The changing face of retail: New Zealand's Chinese population in retail

  • New
  • April 1, 2016
  • Sarah Dunn
The changing face of retail: New Zealand's Chinese population in retail
Chinese family in a greengrocers shop. Ref: 1/2-037502-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

New Zealand’s first non-Maori retailers were a diverse bunch. The majority, like the founders of Wellington department store Kirkcaldie & Stains, hailed from Great Britain, but many of the Chinese and Indian migrants who came to New Zealand for the gold rush during the late 1800s took advantage of the burgeoning population of cashed-up miners by getting into retail.

One of the most prominent non-Western retailers was Charles Sew Hoy, a merchant from China’s Guangdong province. The Te Ara encyclopaedia reports that in 1869, he began selling imported Chinese goods from a store in Dunedin. Like other Chinese merchants, Te Ara says, Sew Hoy quickly began providing social support to the Chinese gold miners, especially those hailing from areas near his home. He ran a charity called ‘Cheong Shing Tong’ from his store.

Another historic Chinese retailer, Chew Chong, was born in the area now known as Guangzhou. He came to Otago in 1867 after spending 11 years as a storekeeper in Australia, and following a stint collecting scrap metal, settled in New Plymouth to open a shop. There, Chong discovered a fungus, Auricularia polytricha, and supplemented his retail trade by exporting the fungus to China.

Te Ara describes Chong as an enterprising storekeeper who established several branches of his shop. As well as selling imported Chinese items and “fancy goods”, he collected commissions for a Chinese portrait artist in Hong Kong who worked from photographs; undercut his rivals on groceries and meat, and successfully marketed a specific type of grass seed across the country.

Fast forward a hundred years to 1958, when the concept of supermarkets was brought to New Zealand by third-generation Chinese New Zealander Tom Ah Chee. When Ah Chee took over the family fruit shop, which was founded during the 1860s by his grandfather, he foresaw the importance of supermarkets to the future of New Zealand’s food distribution and opened the country’s first major standalone supermarket, Foodtown, in Otahuhu. The Foodtown brand was phased out by its owners, Progressive Enterprises, from 2009 – a former executive, Des Flynn, is also profiled in this issue of NZRetail on pg 21.

Gisborne mayor Meng Foon is the national president of the New Zealand Chinese Association and a second-generation Kiwi retailer. His family have been involved with the retail industry since 1966, when his parents George Foon, also known as Liu Sui Kai, and Helen Foon, known as Ng Heng Kui, opened ‘Bargain Veges’ in Gisborne. Foon’s father hails from Guangdong province in mainland China and his mother was born in Hong Kong.

In 1987, Foon and his brother Richard followed in their parents’ footsteps when they bought the Kaiti Mall shopping centre in Gisborne. They founded several shops within the mall while, shortly afterwards, Foon’s wife and her sister partnered in buying the local $2 Shop franchise. The Gisborne branch has been renamed The Dollar Dream and is still in operation.

Foon says his parents experienced discrimination when they were made to pay more for their land than Pakeha businesspeople, but they had more trouble with the language barrier than anything else: “Because they provided a good service, they didn’t have a problem with customers.”

George and Helen Foon hired mostly Maori to work in their store as they felt the cultures were similar and they got along well. Foon’s mother went to night school to learn English with a group of other immigrant women from Greece, Holland and other countries.

Business was as competitive as it is today, Foon says. His parents successfully navigated the labour system with help from their local labour department representative, Alf Simon, who was supportive and approachable. He assisted them in applying to trade seven days per week.

Foon’s parents retained ties to China and connected with Chinese retailers within New Zealand. They used to send away for goods from Charles Sew Hoy’s store for their own home, and before restrictions on biosecurity were tightened, would send money to Hong Kong for hard-to-find grocery items.

These days, Foon says, the processes for migrants are similar but it’s much easier to get information. Chinese newspapers used to be the only way migrants could get Chinese news, but now, everything is available online.

“The difference is access to information in your own language,” Foon says. This also means new trade opportunities: “You’ve got the whole world to sell to.”

In keeping with his position as mayor of Gisborne, Foon says he thinks migrants should consider settling in smaller centres rather than Auckland. He knows from attending citizenship ceremonies that while Gisborne used to be home to half a dozen ethnicities, there are now 95 different ethnic groups living there – most prominent are Chinese, European and Maori, plus newer communities from the Pacific Islands, Asia, America, Russia and Yugoslavia.

This story originally appeared in NZRetail magazine issue 742 February / March 2016

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