John Wong Toi (Wong Koon Wan 黃冠寰) was born in Hong Kong on 14 August 1933 and was the youngest son and ninth child of Robert Wong Toi (Wong Yu Choi 黃宇載) from Sun Wui, Seyip and Gock Oi Toi from Jook Sou Yuen village, Zhongshan.
John’s father and mother married in China and their eldest daughter Ada was born there in 1918. When the baby was 2 months old they went to Fiji. A second daughter Nancy was born in Fiji in 1920. Because the climate affected Robert Wong Toi’s health he decided to leave Fiji and settle in New Zealand. His wife’s brother, Ching Hoo Gock Honson, a prominent merchant provided funds to help Robert establish a silk and haberdashery shop ‘Jang Hing Loong’ with accommodation at 320 Queen Street, Auckland.
On 20 April 1923 Robert Wong Toi aged 34 and his wife Gock Oi Toi, aged 27 arrived in Auckland on the ship Niagara with their two children. Their third child Alex was born in 1923, followed by Gwen in June 1925, Reginald in October 1926, then James who died as an infant, Eileen in February 1930 and then Robert who also died in infancy. The six children were born at 320 Queen Street.
The family left New Zealand in 1933 and went to live in Hong Kong where John was born. They lived on the second floor at 12 King Kwong Street at the time of John’s birth and Robert Wong Toi gave his occupation as a merchant. They were to remain in Hong Kong until just before the Second World War- the males returning to New Zealand in 1939 followed by the females in 1940.
John’s father, Robert Wong Toi opened a shop at 3 Cook Street and sold general merchandise including imported Chinese goods, crockery, porcelain and items of furniture. The family lived at a house in Beresford Street and close relatives lived above the shop.
About 1945 Robert Wong Toi took over the Centreway Café1 at 268A and 270 Queen Street, in Edson’s building next to the Regent theatre. The family managed the large restaurant until 1959 when the lease expired and was not renewed.
John attended Beresford Street School in the 1940s before going on to secondary school at Sacred Heart College in Ponsonby. At first John helped in the family business. He then worked in several other places before running his own fruit shop. First he had three six months stints working at Blows Travel Agency in Albert Street; then as a teleclerk at the Auckland wharves; and then doing clerical work in the Treasury Department of government.
In 1953 the Wong Toi family shifted to a house with a large section at 67 King George Avenue, Epsom. Eventually there were three houses on the section, one for each of the sons: Alex, Reg and John.
St Heliers Fruit Mart - John Wong Toi
On 9 May 1964 John married Nancy Fong, daughter of Mrs Fong Lowe She of Point Chevalier Super Fruit Mart. John was working for AFFCO (Auckland Farmers Freezing Company) meat processors at the Southdown Freezing works in Otahuhu at the time. John, now aged 82, says that he enjoyed working there. ‘I started as a teleclerk and then I was in the main office as a costing clerk. I worked there for 12 years. I started off on £7 per week and had plenty of overtime.2
On leaving AFFCO in 1970 John was able to use his retirement package of about $4000 to put into a business. He saw an advertisement in the paper about the St Heliers Bay Fruit shop which included storage, a garage, and an Isuzu 3-4 ton truck. So John in partnership with his brother-in-law Shew Sik Hoong3 bought the fruit shop business from Charlie Lawgun in 1971.
‘The shop had a wide frontage. It was 750 square feet and 18 to 20 feet deep,’ said John. ‘Michael Chong, a handyman and a good friend of Bill Fong’s helped to redesign it.’
John remained in the shop while Sik Hoong went to the auctions and purchased the fruit and vegetables. They ran the business until 1986 when Sik Hoong decided to leave and John became the sole owner. John then relied on buyers such as Michael Chong, Ronnie Chan and Jack Lum to do the purchasing of veges and fruit at the markets.
‘The shop had lots of regular customers during the week and regular home deliveries were done on Fridays, ‘said John. ‘It was an average business with the usual drudgery. It made us a living and helped us to raise and educate our family of three children Phillip, Kevin and Allison.’
John decided to retire after nearly 20 years in the shop. The local paper, the Eastern Courier, wrote, ‘Mr Wong Toi is well-known throughout Auckland for the quality and variety of produce he provides. Many customers drive a long way to make a purchase from his shop.’ ‘His fruit and vegetables were always of the highest standard,’ says neighbouring shop owner Rob Eady. ‘He made everyone feel welcome, chatted to the children and carried the purchases to the car. That’s John, we’ll miss him.’4
- ‘FOR MEALS : GO TO THE TOI SHOP AND BE 'CENTREWAY' SATISFIED’ part of advertisement in Auckland Chinese Sports’ Association Annual tournament 1958, see: chinesecommunity.org.nz. The.Centreway Café was in existence as early as 1918, see Papers Past, New Zealand Herald, 26 October 1918, p.5
- Interview with John Wong Toi conducted by Lily Lee, Newmarket, 11 June 2015.
- Shew Sik Hoong , from Sheung Siu, Jung Seng, is married to Nancy’s sister Jean Fong. He was a market gardener in Felix Street, Onehunga in the 1950s. In the 1960s he worked in the fruit shop business for Mrs Fong and for Peter Chan.
- End to Twenty Years Service, Easter Courier, March 7, 1990, p.3.
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