from Dr James Ng's superb four-volume epic, Windows on a
Chinese Past, little serious attention has been paid to
the history of the Chinese in New Zealand. An area in which
they have played - and continue to play - a significant role
is food production.
It is fitting, therefore, that the Dominion Federation of New
Zealand Chinese Commercial Growers Inc commissioned Lily Lee
and Ruth Lam to write Sons of the Soil, tracing the Chinese
involvement in market gardening.
By the end of 1864, after three boom years, the Otago gold
rush had passed its peak and many miners had moved on to the
West Coast, causing concern among businessmen. Fearing the
loss of capital and investment, they proposed that Chinese
miners from Australia be brought in to stem the decline in
population and rework the goldfields abandoned by European
Although not popular in some quarters, the scheme was
supported by the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce and Dunedin
Provincial Council, and in December 1865 the first two groups
arrived in Dunedin and travelled to the goldfields.
By 1874, the Chinese population in Otago was 4159. There were
few women, not because the Chinese men did not want to bring
them, but because the provincial government saw the Chinese
presence as temporary and did not include women in its
From 1881, every Chinese coming to New Zealand had to pay a
poll tax of 10, a figure raised in 1896 to 100. It was not
abolished until 1944 and in 2002 Prime Minister Helen Clark
offered New Zealand's official apology for it to the Chinese
The history of the Otago-Southland goldfields opens Sons of
the Soil. Having set the scene - and paid appropriate tribute
to the work of the Rev Alexander Don with Chinese in the
Otago-Southland goldfields - Lee and Lam provide short
biographies of some of the most prominent men from the early
They point out it is not known when the first Chinese market
garden in Central Otago was established but newspaper reports
from 1867 refer to gardens in Naseby and Alexandra, while Dr
Ng says that fresh vegetables were in demand and it would be
safe to say the Chinese supplied these to the goldfields
The Chinese gardening approach was two-fold: Asian greens for
their own consumption and cash crops of potatoes, peas,
carrots, cabbages, corn, gooseberries and strawberries for
the Europeans. The vegetables were hawked around by a man
carrying two baskets slung from a pole, or by horse and cart.
The book moves on to Dunedin, where Alexander Don's
invaluable Roll of Chinese records that, between 1896 and
1912, at least 159 of the city's 347 Chinese men were working
as market gardeners.
The majority were in Forbury (there were 10 market gardens
between Macandrew Rd and Bayfield Rd) and it was not until
the 1920s and 1930s that the Chinese moved to Waitati and the
Outram-Momona area. North Otago followed more slowly. There
was a Chinese market garden at Oamaru in 1870, but the main
development in the area came from the 1920s onward.
Lee and Lam work through the rest of New Zealand, province by
province, each chapter lavishly illustrated with historic
photographs and brief biographies of significant people.
Sons of the Soil records the rise and decline of Chinese
market gardening and more importantly, the families who were
involved. This is a stunning book, superbly illustrated and,
as James Ng says in his introduction, it is a welcome
addition to the literature on Chinese in New Zealand.
Gillian Vine is a Dunedin writer