Chinese people have lived in the Hutt Valley from the 1880s when they had market gardens, particularly in Waiwhetu – Waterloo Road was originally called ‘Chinaman’s Lane’. Chinese settlers favoured market gardening in the early days as they were often “unskilled, used to hard work, and it was difficult to find other employment” according to former Mayor George Gee. There were 23 Chinese market gardens in Lower Hutt by 1917. However market gardening declined quickly in the 1930s and 1940s when land was taken for state housing.
The Gee Family
Chinese were also prolific owners of fruit and vegetable shops. One prominent family was the Gee family. Louis Gee emigrated from Kantong to the Manawatu, where oldest child of six George Gee was born in Palmerston North in 1921. Originally a market gardener Louis Gee moved to Petone to start a fruit shop in 1938.
The original shop run by Louis Gee was at 223 Jackson Street, which George Gee inherited on his father’s death in 1944. George Gee and his wife Dorothy set up their own fruit and vegetable shop in Jackson Street too. In 1950 Louis Gee & Sons were also registered fruiterers at 291 Jackson Street.
George Gee became Mayor of Petone in 1968, the first Chinese Mayor in New Zealand. He spoke Chinese fluently, as did his wife Dorothy and two children, Brian and Priscilla. Involved in many community groups, including the NZ Federation of Fruiterers and Greengrocers, he was awarded the Queen’s Jubilee Medal in 1977 and the Queen’s Service Order in 1981. A very popular Mayor, ill health forced his retirement in 1980. He died in 1984, and Korokoro’s George Gee Drive is named for him. The Wellington Chinese Association and Shandon Golf Club have held an annual tournament in his honour since 2007.
Former Mayoress Dorothy Gee was born in Taranaki, oldest of seven children of Charles and Ping Soon Bing. The Bing family returned to China for the children’s education, but when the Japanese invaded Manchuria they returned to live in Blenheim.
Dorothy Bing married George Gee in 1940 and they opened their own fruit shop in Petone. Dorothy got her heavy truck licence early on, and was an equal business partner. She was very involved in the Petone community as Mayoress and after George died, until she passed away in June 2013.
Son Brian Gee began helping out in the family shop after school and was in partnership with his father George until his death in 1984. In the 1950s there were 14 fruit and vegetable shops on a kilometre stretch of Petone’s Jackson Street, all earning a good living, according to Brian. Today there is only one.
Brian and Cynthia Gee sold their Jackson Strett shop in 2000 to retire, ending three generations of the Gee family as fruiterers in Jackson Street, Petone. He regretted “the fairest” system of auctioning of fruit and vegetables at the markets ending in the early 1990s. Regular customers had become good friends, and would be missed, Brian said.
The Young family and Young’s Fruit Centre, Lower Hutt
Goie Young and his brother Chang opened Young’s Fruit Centre in Lower Hutt’s newly-built Transport Centre in 1959. Anne Young joined her husband in the shop and Anne’s sister and brother-in-law Ray and May Farr also soon joined the business. Anne and Goie’s six children all worked in the shop after school and during holidays. Chang left the business in in 1982.
Goie and Anne Young operated their shop for 30 years before closing in March 1989 when the Transport Centre closed to make way for Queensgate Mall. In 1959 when their shop opened there were several fruit and vege stores in the Lower Hutt business area. By 1989 their shop was the only traditional store left.
Goie had to be at the market in Wellington by 6am twice weekly and they had no time for holidays. On retiring Goie and Anne also said they will miss their customers and neighbours, who were the reason they stayed so long in the business.
The Wing Family
Wai Wing came from China without his family and established his fruit shop Wai Wing Fruiterers at 186 Jackson Street with two partners in the 1940s, but was soon in business alone. Daughter Margaret Wing came to New Zealand from China in 1939 when a young child. Her family were refugees from the Japanese invasion. Margaret and her brother George worked in the shop for over 40 years, starting with stacking shelves when school children.
The family lived in a flat out the back of the shop for years before buying a home in Buick Street. After their parents died Margaret and George continued running the shop. Margaret artistically displayed fruit and vegetables and in 1986 Wings Fruiterers won a Top Shop award presented by Mayor John Terris. Margaret Wing died in 2006 and the shop is now Petone Treasures, an antique shop run by George Wing’s niece.
The Wong Family
Dolly Wong was born Yuet Wun Chin Ting and with her husband Willie Wong ran a fruit and vegetable shop in Naenae from 1956 until 1976. Dolly was educated in Wellington, before moving with her parents to Guangzhou to complete her education at a Chinese school. She married husband Willie Wong in China and they returned to New Zealand in 1931. They firstly ran a shop in Utiku near Taihape then moved south after their son died tragically in 1950. Daughter Helene began helping out in the shop when a child.
Wille Wong sold the shop in 1976 after supermarkets moved into the area and made the Rata Street shops less viable. He helped out in other fruit shops when needed but didn’t regret retiring from the hard physical work of running the shop. Willie Wong died in 1996 and Molly continued living in the family home in High Street until 2001. Molly died in May 2013, the same day Dorothy Gee died.
Bibliography and Further Reading
‘Interview with Mr Gee’, Hutt City Libraries collection