This story was written by Lily Lee, 14 August 2017.
Brothers LEE Buck Hong 李北洪 and LEE Wah Gip 李徐群 from Hang Mei, Zhongshan
Hang Mei 恆美 meaning ‘Perpetually Beautiful’ is a fairly large village close to Zhongshan city. From the time of the gold rushes in the 1850s to the 1920s young men from Hang Mei left to find their fortune overseas in countries such as Canada,i Hawaii and Australia and as far south as New Zealand. The four Lee brothers were no different. Two of the brothers settled in Sydney and two of the brothers Lee Buck Hong 李北洪 (1891-1966) and Lee Wah Gip 李徐群 (1893-1966) travelling independently ended up first in Fiji in the 1910s and then made their way to New Zealand in the early 1920s. They toiled away for many years, going home once or twice before the brothers were able to bring their wives and children out to be reunited in New Zealand. Both Lee Buck Hong and Lee Wah Gip had two sons respectively: Tong and Sammy Lee; and Paul and Sui Lee. Their stories are also shared.
Lee Buck Hong 李北洪 1891 -1966
Lee Buck Hong (aka Lee Sun Chong) aged 31 arrived in New Zealand on the Niagara from Suva on 22 March 1922.ii He paid the 100 pound poll tax on his arrival in the port of Auckland. From the 1920s-30s he operated a garden in Point England Road with his village cousin Lee Mun Gum (李文錦).Like other Zhongshan men, he had first worked in Fiji before coming to Auckland. Norman Choy (Gock Yet Wai) a well known Zhongshan businessman said that as a school boy in the 1930s he knew all the Zhongshan men in Auckland. Of Lee Buck Hoong Norman said: ‘He doesn’t walk everywhere, he runs!’ and of his partner Lee Mun Gumiii he said, ‘He’s fond of gambling - he would often go off to Newmarket in the evening to play mah-jong with Zhongshan ‘herng lee’ (kinsmen).
Lee Buk Hong (aged 31), 1922. ARCHIVES New Zealand, R23702746
Later, the two men leased a block of ten acres which was part of the site of the Point England Recreation Reserve and gardened there from about the 1940s - 1960. They grew carrots, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, parsley and kumara. ‘There was no power on the property because the landlord refused to have it connected –it was too far from the power lines – so my father used a wood-fire for cooking and after dark they used candles for lighting.’
Lee Buck Hong’s wife Lee Kwun Ngee born in 1907 was a Young from Buck Toi (北台) village –‘a half hour walk away,’ said Sammy. She arrived in Auckland in July 1953 with sons Tong (Lee Kum Tong) aged 20, and Sammy (Lee Kum Hon) aged 14. Sammy attended Point England Primary School for three years to learn English and was expected to work in the market garden before school and after school. His brother Tong was not accepted at a public school because of his age, so he attended Wesley College, a private church school, as a boarder, for three years. Each year his father had to pay £350 in board and tuition fees for Tong, “but,” said Sammy, ‘Tong didn’t learn any English because he was with two classmates from China and they spoke Cantonese all the time!’iv
About 1960 Lee Buck Hong moved to Mangere to take over Lum Hoy’s garden of six acres at 122 Favona Road. Under the trade name, Lee & Sons, the family specialised in early capsicums, early outdoor Mangere Pale tomatoes, silverbeet and lettuce.
Lee Buck Hong and his wife now lived down the road from their good friends Ho Chew Chong and ftheir children Lily, Jack, Ray and Mary who were in their late teens. Lee Buck Hong would always buy his groceries ‘such as a tin of Milk Arrowroot Biscuits for breakfast’ from their roadside shop says Ray Chong. ‘He would always buy four packets of Pocket Edition tobacco to last him the week. He would roll enough for each day at the crack of dawn before he started work in his garden.’ Along with other Zhongshan gardeners like Chong Hin and Gordon Lee (also from Hang Me), his wife, and children Lita and Peter, they would gather at the house behind the shop at 66 Walmsley Road, Mangere on Friday nights for a good old ‘chin wag’ about life as gardener or to play ‘Tien Gao’. When the Chongs got a new television set in the early 1970s they would congregate in the lounge and watch programmes such as Bonanza. v
Lee Buck Hong died on 26 January 1966 at 76 years of age. He had made three trips back to China: in the 1920s, the early 1930s and in 1938. He had expressed a wish that his ashes be returned to his village of Hang Mei for burial – but this did not happen. When his wife died on 8 May 1980, at age 73, the family decided that his ashes would be interred in the the same burial plot (Lawn Headstone South Plot 917) in the Mangere Lawn Cemetery.
Tong Lee (Lee Kum Tong 李錦堂) 1933-
After leaving school, Tong Lee worked at the Tom Ah Chee fruit shop in Newmarket. He then started his own fruit shop on the Great South Road with cousin Paul Lee in 1958. In 1962, Tong Lee left for Hong Kong to marry Winnie Lee (Tang Wai Ling) originally form Guangzhou.
They returned to New Zealand in October 1962 and settled down to a life of market gardening at 122 Favona Road. Every one was amazed at how quickly Winnie, a sophisticated girl from Hong Kong, previously dressing in Hong Kong style ‘cheong sarm’, could adapt so readily to wearing outdoor gear and gumboots and tackle the physical work of intensive growing.
In the 1980s, while still market gardening in Favona Road, Tong, Winnie and family moved to 56 Walmsley Road, Mangere. Here on at first three acres of land and then an adjacent six acres they specialised in silverbeet in winter and lettuce in summer as well as other salad crops.
Tong and Winnie worked well together. For 40 years they put in endless hours of hard work growing vegetables. At the same time they brought up their family of four children: Tony, Kevin, Johnny and Tina. After finally retiring in 2004 they continued to suppport their sons Tony and Kevin with their market garden at Tussock Avenue.
Through the years Tong provided his time and expertise to roast pigs on the family property in Favona Road where they had built a large traditional Chinese pig oven. Since the 1970s Tong and brother Sammy roasted pigs for weddings, birthdays, community fundraising and other special occasions – sometimes roasting two or three pigs a day. On one occasion about eight pigs were roasted in a day for a special fundraising. The Lees were generous in allowing anyone else to use the oven. Jack Chong recalls that it was a huge concrete block structure with large external steps to the top of the oven with the inside of the oven lined with bricks.vi Tong also gave a helping hand at large banquets in the days before there were large Chinese restaurants.
Tong was also a strong supporter of the establishment of the Auckland Zhongshan Clan Association in the 1980s. He has been a committee member since 1984. Tong (now in his eighties) and Winnie remain stalwart supporters of community events and continue to attend many organised activities.
Tong and Winnie now live at Manuakau Road, Royal Oak and enjoy their five grandchildren: Mindy, Winstone, Andy, Nathan and Lewis.
Tong Lee helping with cooking for Jack Chong’s wedding in 1968. Courtesy MARY LOW.
Tong’s sons follow their father’s footsteps
Two of Tong’s sons, Tony Lee 李智輝 born 11 March 1963 and Kevin Lee 李智光 born in 1966 can claim to be the third generation of successful market gardeners in the Lee family. They market gardened together with their parents for a number of years learning everything about the intensive growing of vegetables.
The year 2001 marked a new phase and new opportunities when Tony and Kevin branched out and purchased a market garden of 32 acres in Tussock Avenue, Mangere – their choice of a block of fertile land at the end of the road - was the only area not covered by suburban houses.
Tony and Kevin (assisted ably by their wives Limin and Jieling) specialise in kale, early capsicum, zucchinis, bak choy, silver beet and Chinese melons such as dong gwa. They grow using modern techniques and they have modern facilities such as a very large packing shed and coolstore.
Tony and Limin have brought up their family there in Tussock Avenue: Mindy Lee born in 1999 is the first Lee grandchild and she is now completing her final year at St Cuthbert’s College. Winstone Lee born in 2000 is the second grandchild and is in Year 12 at King’s College.
Kevin and Jieling (born 1974) have similarly brought up their two sons Andy Lee born 1999 and Nathan Lee 2002. They live away from the market garden and the boys attend Onehunga High School.
Tony and Kevins’ children proudly represent the fourth generation of the Lee’s in New Zealand.
Sammy Lee (Lee Kum Hon 李錦漢)1939-
‘My father came home and married my mother (his second wife) and Tong was born in March 1933. He came home again in 1938 and I was born - on the 1st of March 1939’.
Sammy Lee speaks of his grandparents:
My grandfather (Lee She Tai（李社泰), Jinxing（金興), Bokun（伯焜) died before I was born. He never went overseas but remained in the village using his money to help his sons to go overseas. My grandmother (Lee Wong She) told me he owned a ‘toi chew’- a sedan chair which was used like a taxi to carry ‘charn fei’ (the rich people in the village). It was hired by villagers for special occasions such as weddings. The chair was carried by two men.
My grandmother had bound feet. She was a Wong from Buck Toy 北台 village. It was in the period of the Qing dynasty, before China became a republic in 1912. When I was a child I saw her wash her feet. The toes curl in and grow in from the bottom. It looked ‘funny’. She never worked – just a little bit of housework and cooking.
Lee She Tai, b. 1852, d. 8 Nov, 1933. Lee Wong She, b. 26 August 1863, d 18 March, 1943
Sam Talks of Life in Hang Mei village in the 1940s:
My village was quite large. There were around 200 houses. I lived there until I was 14 years old with my older brother Tong and my half sister ‘Dai Gar’ (big sister).vii Her name was Lee Kum Yuen and she later married an Ng from Gook Gong. ‘Dai Gar’s’ mother died when Dai Gar was about 6 or 7 years old and my father came home to find a new wife.
The house I lived in was built from money sent home by my father. It was a two-storeyed house in a little ‘hong’ (alleyway) and it was joined to the houses of my dad’s four brothers. Many of the men left for Sydney. The two older brothers went to Sydney and took up market gardening. My father and his youngest brother Lee Wah Gip went to Fiji and then came to New Zealand and became gardeners too. My father had one sister – she was the youngest. She married a Louie (雷) from Doo Tou 渡頭 village and went to live in California. She only had one son but her son had seven sons!
My mother used to go to the hillside to ‘got mong’ (cut dried grass). She would choose the longest stalks of grass and use a ‘bong liem dou’ (a crescent shaped knife) to cut the grass. She would leave them on the slope to dry in the sun for a day. Then it would be ready to use in the brick stove to cook our food. She would go every day and we would have a big pile by the stove.
We also grew some red kumara and taro up high on some flat land – just for us – not to sell. We had six lichee trees. There were no rice fields in our village – we were close to the city. Our rice fields were on the other side of the river- quite far away. We had 25 mou of land there and we rented it out to tenant farmers. Of course we lost it all in 1949 when the Communists came.
Carefree school days:
Our house was close to the village school. The building had been there for a long time. It went up to Standard 6. We used a brush pen and black ink to write our Chinese characters. I don’t think I paid much attention in class. The young lady teacher lived a few doors away from our house – she later went to Australia.
I liked to go fishing ‘jarp ngee’ in the ‘harng’ (creek). It was about 10 feet wide. I sometimes went with a line but most of the time we put a net down at low tide. Then wait for the full tide – and when they jumped we would catch them in our net. There were ‘lee ngee’ and ‘chun ngee’. The ‘chun ngee’ was slightly bigger than New Zealand piper fish but with no sharp needle point. My father liked to net the fish too - when he came home.’
I liked to ‘da jerk jay” (shoot the birds). I would go to the ‘sarn’ (hills) about half an hour away with my shanghai. We take them home to eat. The birds I remember were ‘bun gou’ (wood pigeons), ‘bak tou long’ (white head bird), ‘ma jerk jay’ (sparrows). There was another bird, ‘war cook’, I remember that ate the rice grain while it was growing in the fields. In 2009 when I went back to my village there were no birds there – nothing!
Many in the village applied to get out of China. We were very lucky, we only waited 6 months for our application from New Zealand to be done. We had a neighbour who had a brother who worked in the ‘gung on gock’ [government office] and he helped us by moving our papers up to the top of the pile. My mother, Tong and I left on a bus for Macau. We then went by ferry to Hong Kong. We spent 18 days on the Taiping and then waited for 2 weeks in Sydney for a flying boat to come to New Zealand.
Sammy Lee - Market Gardener
Sammy helped his parents in their family market garden at Favona Road. He often visited the Chong family of Walmsley Road with his parents and there were many social gatherings in the 1950s playing table tennis, playing poker, ‘tien gou’ and chatting about the markets and the price of vegies.
Sammy Lee taken in the Chong Ho fruitshop, 1950s. Courtesy Mary Low.
In the 1960s Sammy met a Zhongshan girl Pauline Lowe (Lowe Bo Ling) from Woo Jow Gerk 胡洲腳. She was the daughter of long- time market gardener Lowe Gun 劉松根. Sammy and Pauline were married by Reverend Fong in May 1964 in the Vincent Street Chinese Presbyterian Church. ‘We had a ‘Hollywood’ photo taken at the studio”, said Sam, ‘and we had a Chinese banquet back at the market garden in a marquee’. Sam and Pauline have six children: Anna. Donna, Ena, Sandra, Wayne (Lee Wai Mun 李偉文) and Tracey.
Only Son Wayne Lee, who followed a career in accountancy, succinctly makes these observations about his parents:
I would describe my Dad as a cheerful, carefree man. He is hardworking, generous and is very trusting and accepting of everyone. He is actually a door to door salesman’s dream.
I would describe my Mum as a caring and loving woman always thinking of other’s before herself. She is also hardworking and generous ensuring we, as kids were brought up with the right values and had a good education. She is the best cook in the world.’
I remember my Dad’s favourite greeting was “Long Time No See” and he used to say it with a massive happy expression and smile on his face. My Mum’s English wasn’t the best but she had learnt to say this as well when meeting people.viii
Sam and Pauline Lee’s wedding in 1964. From left Lee Buk Hoong, Lee Young Shee, Sammy Lee, his wife Pauline, Tony Lee, Winnie Lee and Tong Lee. Courtesy JACK CHONG.
From left (clockwise): Donna, Sandra, Ena, Anna, Tracey, Wayne in centre, 2007. Courtesy SAMMY LEE.
Sammy and Pauline started out on a small holding of 2½ acres in Thomas Road, Mangere Central. He leased additional land in Pukaki Road from Kung Tin 龔顯蕃 who came from Hoi Ping, Guangdong. For years Sammy leased 33 acres, then he downsized to 23 acres and finally to 10 acres. Sammy and Pauline grew a great variety of vegetables: leeks, cabbages, beans, silverbeet, and salad vegetables for Turners & Growers. Like his brother Tong, Sammy was an extremely hard worker. Pauline too, worked beside him unceasingly.
Although Sammy and Pauline were extremely busy they made time for their children. Wayne recollects a few childhood memories:
As a child, I remember waking up at the ‘crack of dawn’ to go with my father to the market in the city. The slow climb up Queenstown Road in an old truck with a full load of vegetables on the back was a deafening experience with the engine revving at capacity. The full cooked breakfast with greasy chips made it worth the early start. KFC from Royal Oak was also a frequent reward after working late cutting lettuce.
One of the later trips to the market, my Father surprised me with a stop to Hobbie City and he answered my dream of owning a Tamiya Remote Control car. I had no clue how to put it together but once it was up and running, it was the best feeling as a child to get a toy that I really wanted.
I was spoilt according to my sisters. I don’t think so. ix
Sammy and Pauline Lee in their parsley patch in Kirkbride Road, Mangere, April 2011. Courtesy JACK CHONG
The couple only started to slow down when Kung Tin’s land was sold in 2008. But they didn’t stop growing – they just downsized! Sam who was nearly 70 was finding it hard to give up growing altogether so he leased a 6 acre block in Kirkbride Road, owned by the Mangere Cemetery Trust. Sam chose vegetables which did not require ‘heavy lifting’. He grew coriander, parsley and silver beet which he sold to Fresh Direct. ‘It is not a good time now for small growers ’, said Sammy, ‘I lose a dollar before the vegetables go out the gate, but it keeps me busy and occupied.’
Sam and Pauline now finally retired spend time pottering around their large house and section- growing interesting flowering plants and shrubs. Pauline, a great cook has always got ‘bao’ and ‘jueng’ ready for all her visitors, her children and especially the grandchildren: Tyla, Alycia, Kali, Sienna and Sophia.
Sammy continues to support the Auckland Zhong Shan Clan Association and has been roasting pigs for fundraising for years. A committee member since 1984, he was on the original establishment committee and contributes in any way he can, giving of his time and energy to help the association.
Lee Wah Gip 李徐群 1893-1966
Lee Wah Gip 李徐群 (aka Lee Fun) arrived in New Zealand on 8 June 1920 on the Maheno from Sydney. On entry he paid the poll tax of 100 pounds. He was aged 26.i During the early years he returned to China several times to get married. Lee Wah Gip’s first wife was a Wong from Fook Chung 福涌 and his second wife was Lee Chue Kwan 李徐群 from Sun Shan Jing village 神仙井 a few kilometres north east of Hang Mei. Elder son Paul Lee (Lee Sui Po 李瑞波) was born in September 1936 and younger son Sui Wing Lee was born in 1949.
Elder son Paul Lee said, ‘my father was the youngest of four brothers and he was the only one who could read and write. He had three years of tuition with a private tutor. Later on he raised funds to help support the village school.’
Lee Wah Gip at some stage lived in Osborne Street, Newmarket with Zhongshan men like Lowe Young Dai and Lowe Chun. In the 1950s when the family arrived he was a market gardener at 124 Favona Road Mangere. On the four acres of land he grew tomatoes, cucumbers and other salad vegetables that were taken to market by carrier.
Lee Wah Gip aka as Lee Fun died on 2nd February 1966, which uncannily was a week after his older brother Lee Buck Hong passed away. Lee Wah Gip was aged 73.
His wife Lee Chue Kwan was very hard working and kept the market garden going until the 1980s. She died 4 March 1997 aged 81. They are both buried at the Mangere Lawn Cemetery.
Paul Lee (Lee Sui Po 李瑞波) 1937-
Paul Lee was 16 years old when he arrived in New Zealand with his mother Lee Chue Kwan and his younger brother Sui who was three years old.
For a few years Paul helped his father in the garden. From 1958 -1961 he and cousin Tong Lee ran a fruit shopii on the corner of Market Road and Great South Road buying produce at the markets under the code name ‘ONL’. Afterwards Paul worked consistently for many years at Fisher & Paykel Appliances in Mt Wellington.
In 1963 Paul Lee married wife Judy Wong (黄佩儀)iii of Jung Seng descent from the Wong Sa Tao 黄沙頭 village. In December 1964 Paul and Judy built a house at 161 Hall Avenue, Favona and they have lived there ever since. Their four children are: Surina (Sue Lin 素蓮), Holming (Ho Ming 浩明), Lailiann (Lai Lin 麗 蓮) and Jaymond (Jun Ming 振 明). Paul and Judy have three grandsons - Connor Henderson, Helio and Lucas Lee; and one granddaughter, Alex Lee.
In 1997 Paul and Judy enjoyed a visit to Hong Kong where he had memories of going to school. Paul has had a wide range of interests including Kung Fu and Tai Chi for exercise; reading; and studying and meditating on Taoist philosophy. Paul also enjoys playing Chinese chess, watching DVDs and getting on his computer to study through the Internet.iv
Sui Wing Lee 李瑞荣 1950 -
Younger son of Lee Wah Gip, Sui was three years old when he arrived in Auckland. He recalls: ‘We arrived in Auckland in September 1953. I seem to think that we came from Sydney by flying boat but I would not swear by it.’
Lee Wah Gip was a quiet man and Sui knows little of his father’s life in the years prior to Sui’s arrival in New Zealand. Sui’s mother, after her arrival in New Zealand, found work at Abels Limited – a Sauce factory in Newmarket. This was to help supplement the family income. She would help in the garden early in the morning before catching the bus to work.’
At 5 years of age Sui attended Mangere Bridge School. He then completed his secondary schooling at Otahuhu College. After finishing school Sui studied Accountancy and completed a Bachelor of Commerce degree at Auckland University. Sui then worked as an accountant at various firms including Johnson’s Wax and Hansen Engineering.
After a number of years as an accountant Sui decided to branch out into computers and gained a position at Broadlands Computers in Newmarket. He then joined a consulting firm of Computer Programme Developers. After a stint there he decided to go out on his own as a Programme Consultant.
Back to the Village
Sui has been back to his village of Hang Mei three times. Sui’s talks about taking his Mum back to China:
In the 1970s I took mum back to the village. This is before China had opened up and goods were scarce. I remember we took back a sewing machine and a bicylcle. China was still very strict and we ( and other travellers) had to lay out all the things we were bringing (across the border) in a huge hall for a customs inspection.’
We arrived by rickshaw from Sek Kei. For four nights we stayed with ‘Dai Gar’ (dad’s big sister) who lived in our house and my uncle Lee Buck Hong’s house. She had knocked a hole in the wall of the two adjourning houses to make it into one larger house.
Sui also visited his mother’s village. The village was named after the well ‘Fairy Springs’ (Sun Shan Jing) 神仙井. The focal point in the village was the well: ‘When we first saw it –it was just a hole in the ground with water springing up close to the surface. But they have built it up since and made it look more like a tourist attraction with a fancy concrete structure around it.’
Sui has also spent many years as part of the Auckland Chinese Community Centre (ACCC Inc) and has held various positions on the executive committee. He served on the Sports committee and as Treasurer for a number of years. He also helped with the regular newsletters to members.
Sui Lee speaking at closing ceremony of the Winter Camp, 1986. Courtesy SUI LEE
Sui recalls the highlight of his time with ACCC was leading two groups of New Zealand born Chinese back to China back in the 1980s during their winter season. It was known as the ‘Winter Youth Camp’. The tour included an orientation week in Guangzhou, travel around China and a visit back to the ancestral village of their parents and grandparents. Several Zhongshan young people including Elizabeth Wong (from Mangere) and Sui’s nieces Anna and Donna Lee (from Manukau) were on his first trip. Sui Lee was also a committee member of the Auckland Zhong Shan Association and has been involved for a long time as a member. Altogether Sui spent much of his non-work time involved in Chinese Community activities. v
Sui Lee, (far right), with a group of New Zealand Chinese outside Sun Yat Sen’s house in Zhongshan in 1986. From left: Keith Seto (Wellington), a tour guide, Jennifer Lee (North Shore), Elizabeth Wong (Mangere), Karen Wong (Auckland), Ken Shum (Hamilton), Anna Lee (North Shore), Victor Wong She (Wellington), Anna Lee (Manukau), Wendy Young (Wellington), Andrew Tse (Levin), Virginia Desmond (Wellington), Guangzhou student, Erica Wong (Auckland), Bermott Fung (Wellington). Kneeling In front: Teresa Wong (Auckland), Donna Lee (Manukau), and Elaine Wong (Auckland). Courtesy SUI LEE
Grateful thanks to to Tong Lee, Sammy Lee, Paul Lee and Sui Lee for providing information on their families and to Tony Lee and Wayne Lee for their contributions.
Endnotes - to be posted...