Obituary: cared for families, new and old

Acclaimed historian James Ng. Photos: ODT files
Acclaimed historian James Ng. Photos: ODT files
GP, historian, community leader


Possessed of a tireless energy combined with a gentlemanly manner, James Ng — born Ng Tak Ming in China in 1936 — made lifelong friends in the diverse circles in which he moved.

A GP by profession, Dr Ng spent much of his later life recording and archiving the history of migrant Chinese in New Zealand.

This led to the publication of the seminal work Windows on a Chinese Past, published in four volumes between 1993 and 1999, documenting the 19th-century gold-mining history of the Chinese in Otago.

Another four volumes, exploring the history of the Chinese in New Zealand from the turn of the 20th century until the 1930s, were under way at the time of his death.

Immersing himself in civic life, Dr Ng served in governance for numerous organisations, illustrating his broad interests.

Among these, he was president of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery — he brought the Thyssen Bornemisza art collection exhibition to Dunedin, and played a major role in acquiring works by Monet and Lorrain.

He also served, at various times, as president of the Dunedin Wine & Food Society; chairman of Trust Bank Otago’s grant committee; convener of the Otago Community Trust grants committee; on the Creative NZ Council and Prime Minister’s Honour’s Review Committee; as session clerk for the Dunedin Chinese Presbyterian Church; on the Asia 2000 Foundation; as chairman of China Week in the Dunedin 150th Anniversary celebrations and the Shanghai-Otago Trade Match; as a negotiator for the Shanghai-Dunedin Sister City link; as founding chairman of the Shanghai-Dunedin Friendship Society; and as the inaugural chairman of the NZ Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust and founding chairman of Lan Yuan, Dunedin Chinese Garden.

Born in Wing Loong village, then in Canton (now Guandong), China, on March 27, 1936, the young Tak Ming was forced to leave the country in 1941 due to the advancing Japanese army.

Departing on one of the last refugee boats from Hong Kong, at age 5 he arrived in New Zealand, where his family owned laundries in Gore and Ashburton, and a fruit shop in Dunedin.

Dr James Ng and Ray Grubb examine the Mausoleum of Sam Chew Lian, in the Lawrence cemetery, in...
Dr James Ng and Ray Grubb examine the Mausoleum of Sam Chew Lian, in the Lawrence cemetery, in November 2008.
He did his primary schooling in Gore, before moving to Ashburton with his family where he attended the high school.

In 1954 he entered the Otago Medical School. He was one of the first residents at Aquinas Hall, operated by the Dominican Order, from whom he received The Medal of St Dominic for medical services to the priests of the Dunedin Catholic Church.

Dr Ng went on to receive several further honours during his lifetime, including a Rotary Foundation Paul Harris Fellowship, an Honorary Doctorate of Literature (Otago University), and an MBE (1989) and CNZM (1996).

He graduated bachelor of medicine and bachelor of surgery in 1959, having won the Ardagh Memorial Prize for best final-year student at Christchurch Hospital.

He served his house-surgeonship at Rotorua Hospital and, in this time, met Auckland pharmacist, writer and oral historian Eva Wong-Ng, nee Hing. They married in 1960 and moved together to Dunedin for his registrarship, where they lived for the next 60-plus years, raising a daughter and two sons. The promising young medic became the resident medical officer (head registrar) of Dunedin Public Hospital in 1965.

Possessed with an investigative, analytical mind which he later applied to historical research, from 1966-69 he assisted Prof Sir Horace Smirk in blood-pressure research at the Wellcome Institute, publishing nine medical research papers.

His natural interest in the NZ Chinese later led him to publish a paper on Chinese cultural aspects in medicine which was given yearly to new medical students.

He became a GP in Roslyn, Dunedin, in 1970 and in 1992 he founded the Amity Health Centre in the villa next door to his original surgery.

Noted for his medical expertise and compassion for his patients, the flood of tributes for Dr Ng speak to his impact on the lives and health of those he oversaw.

Characteristically, he did not restrict himself to simple private medical practice alone. He was the medical officer of special grade in charge of: Hilljack Convalescent Hospital, 1970 until closure c.1976; two of four wards in Parkside Geriatric Hospital, 1970 until closure in 1985; one ward in Wakari Public Hospital, 1985-87 inclusive until voluntary "retirement", to write a book.

In 2007, then prime minister Helen Clark gets a fright from fireworks being set off at the...
In 2007, then prime minister Helen Clark gets a fright from fireworks being set off at the opening of the restored Arrowtown Chinese Settlement, watched by Otago Doc conservator Jeff Connell and Dr James Ng.
He was president of the New Zealand Nurses’ Memorial Fund, an executive member of the Otago Medical Research Foundation, and served as chairman of the Otago division of the New Zealand Medical Association and a member of the national executive.

Perhaps even exceeding his considerable pleasure in civic life was his passion for New Zealand Chinese history.

Dr Ng began to develop his interest during his time at the Otago Medical School.

Over the years, he spent hundreds of hours in the Hocken and Dunedin Public Libraries, sifting through regional and urban newspapers covering the period 1860-1900; working either in the evenings, when his day’s surgery and visiting were over, or on Saturday mornings.

In 1985, accompanied by Eva and family, and again in 1988 (joined by TVNZ) — he visited the family’s ancestral homes and villages in Guangdong Province, recovering the roots of his family’s personal history.

His meticulous research came to fruition in 1993 when, with the encouragement of George Griffiths of Otago Heritage Books, the Dunedin firm published the first of four large and magnificently-illustrated volumes, titled Windows on a Chinese Past. The fourth volume was published in 1999.

This monumental work of scholarship received the highest praise from historians and others.

In 2004, Dr Ng, recognising the importance of Chinese pioneers of the Otago gold-mining industry, bought the land of the Lawrence Chinese Camp, and established the Lawrence Chinese Camp Charitable Trust, now chaired by his daughter, Denise Ng.

He and Eva also founded the New Zealand Heritage Research Charitable Trust which oversees a repository of research materials on NZ Chinese at the Presbyterian Research Archives at Knox College.

The "Ng New Zealand Chinese Heritage Collection" is recognised by Unesco on the Aotearoa New Zealand Memory of the World Register as a collection of national importance.

Dr Ng died age 87, at home in Dunedin, on March 5, and is survived by wife Eva, 89, three children, seven grandchildren, and a great-grandchild. — Richard Davison.