Saturday, April 25, 2009

Fungus, tea and art – Yan Kew, Auckland merchant

Latest update: 19 July 2022

Image: NZ Graphic 12 August 1899, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

One of Auckland’s longest-lasting and well-known merchants and importers during the 19th century was Yan Kew*, known in Auckland as James Ah Kew, born c.1840 at Sun Ning in the province of Guangdong. According to the biographical article on his son:
“He moved to Victoria, Australia, and in December 1871 arrived in Auckland. In 1879 he was naturalised, his occupation being described as fancy goods merchant. It is not known when his wife [Mellie Guey, also known as Mary Fong] arrived in New Zealand, but in 1888 they were married, making the Ah Kew family one of the longest-resident Chinese families in Auckland. James Ah Kew’s business flourished and he had two stores, one in Queen Street, the other in Rutland Street. However, within a few years of [his son] Henry’s birth [1900] the family’s fortunes had faltered. Alexander Don, the Presbyterian missioner to the Chinese, visited Auckland in 1904 and described James as a ‘once rich Chinese merchant, now old opium-smoker, living on his clansmen’.”
Yan Kew's death registration estimated that he lived in New Zealand from c.1869; shipping notices published in the Southern Cross 23 February 1872 show 18 pairs of horseshoes were exported to Sydney by "Ah Kew", which might indicate that he was in some sort of trade here at least by that stage.

He was attacked in the street on leaving the Oriental Hotel on 21 June 1872 – someone threw bones at him as he left, and one William Egerton called him names and struck him in the face after Yan Kew turned and asked who had thrown the bones. Egerton was fined £3 and expenses. (Southern Cross, 26 June 1872) The judge referred to Yan Kew as one of a number of "strangers to the city" who "should be treated civilly" so the 1871 date given for his arrival is possibly most accurate. By later in 1872, Yan Kew was involved with the fungus trade that had been initiated by Chew Chong (Chau Tseung) in Taranaki a year before.

He also dealt, most notably, in tea; Yan Kew’s shop at 234 Queen Street (later, by 1880 he was just up from Wellesley Street, possibly close to Rutland Street) was known as the Auckland Tea Consumer’s Establishment by 1873, when it burned down in September that year (Taranaki Herald, 10 September 1873).

His business bounced back from this, however, and by December 1873 he had decided to diversify into market gardening. He wrote to the Auckland Provincial Council, offering to lease Allotments 98 and 99 in Mechanics Bay, the Tanyard Gully gardens that had been started by William Mason (and would later, from 1881, be used by Ah Chee to found his business career in Auckland) for 14 years at £25 per annum. His application (as with those of a number of others for the sought-after land) was turned down, but less than two years later he had more success elsewhere :
“Mr. James Ah Kew, of Queen-street, is about to engage in the business of a market-gardener, he having secured for that purpose some pieces of land fronting Khyber Pass Road and in the Remuera district, which are to be cultivated by his countrymen as market-gardens. In course of time the present market gardeners will find they have a keen competition to meet, when they have to work against the plodding industry and temperance of the Chinese.”
(SC, 6 September 1875)

This puts Yan Kew as among the first, if not the first, to make market gardening a part of his business in Auckland, pre-dating the later and more prominent Ah Chee (Chan Dar Chee) in that trade.

In addition, in 1884, with his partner and business manager James Ah Bing, Yan Kew purchased a 6 acre block in Remuera and together they operated a market garden there until at most 1901, when it was sold on default of mortgage. In April 1884, the two partners had an interest in land totalling nearly six acres at Arch Hill (Lots 13, 17 and 19 of Section 5, Suburbs of Auckland) for which they took out a mortgage from the Auckland Tramways and Suburban Land Company Ltd of £800, which also defaulted. (Archives NZ reference R24866508) By 1890, Yan Kew had the freehold of land at "part 2 of 2, Section 1" in Devonport, according to that year's Waitemata electoral roll. In 1892, "James Ah Kew & Co" were renting the Upper Domain gardens.

Another part of his business was the importation and retailing of opium. This was not a prohibited drug until 1901, with the passing of the first of a series of parliamentary acts.

In 1879, the year when Sir George Grey stated that “The presence in this country of a large population of Chinese … would exercise a deteriorating effect upon its civilisation …” (AJHR 1879 D-3 session 1, via "The Poll Tax in New Zealand", Nigel Murphy, 2002), Yan Kew displayed a portrait in his window.
“There is on exhibition in the shop window of Jas. Ah Kew an oil painting of Sir George Grey executed by a Chinaman. The painting is excellent and true to life, and made from a recent photograph sent by Ah Kew to a firm of painters in Hong Kong. He has also a number of other portraits in oil of notable citizens whose photographs he had obtained and sent to the Flowery Land for the purpose of enabling outer barbarians to see what Chinese artists can do. All the portraits are admirable and on canvas about 20 inches by 26 inches. Such portraits can be supplied to order from any photograph at a total coat of seventy shillings.”
(West Coast Times, 26 May 1879)
“Lately the Chinese in Auckland have turned their attention to a branch of art, but its practice will not materially interfere with native industry. A common carte de visite photograph is to be sent to China, and in a few weeks the sender will receive a splendid photograph painted large size in oil, and a wonderfully exact copy of the photograph. Ah Kew, of Queen Street, has a great assortment of this school of art, including a portrait of Sir George Grey, painted from a small photograph, which is certainly marvelous, considering that the painter, instead of having had several sittings, never saw the original. Ah Kew visits China by next: mail, and takes over photographs to be treated as above.”
(Otago Witness, 31 May 1879)

For a time, it appears (according to Auckland newspapers, at least) that Yan Kew had a partner in his business.
“The advent of the first child born to Chinese parents has taken place in Auckland. The wife (a Chinese lady) of Mr. Ah Sup, the partner of Mr. Ah Kew, of Queen-street, has presented her husband with a pledge of her affection in the form of a small boy. The happy father instantly invested in a new cradle from Raftons.”
(Observer, 3 March 1883)

Despite the length of time he had been in business in Auckland, the NZ Herald did not seem to be terribly impressed with Yan Kew, especially when he entered the Parliamentary Union, a discussion chamber for, as one provincial paper put it, “politicians in training.”

“The electorate of Thorndon is represented in the Auckland Parliamentary Union by Mr. James Ah Kew, a native of China. The New Zealand Herald recently excited the ire of the hon. gentleman by remarking that he would prove an acquisition to the Union inasmuch as he would be able to enlighten it upon the mysteries of "fan tan" and other games of hazard so much patronised by the Chinese. Mr. Ah Kew wrote a letter to the paper next day indignantly denying that he knew anything at all about "fan tan."
(Evening Post, 30 July 1885)

The Southern papers equated Chinese politicians with those of the female variety – none too highly.
“The Parliamentary Unions, which I have already from time to time smiled upon with more or less benignancy, again demand notice by virtue of having taken another step forward upon the liberal platform. The Auckland Union, it seems, admits Chinamen to its ranks, and the Dunedin Union proposes to admit ladies. Both are concessions to the advancing liberalism of the times. As regards Chinamen, the Auckland Union has indisputably set an example of fairplay to our Colonial Legislature If numbers, together with such individual characteristics as thrift, industry, intelligence, and seeming guilelessness, go for anything, the Chinese in our midst are at least entitled to send one representative to Wellington. On the other hand the experience of the Auckland Union, with its solitary Chinese member, Mr. Ah Kew, has not been altogether encouraging. Mr Ah Kew, who had consistently posed as a Ministerialist, crossed over to the Opposition benches at the moment of a critical division without vouchsafing any explanation as to the why or wherefore, and the bill was lost upon his vote alone. What seems to rankle most in the breasts of the deserted party is that the recusant member had first carefully coiled his pigtail out of sight, so that all efforts of the Government "whip " to clutch this appendage, and thus extract explanations from the wearer were futile. In future the Auckland Union is likely to enjoin that all Chinese members wear their pigtails down "for party purposes." Let no reader for one moment imagine that any parallel is hinted. I am far from intending to suggest that the back hair of lady M.P.s should be let down for a similar purpose. But the political impulses of ladies may possibly prove to be as erratic as those of Mr. Ah Kew, and I merely express a hope that the Dunedin Union may avoid (how, it matters not) the particular rock upon which the Aucklanders have struck.”
(Otago Witness, 5 September 1885)

According to his son Henry's biography (Te Ara website), Yan Kew married Mellie Guey, also known as Mary Fong, in 1888. Their son Henry would not be born until 22 September 1900.

In 1897, he was charged for breaching the Shop Hours Act by remaining open on the Wednesday half holiday. His defence was that he had closed on the Chinese New Year, and felt that was sufficient. The magistrate took that into consideration, fining him only 5s, but applying 35s costs. (North Otago Times, 12 February 1897)

According to his son Henry's biography, from 1900 Yan Kew’s star began to decline, although this was when Henry was born. However, he was still the third-equal greatest individual contributor to a fundraising campaign for the Auckland hospital organised by Thomas Quoi in early 1903, giving £3 3/-. (Auckland Star, 9 March 1903, p. 5)

Yan Kew probably finally came undone through both the prohibition of opium in the country from 1901, and his own increasing ill-health over a number of years. By 1904, his premises in the city was a Chinese lodging house in Grey Street (Greys Ave) near the Market Hotel. This was raided on Saturday, 17 September 1904, with eight Chinese and one European arrested for operating and taking part in an opium den. Sergeant Hansen, Constables Lipscombe, McCormack, McIvor and Forbes walked up to Ah Kew's lodging house between 7 and 8 pm, entered, secured the front and back entrances, and began their search. These Chinese men were apparently caught in the act of smoking opium on the premises. Yan Kew was charged with possession and permitting the smoking of opium on his premises; Ah Ming, Ah Lee and Wong Sun with smoking the drug; and Loe Hen, Gum Long, Ah Sing, Tommy Fong, Fong Fong and Frederick Bryant with abetting the prohibited act. (Auckland Star 19 September 1904 p4)  The news of the raid went around the country.  At the Police Court hearing on 26 September, Yan Kew denied all knowledge of the opium smoking in the cellars (the charges against him were dismissed), initially the three Chinese caught smoking pleaded guilty, but Ah Wing changed his plea and his charge was dismissed, and both Fong Fong and Frederick Bryant were let off through lack of evidence against them.

Yan Kew's house was raided again on 21 October 1904, and he was brought back to the Police Court to answer a charge of possession of tins of opium. His medical practitioner, Dr Bakewell, testified that Yan Kew suffered from asthma and other ailments, for which he prescribed opium as a relief. This time, Yan Kew was fined £10 and costs. It later transpired that the tin of opium Yan Kew had been caught with had been provided by a laundryman from Hobson Street named Ah Tan, allegedly picked up from Ah Tan by a girl named Florence Lip Guey. Ah Tan had paid half of Yan Kew's fine, plus a refund of £2 to Yan Kew for the opium. Yan Kew however blamed Ah Tan for dobbing him in to the police, and Ah Tan was prosecuted in the Police Court for possession and supply in November and December that year -- but the charges were dismissed through lack of corroborating evidence.

Yan Kew was then charged by Ah Tan for committing perjury at one of the Police Court hearings of 21 November. The case rolled on until 24 March 1905, and pivoted on evidence for the prosecution put forward by Thomas Quoi. However, the magistrate found that Quoi was a prejudiced witness, and dismissed the charge against Yan Kew. (Auckland Star 25 March 1905, p.6)

It appears that the opium may have originally been supplied by a chemist named Walter H Dawson, who was charged and convicted in late 1906 of importing opium under the guise of an opium-bismuth preparation. He was fined £150 for importation and false customs declaration. (Auckland Star 22 December 1906 p 5)

Yan Kew died 30 March 1907, at the Methven Nursing Home run by Mary Wrathall on New North Road, Eden Terrace (near the Mahatma Ghandi Centre today). Cause of death was recorded as "senile decay," aged 67 years. James Ah Bing, by then a shop owner in Victoria Street, paid the costs of sending his business partner to Hong Kong, and the hospital cemetery there, his funeral taking place 15 April 1907.

(* According to David Wong, who provided additional information in his comment to my earlier Ah Chee post, Yan Kew is the Cantonese version of the name, which is Yan Qiu in Mandarin. Mandarin always uses Pinyin.)


  1. oops, my mistake.. Mandarin/pu-tong-hua pinyin should read YAN Qiu.. david wong sat 10/30pm

  2. No worries, David. I'm extremely glad to have you around as an expert! I'll adjust the post now. Cheers!