Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Auckland “Chinese Markets” controversy, 1930

As New Zealand as a whole experienced the Great Depression, a proposal was announced which inflamed opinion as to race in Auckland for several weeks in late 1930.

The Auckland Harbour Board advertised some of its land for tender (50 year lease) on Customs Street West. The successful tenderer, the NZ Herald announced on 3 October, was a company fronted by a Chinese promoter (later named as Wong Du, or Wong Doo), aiming to set up a “Chinese Market.” At the time, it was reported that about half of all the produce sold through the Auckland City Markets (which was directly opposite the site, and dominated by Turners & Growers, the firm of auctioneers ) came from Chinese growers.

Within days, the letters columns in the newspapers were bombarded with letters decrying such “Chinese competition”.

“Chinese virtually control the fruit and vegetable retail trade as it is; a Chinese market, pure and simple, will tend to stabilise that position … They are industrious and thrifty, but the bulk of their earnings go to China – an economic loss to this country – and English-speaking nations know that the Asiatic adds little or nothing to the moral and material wealth of the State.”
(H. Keary letter, NZ Herald 9 October)

The letters, at least in the Herald, came to be headed “The Asiatic Problem.” Letting a Chinese Market be established in Auckland was the start of a boom in numbers of Chinese in New Zealand, the letter writers said. One or two made the point that Chinese frugality and long work hours meant that their businesses succeeded where those of whites did not, and even the drapery trade was being “taken over.” But getting rid of all the Chinese, it was said, would surely bring the rest of the country back to full employment.

The Herald published a long article on the Chinese community in Auckland (13 October):
“If the proposal by a number of Chinese merchants to establish a Chinese market in Auckland for the sale of their produce is brought into effect, the number of points at which the average Chinese comes in contact with the European will be increased. The Chinese colony is already self-contained to a marked extent, and many of the rank and file of the Chinese have no dealings with Europeans at all.”
The White New Zealand League, established in 1926, stepped into the fray, lobbying against the proposal to the Auckland Harbour Board, Auckland City Council, and borough councils in Devonport, Takapuna and Mt Albert, to name just three. This organisation had its roots in Pukekohe in 1925, formed to protest against Indians and Chinese leasing and buying land there. They called for immigration restrictions, especially as the depression began to bite hard, and were backed by the Returned Soldiers' Associations. The League also promoted "purity of race", accusing Asiatic market gardeners of enticing Maori women into their employment and exploiting them economically and sexually.

The protests against the Chinese market were echoed by the Returned Soldiers’ Association and the Akarana Maori Association, (NZ Herald 15 October) and the brand new NZ Fruit and Produce Auctioneers and Importers Federation called for “compulsory registration of Asiatics in New Zealand as a means of preventing them from trading under assumed names.” (NZ Herald, 22 October)

In the face of protests from municipal authorities (one exception being Auckland City Council, who felt they had no right to comment on the use of land belonging to the Harbour Board), lobbyists, and even the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, the Auckland Harbour Board refused to cancel the lease agreement. The chairman, M H Wynyard, said: “The board had a number of Chinese merchants and shopkeepers among its tenants and it would be in a peculiar position if it always had to ascertain whether its lease would be approved by other tenants and the general public.” (NZ Herald, 15 October)

The lease was confirmed at a meeting of the Harbour Board on 11 November 1930 – and now some of the reality behind the proposal began to emerge. The board’s solicitors advised the board that the lease was in the name of Produce Markets Limited, and supplied a list of the names of the shareholders. It was likely revealed at this time exactly who was really behind Produce Markets, which started trading at Customs Street West from mid 1931.

Harvey Turner had started to hear rumours earlier that year that exporting firm A. B. Donald Ltd, running short of time by which that company would be allowed to hold auctions under license in Auckland, had entered into negotiations with Chinese growers, such as the Ah Chee family, to set up a Chinese market. The Donald family denied the rumours – until the lease was signed, sealed, and irrevocable. According to Ken Stead, in his book on Turners & Growers (1997, p. 47), the shares in the new company, first registered on 15 October 1930, were held in trust. Jack Donald and Thomas Doo junior were joint managers, while Clem Ah Chee, the original proposer of the whole idea, was dropped from the deal. The effect was that Chinese growers strongly supported Produce Markets for the first 20 or so years, sharply reducing Turners’ own intake and making business during the Depression years difficult for the company.

Turners recovered however, and moved to bigger and better markets on more reclaimed harbourside land in the early 1960s (the Donald family lost the tender, and refused to join the other auctioneers). The Donalds eventually sold Produce Markets to the Kember family, who in turn sold the firm as part of their portfolio to Wrightson NMA in 1985. In the late 1980s, Turners purchased Produce Markets, and wound the company up in 1995.

What the Auckland public had been led to believe was an “Asiatic takeover” of the country in late 1930, spearheaded by a perceived fruit and produce monopoly, was actually little more than crafty business maneuvering, mainly by a long-established Kiwi-European firm, against a rival and market leader. Little wonder that after this, the White New Zealand League appears to have fizzled out after 1932.

Te Ara
Ken Stead, One Hundred I’m Bid, A centennial history of Turners & Growers (1997)
Jacqueline Leckie, Indian Settlers, The Story of a New Zealand South Asian Community (2007), pp.66-73
NZ Herald
Auckland Star
Companies Office records


  1. This interesting posting helps me understand a small part of my family history. My father always used to refer to Produce Markets as the "Chinese (actually, he used a derogatory term) Markets". This confused me somewhat as a lad because it didn't seem to be any more or less "Chinese" than rival Turners and Growers! Whenever my mother wanted to try a new greengrocer he always told her to "make sure they get their stuff from Turners." Although (or maybe because) he had lived in Shanghai for several years in the 1930s, he was strongly anti-Asian but showed no particular bias towards other immigrant groups. Most people would have decribed him as a fairly decent sort of person; I think his attitude reflected the strong anti-Asian sentiment of the period, which at its worst seems to have been harsher than any criticism of recent immigration from China and other Asian nations.

  2. When I stumbled upon all this, I only copied a sample of the screed of letters I found in the October 1930 Herald. Remembering the period -- the 1930s being the time of the rise of fascist and nazi states, along with their sympathisers in the west -- it still seemed awful to read all the comments. This was the early 20th century, and they were reiterating stuff from the "yellow peril" days of the Victorian-Edwardian era. I would agree: it seemed to me to be far harsher than any racial/anti-immigrant talk we can come up with now (and I include Winston Peters there!)

    This has led to me finding another gem on the Auckland City Library's website, though: the NZ Chinese Journal. These show that by the 1960s, there was an insurance agency at the Produce Markets.