of William Henry Haslett, per Lizzie Haslett of Epsom
Lot 3 -- From Peter Collie, engineer, of Epsom
Lot 4 - From Louis Wilfred Hollis Hill, a railway guard from Parnell
"Looking south west from Manukau Road showing Onslow Avenue, (left to right), and Chinese market gardens", reference 4-1478, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries
"Looking north west from the south side of Onslow Avenue (No 16) showing market gardens and Mount Eden in the background," reference 4-1479, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries
At the end of the lease in 1903, he concentrated his operations to Mechanics Bay and Avondale. On September 1903, Ah Chee renewed his lease for a term of 14 years with the Public Trustee (the office now handling the Crown lease), again for £95 per annum. This would have brought him down to 1917, which was when the area was starting to be handed over to the Rugby League. This time, he only had just over 6 acres -- which meant he was paying more for the lease per acre than before. A year later, he began his Avondale purchases on Rosebank Peninsula -- hardly surprising, as the news of the day was full of public debate over the hospital wanting more Domain land, and the possibility that Chan Dar Chee's Mechanic's Bay gardens might be swapped by the hospital board for that land. (DI 1A.733, LINZ records)
The Marine Store, and other court appearances
Earlier, from the beginning of 1891, Ah Chee had begun a new business venture – a marine store at Mechanic’s Bay. Marine stores bought and sold various metal items related to shops and boats, second-hand.
TO SHIPWRIGHTS, SETTLERS, and Bushmen, Etc.—Old Copper, Brass, Zinc. Tea Lead, Fungus, Beeswax, Shark Fins, and Horseshoes Bought, and the Best Price given by Ah Chee, Queen-street and Mechanics' Bay, Auckland.
Auckland Star 6 January 1891
From September 1892, this business landed Ah Chee in a lot of legal troubles, when an employee of his purchased stolen goods from some children. On top of that, his employee in charge of the store was found, on inspection, to have not been as scrupulous as he should have been when it came to recording the stock moving in and out. The police probably thought that they had Ah Chee dead to rights.
But then, on the last day in the Supreme Court, in December 1892, Ah Chee brought to the court to testify as to his good character, some of Auckland’s brightest and most respected in the city's business world.
Subsequent to our going to press on Saturday, several witnesses were examined for the defence in the case of Ah Chee, who was charged with having received certain stolen property belonging to William Oliver. Messrs Charles Ransom (manager of the Northern S.S. Company), L. D. Nathan, Henry Johnstone (Carr, Johnstone and Co.), Richard Hellaby, A. H. Nathan, J. J. Odlum, Charles Hesketh, Alexander Aitken, J. M. Geddes (Brown, Barrett and Co.), and Shirley Hill, gave evidence as to the previous good character of the accused.Counsel then addressed the jury, and the Court adjourned from six until seven o'clock at night. His Honor summed up the evidence at great length. Referring to the evidence as to character, His Honor said that according to the evidence Ah Chee's character was of the highest. They had had ten of the leading citizens of Auckland giving evidence as to the accused's character, several of whom went beyond their own personal knowledge, and spoke of his general reputation for honesty and honourable conduct. His Honor said he should leave it with the jury thus: If they thought the evidence of guilt doubtful, evidence of character should weigh strongly; but if the evidence of guilt was clear, they should not allow evidence of character to interfere with their verdict. The jury returned into court with a verdict of not guilty at ten minutes to nine o'clock. His Honor said he quite concurred with the verdict of the jury but advised Ah Chee to caution those in his employ not to buy goods from little boys. The accused was then discharged. This closed the December criminal sittings.
Auckland Star, 5 December 1892
The police had their eye on Ah Chee, from that point on. But they hardly ever seemed able to prove he had any part in dodgy deals or wrongdoing.
In July 1893, Ah Chee’s services were called for in court, as an interpreter when the usual interpreter, Thomas Ah Quoi, was seen to have had a conflict of interest in a particular case. The result gave the Auckland Star journalist an opportunity for some light comedy.
Mr Ah Chee, by request, assumed the duties of interpreter, pledging himself to "truly and faithfully interpret the evidence according to the best of his skill and ability." To make this the more binding upon him he blew out a lighted match, signifying thereby that if he should prove false so might his spark of existence be also snuffed out.Ah Chee then endeavoured to administer the oath to complainant, but had to stop somewhere near the middle to inform the Court that he could not really make the man understand, as he was from a different part of the Empire Celestial. Ah Chee went at it again, however, and after a mighty struggle, in which Ah Chee gesticulated like a windmill, and Chum Loy made a whistling noise like a bird, the oath was successfully administered. Said Ah Chee, again addressing the Court, "I do-ee not know-ee about dis case.""That’s the very reason we got you," replied the Bench, with a smile."Ah, me see, me see I" answered the apt pupil in British justice. "Me see, me see!"Dr. Laishley then proceeded to put the question to Ah Chee, who transmitted the same to Chum Loy.Witness deposed that he was a market gardener at Arch Hill. On Saturday evening last about half-past eight he was on his way to town. When passing the Arch Hill Hotel he noticed two young men sitting under the verandah of a shop opposite. He identified the two accused as the young men. At this stage Dr. Laishley put the question: "Had the young men anything with them ?" The answer came back, "Yes, a whip or a stick." At this reply Dr. Laishley, who had by his side Mr Thos. Quoi, informed the Bench that he had been advised that the question had not been properly put. This was a point which even the Magistrate with his legal knowledge and experience could not decide, and he admitted as much.Ah Chee smiled blandly, and tried again. If he had stuck a pin in the witness, the effect could not have been more startling. Mr Chum Loy started his windmill operations again, chanting the while what appeared to be one of the most obtuse selections of Browning, read backwards, with whistling bars between the verses. "He replies," said the interpreter when it was all over, “that they had a stick. He says the word that means ‘stick ' to me. I call that a gas-pipe," said Chee in illustration, "he might-ee say-ee something else." Dr. Laishley again laid a charge against Chee's rendition. The Bench was puzzled.Mr O'Meagher challenged the learned doctor's knowledge of Chinese and said that Mr Quoi had no standing in the Court.The Bench ruled that in a case of this kind, Dr. Laishley had a right to a private interpreter as a check upon the other. The difficulty was great, for when Chinee meets Chinee, then comes the tug of war, and when Chinese differ, who is to decide ? These were the two grave maxims that came to the minds of all. Ah Chee finally came to the rescue, and admitted he could hardly make the man understand.The difficulty was solved, and after a protest from Mr O'Meagher, Mr Thomas Quoi was sworn in as interpreter instead of Ah Chee. Mr Quoi, as a Christian, disdained the match, and kissed the Bible with a smack that would have done credit to a Bush Baptist. From this point the evidence flowed smoothly …
More court comedy in October 1984, when Ah Chee was charged with keeping his employee, Wah Ching, at work in his Queen Street Wharf shop after 1pm on Saturday, in breach of the early closing laws.
Ah Chee was charged with having on the 22nd of September, kept Wah Chong at work in his shop after 1 p.m. on Saturday, the employee not having previously had a holiday in that week. He pleaded not guilty.Mr McAlistair: these Chinese cases were very difficult to deal with, for he never knew how the evidence would turn out. Hubert Ferguson, Inspector under the Act, deposed to finding Wah Chong working in defendant's shop at 2.30 o'clock on the Saturday. He asked the lad if he had a half-holiday that week, and got the reply that he had not. Wah Chong admitted that he was paid wages when asked by witness. Mr Ferguson said further that he had frequently tried to get these Chinamen but failed. Europeans complained that they were allowed to do what they liked. William Ah Chong (being sworn on the Bible) deposed he was employed as shopman for Ah Chee. When he made the statement to Mr Ferguson that he had no half-holiday, he did not know what it meant. Some times he did get away on a Saturday afternoon. He did tell Mr Ferguson that he had not had a half holiday.Mr McAlister: What time did you get away on the Monday of that week?Witness: I did not get away. I stayed in until about ten every night.Mr McAlister: What time did you get away on the Tuesday ?Witness, with a sweet smile, answered: I got away after one o'clock on the Tuesday.Mr McAlister: Why did you tell Mr Ferguson you had no holiday that week ?I do not get a half-holiday each week. Some day, I go away for couple of days, see? That counts for another week. I no know what half-holiday means.What did Ah Chee say to you about this matter?Oh, he did not tell me any thing to say.I suppose you did not speak a word to him about it.Oh, no.I suppose he did not know what you were going to say when you came to Court ?No.Oh certainly not, and you can go for a couple of days when you like.Yes.How long have you been in New Zealand?Oh, I suppose ten years.You speak English very well.Well, a few words I speak.Yet you don't know what holiday means.Well, not exactly.Thank you.Mr Bush: Do you get wages?Yes, paid by week.Are you paid for the days you go away?Oh yes, I get paid just the same.Did you have a holiday the week the Inspector called?Yes; the Tuesday after and the week before.Did you get one that week ?No, but I did before.Ah Chee: You manage that shop and do what you like ?Witness: Yes; I can get a holiday any time I like.Mr McAlister: l thought he did not know what holiday meant. Now he seems to know all about if.Mr Bush: You have just taught him.Ah Chee with a sweet smile declined to say anything. Mr Bush then said the witnesses admitted he had no holiday that particular week. I did not matter if he had three days the .week before, the law said a half day each week. He would fine the defendant 10s and costs.
Auckland Star, 2 October 1894
In February 1901, though, the police were successful in prosecuting Ah Chee for keeping his shop open contrary to the Shops Act. He was fined 40/ and costs. In that same month, he and Thomas Ah Quoi placed a funeral floral arrangement at Queen Victoria's statue in Albert Park. (NZH 4 February 1901).
Site of Ah Chee shop in Queen Street, 1919 (right of image). By kind permission, David Wong. Detail from 1-W1675, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries.
As at April 1908, Ah Chee was a vice president of "the local Chinese Association". (NZH, 1 April 1908) By 1910 at least, and no doubt before that date, Ah Chee’s son William took over control of the Queen Street business (in March 1910, it was announced that Mr & Mrs Ah Chee were leaving for China via Sydney, to stay in their homeland "for a year or two" -- NZH 24 March 1910), and along with his brother Clement, they ran the wider enterprise of market gardens and import/export of produce and fruit. By 1913, according to the Evening Post who interviewed William Ah Chee, Auckland had 250 Chinese market gardeners, many working for the Ah Chee family, including overseers. (Evening Post 21 May 1913)
The lease for the Tanyard Gardens, Ah Chee’s first and oldest enterprise in Auckland, ended over the period of 1916-1917, and construction on the grandstand began for Carlaw Park as a future rugby league park. Ah Chee's sons William and Clement purchased another 10 acres or so on the other side of Eastdale Road in 1917, possibly in response to the loss of the Mechanic’s Bay land. Ah Chee himself left New Zealand, never to return, in 1920.
Chan Dar Chee with his grandchildren. By kind permission, David Wong.