Friday, October 10, 2008

The Ah Chee family on Rosebank

In 1904, as the result of two purchases from the Wymer family, a man known only as Ah Chee on the land titles purchased just over 26 acres at the corner of Eastdale and Rosebank Road. His sons William and Clement Ah Chee purchased another 10 acres or so on the other side of Eastdale Road in 1917, and then received title to the original 1904 purchases from their father in 1922, two years after he had returned home to China. By 1929, the family had lost all the Rosebank property due to defaulted mortgages to Turners & Growers, and the Ah Chee name passed into Avondale legend.

The Ah Chee family had quite a bit in common with Turners & Growers, apart from both being associated with the fruit and vegetable line. Both owned sections of land in Auckland on which produce was grown (Turners getting more into that field in Avondale from the late 1920s). Both had outlets for their produce, and were involved with the markets in the city. 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.

The family’s actual surname is Chan – the 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. He arrived in New Zealand in 1877, became a naturalised citizen in 1882 (the year he took out a mortgage on a piece of Domain land which is part of the old Carlaw Park, site of recent archaeological investigations), and brought his wife-to-be Rain See to New Zealand from Canton to marry her in 1886. He was fined in 1892 for receiving stolen marine stores. But, for the 1890 jubilee celebrations, he and other Chinese businessmen contributed two barrow-loads of Chinese crackers for the occasion, and by 1896 he proudly displayed a sign in his shop window: “Ah Chee, you are appointed Purveyor of Fruit and Vegetables to the Earl of Glasgow.”

In 1907, possibly including his Avondale property, his workers were charged with gardening on a Sunday. The charge was later dismissed, by explanation of necessity rather than any flagrant disregard of the Sabbath.

He left New Zealand, never to return, in 1920. His son William died in 1929, possibly sparking the mortgage crisis. William had managed the firm since 1914; his son, Alec, served in the RNZAF during World War II. A grandson of Chan Dar Chee, Thomas Ah Chee, would become one of the founders of the Foodtown chain of supermarkets, begun back in 1958.

Part of the old Ah Chee market garden on Rosebank became the fields facing Eastdale Road for Avondale College. Apart from that, and some brief notes in Road Board and Borough Council minutes over the years complaining about Ah Chee and his overhanging trees, there’s little left to remind us of a piece of early Chinese New Zealand history in our own suburb.

Update and correction, 25 April 2009:
Originally, going by the newspaper references from Papers Past, I had written as part of the above post "His grocery store in Wakefield Street was the subject of police raids over the years; in 1887, they found and seized cases of Chinese brandy and other liquors, as well as finding an opium den in the back room and another used for fan tan gaming." But, as Ah Chee is not noted as being on Wakefield Street at any time during the 19th century, and an actual shop owner there named Ah Yeal Gong (according to directories) is probably the same as one there named Ah Gong Kee (Observer, 4 July 1885), then it is likely the newspapers of the time mixed up "Kee" with "Chee". My thanks to David Wong, who inspired me to look further into the Ah Chee story. (This information now known to be incorrect - Ah Chee did have a Wakefield Street shop. See further post).


  1. Hi
    the following notes could be added:
    Chan Dar-Chee business enterprise was called AH CHEE & CO in his Queen Street shop.
    Avondale farming included poultry farms, production of eggs, raising rabbits.
    In the 2nd to last para.. the note could ne added..'Clement continued the family business until he and the family returned to China. Later the family left China and returned to Auckland to live and re-start his business'
    regds david wong mob 021660377.. apr 10th 09

  2. Thank you very much for the extra notes, David. Another Avondale/Waterview poultry farm, eh? Interesting -- they would have been in competition with the one at Oakleigh Park. The reference to rabbit farming reminds me of what Eric Waterfield once said was near Avondale /Riversdale Road area -- rabbit skin drying frames -- and recent information I picked up from Pt Chevalier of sheds used for drying rabbit skins.

    Great information -- cheers.