Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Collector and the Gardener: Alexander Rose, and Fong Ming Quong

Updated 15 August 2019

In Auckland in the 1890s, two men from different civilisations would cross each other’s path in the course of the process of customs and excise procedures at the port. One was the Auckland Collector of Customs, Alexander Rose. The other, a Chinese merchant and gardener named Fong Ming Quong (usually referred to, including on the birth certificate of his youngest child, as simply Ming Quong.) Part of the story of their contact with each other was only briefly a sensation in the local newspapers. Most of it is told in the handwritten and typed remnants of official memos and departmental reports.

Alexander Rose (1840-1926) was the son of a commercial agent named George Tower Rose who, at the time of Alexander’s birth was experiencing financial difficulties so great that, at one point, he wound up in debtor’s prison in his native Bristol. G T Rose seems to have recovered sufficiently to take his family with him to India by 1846, where another son died of cholera. Two years later, George T Rose was also dead, aged only 42, buried in a London cemetery, and Alexander was in the care of extended family. Still, he received a good education in private schools and at Kings College in London. At the age of 16 he arrived in Lyttleton, then lived in Auckland, completing his education at St John’s College, then travelled to Nelson to serve as a cadet on the Waiopi farm of Colonel Russell of the 58th regiment. 

In 1858, aged 18, Rose entered service with the Customs Department, where he remained until his retirement the following century. He started at Christchurch; three years later he was promoted to sub-collector at Timaru’s port, then landing surveyor at Lyttleton in 1863. He transferred to Auckland briefly in 1867, then returned to Lyttleton in 1875 as collector. In 1892, he was transferred once more to Auckland, and remained there until his death. 

Rose was deeply involved with the Anglican Church here. He was a member of the Diocesan Synod while he was serving in the South Island from 1864 to 1892. 

Ming Quong was born in or near Canton, in the province of Guangzhou, China, around the year 1848, according to his naturalisation application (although records do vary as to his age.) He arrived in Auckland c.1877, a period when merchants Yan Kew and Thomas Quoi were setting up their market gardening enterprises and sought Chinese labourers to keep the businesses going. In August 1883 he applied for naturalisation as a citizen here, his occupation given as “farmer”. Few Chinese without either their own leasehold land or a business made the extra effort to naturalise; he may have had an informal agreement with grocer and general dealer John Billington to use 23 acres of Billington’s land fronting Surrey Crescent and Old Mill Road in Grey Lynn at that point, formalised by a lease in February 1884 in the names of “Fong Ming, Fong Ah Gong, Fong Ah Sam and Fong Ah Tom” but remained the formal occupier in terms of Newton Borough Council rates records. In August 1885, he travelled back to Canton to marry Quee Moy, and returned with his bride. The following year, he received a commendation for his watermelons at a local horticultural show. The first of his children, a daughter, was born in 1889; the family came to support the Auckland West Kindergarten which began in 1888 in rooms at the Howe Street Industrial Home, Freemans Bay. The Ming Quong family supplied some sugar and pumpkins to the school in 1890 and 1891. Newton Borough Council told him to stop using bits of raw fish as fertiliser in 1893. While he appears to have departed from the Grey Lynn garden in 1894 when a new lease was made out to “Fong Ming Shing and Fong Ming Him,” it is possible, given the family name of Fong, that he retained an interest even while at Epsom-Royal Oak.

NZ Graphic, 18 September 1897, NZG-18970918-394-2, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections

From 1893 to 1895, Ming Quong’s business expanded and changed. It is likely that he began to secure leases of land close to One Tree Hill from 1893, when the Hospital and Charitable Aid Board began to advertise tenders for 21 year leases, including a 14 acre property at Royal Oak, fronting what is today Manukau Road and Campbell Road, just north of the Royal Oak Hotel. Much of the land he leased seemed to remain as paddocks, rather than be utilised for horticulture; in early 1899, one Andrew Cunningham lost a valuable horse while grazing it in one of the paddocks near the Costley Home on Greenlane Road (possibly part of or near the "Olive Paddocks" leased from John Logan Campbell initially for three years from 1892) when it fell down a well. Ming Quong lost the ensuing court case, judgement against him for £35 and costs because he’d failed to maintain his fences properly. From 1895, Auckland City Council private cart licensing records show Ming Quong with at least four or five carts operating, up to a height of seven carts in 1898. He would have required pasturage and stabling for at least seven horses, as well as those he used in the Royal Oak market garden, and his own transport. 

By comparison, fellow merchant Yan Kew with his own gardens at Khyber Pass and Remuera had three to five licensed carts in the period 1895-1896, while merchant and garden owner Chan Dar Chee at Mechanics Bay had four to five in the period 1895-1899. 

In 1898, an exhibition of an American-made cultivator was given at Ming Quong’s Royal Oak gardens and was well-advertised. How many actually turned up to a Chinese garden out on the rural heartland of the Auckland isthmus, even with transport provided in the form of brakes from the city by the importing agents E Porter & Co (and the proximity of the Royal Oak Hotel for refreshments) is not known, as apparently neither the Herald nor the Star chose to cover the demonstration. He certainly, though, had a moderate and briefly successful business conveying goods to and from the Auckland wharves; but not all of that were loads of vegetables.

In June 1895, Ming Quong took over a shop at the corner Victoria and Albert Streets, as a grocer and fruiterer, provided shipping, boarding houses and hotels with fresh veges daily, as well as buying “old copper” and fungus. A year later he transferred the city shop’s business to his employee T Yen Lee, who passed it in turn in January 1897 to A B Wah Kee who remained there until 1900. Kee could have been another relative of Ming Quong, so from June 1895, he had a three-pronged business portfolio here in Auckland, along with family business connections in Fiji, and links back to his homeland in China. He had Europeanised himself to a certain degree, establishing himself as much as possible with the white colonial society with which he did business. His children had English names, and were said to have attended the Presbyterian Church and Sunday school at Onehunga. 

NZ Graphic 18 September 1897, NZG-18970918-394-1, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections

The Governor Lord Ranfurly visited his Royal Oak market garden in August 1897, and Ming Quong sent his young son to give Lady Ranfurly flowers on her departure from Onehunga Wharf in December the following year (a customs memo from 1900 refers to six daughters in the family, but no sons. The news reports may have had the child’s gender wrong, or the son sadly died). In April 1896 he organised, with fellow merchant James Ah (Yan) Kew, an athletic carnival for the benefit of the Brunnerton mine disaster families. He also took part in the Auckland Ladies Benevolent Society Floral Fête at Ellerslie Racecourse in November 1897, decorating a horse and trap with buttercups and daisies. 

Two months before the floral fête, his path crossed for the first time with that of Alexander Rose. Ming Quong imported 50lb of tobacco, an amount that Rose’s superior W T Glasgow in Wellington said was not permissible. Rose, who had previously written in his departmental reports that he did not like Chinese people at all, curiously turned a blind eye towards Ming Quong’s transgression. Rose wrote in his report: 

“When ‘permit’ has been granted to persons importing or receiving some choice parcel of cigars as presents or for their own consumption are imported by themselves the direction I receive ‘inform Mr … it will be allowed this time but he must not do it again’ makes the importer or recipient smile; why, how can a father be called upon to write to his son and say, ‘your kind Xmas or Birthday present received but you must not do it again or the Customs will seize them even if I offer to pay duty at once on arrival.’

“In this instance Ming Quong imports 50 lbs Chinese tobacco, a 3 years supply, he does not sell it, he is only a market gardener, and is a civilised [Rose’s emphasis] Chinaman. His children go to the State School & attend Presbyterian Sunday School. He often attends the Presbyterian Church at Onehunga. I really think the enforcing of the law is unnecessary and I can vouch for it that in my 39 years experience no evil has resulted.” 

Rose’s recorded comment that Ming Quong was “only a market gardener” may have been recalled by him like a bad taste in his mouth less than two years later. 

Ming Quong’s fortunes began to falter when, on 5 April 1898, the first fire broke out at his gardens near Epsom. In that instance, a spark falling onto hay in a shed was attributed as the cause. Patrick Donovan who owned both the premises leased by Ming Quong and the shed was insured for £50 with Imperial Insurance, while Ming Quong had a £400 policy of his own with North German. Fortunately, though, his carts and tools normally stored in the shed weren’t there at the time, so he didn’t suffer heavy losses. 

It was a different matter almost a year later. 

On 1 March 1899, a new storage building on Ming Quong’s property along Manukau Road was completely destroyed. Inside were said to have been silks and groceries valued at £1950. Employees of his, present at the time, among them his foreman T Lee Yen, reported that they were woken by the sound of stones thrown onto the roof of the building where they slept after 10.30pm. Ming Quong himself was enjoying a night at the circus in the city with his children at the time. Going outside to investigate, the workers stated that three or four boys around six years of age were seen running away. The boys were chased, but escaped. Retuning back to the sleeping quarters, the men then said they saw the burning building, which by then was completely engulfed in flame. As with the previous fire, the property’s location just outside the boundary for the Onehunga Volunteer Fire Brigade meant no help could come from that quarter, and with a general lack of water, there was no way of preventing the fire from running its course. 

Ming Quong had £1600 worth of policies with Sun and Norwich Union, but estimated at the time that his losses exceeded that by another £400. The police began an investigation. They found that the fire was suspicious, and an inquiry was ordered. The insurance companies refused to pay on the claim. On 25 March, the police seized 16 dozen silk handkerchiefs (found to have been smuggled inside 4 cases of tea from Suva), six pairs of Chinese shoes, one bag of fungus, and a “small quantity” of Chinese notepapers from Ming Quong’s home, none of which had been declared for duty. 

Just over a month later, at the Metropolitan Hotel, the inquest into the fire’s circumstances was opened on 3 May. The coroner was John Bollard of Avondale, MHR, with a jury of six. Solicitor Christopher J Parr, a future Mayor of Auckland and MP attended, watching the inquiry on behalf of the insurance companies. Over twenty witnesses were summoned for the total length of the inquest, extending over seven days. 

It turned out that Ming Quong’s initial estimate of damages was incorrect – he had accounted for the loss of crackers and rice, neither of which were among goods incinerated in the fire. His amended claim, once this had been pointed out by the insurers, came to £876 11s 2d. The insurer found items in Ming Quong’s house, so he said to the inquiry, which had been included in the first claim before amendment. Ming Quong’s case for the claim wasn’t helped by him failing to find relevant invoices in time (his wife found them, apparently, in a roll of crumpled papers in a bedroom chest of drawers), and he thought his main stockbook had been burnt, so was unsure regarding the whereabouts of goods sent to Fiji and Napier, or the crackers which came from China. 

An engineer, Charles Hannigan, spotted the fire around 10.30 pm on the night, but saw neither little boys, nor Ming Quong’s workers outside their building. He shouted “Fire!” three times, so he testified, then headed to the Royal Oak hotel for help. The fire was all over in around 10 minutes, he said, and told the inquiry that no efforts were made to try to salvage goods from the store. 

 As a result of the fire, details of the extent of Ming Quong’s business came to light. His servant named Mary McDonald helped him make out a stock list on the night of the fire to replace the one burned, “as he did not know how to spell the words.” The inquiry learned that goods were regularly shipped by Quong’s business to Napier and Fiji, and more was stored at cargo agents Carr, Johnston & Co at Fort Street as “samples”. He exported silk handkerchiefs and tobacco to Fiji and sent handkerchiefs to Napier. He’d borrowed several hundred pounds from his brother in Fiji, and owed a firm in China £180. 

A witness and former employee of Ming Quong, Ah Queen, testified that he’d seen goods removed from the store and taken to Ming Quong’s house up near the Costley Home some weeks before the fire. After the fire he said he was advised by Ming Quong that he wouldn’t get much of a reward from the insurers if he said anything to them about the incident. 

When the verdict came in, five out of the six jurors agreed that no evidence as to the fire’s origin appeared to them, and they were unanimous that they felt Ming Quong’s second, amended claim was correct, and that he’d made errors with the first claim due to “the great excitement” he was “suffering at the time.” The jury censured the insurers for taking on such a large insurance risk without inspecting the building or its contents. 

The seized goods though were passed on by the Police to Customs on 18 May 1899. Alexander Rose’s memo to his superiors dated 17 October 1899 was of a vastly different tone from the one he wrote back in 1897. 

“The Fire Inquest resulted in a verdict ‘not proven’ against Ming Quong, but the evidence was very suspicious and nasty, and two destructive fires within fourteen months seemed too frequent. The Insurance Company has not paid up, only to a few of the Chinaman’s European creditors who are insured with them. 

“The Chinaman on the evidence cannot sue the Insurance Co. 

“I think the seizure of the silk goods should be confirmed and that Mr Ming Quong should be informed that the Honourable the Commissioner has decided not to force prosecution for penalty of £100. The silk goods were found in his private house; however, the prosecution for penalty might fail as so long a time has elapsed since seizure, and moreover the man is now in a somewhat embarrassed financial position.” 

The goods were sold at auction by Customs in January 1900. Customs Collector Rose and Police Detective Kennedy, who had investigated Ming Quong, received rewards, £3 2s and £5 respectively.

In May 1900, Ming Quong sold up his buggy, horse, dray, harness, dogcart, harrows, tools and household furniture at Royal Oak, and on 16 June announced via a public notice in the newspaper: 

“TO MY FRIENDS IN AUCKLAND I am leaving for China for the purpose of visiting my mother in her old age. I may be away for a few years, but hope to return some day to Auckland. In the meantime I wish my many good friends Good-bye. MING QUONG.” 

This was the last Auckland ever heard from Fong Ming Quong and his family. 

Alexander Rose continued on until his retirement in 1907, and died in Arney Road, Remuera in 1926, aged 86.

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