A new biography of Chew Chong appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Chew Chong was born in China in 1830. He attended school there and then worked for 10 years as a household servant in Singapore. In 1855 he came to Victoria where he spent 11 years on the goldfields, mining and storekeeping. The Otago gold rush induced Chew Chong to come to New Zealand in 1866. After two years in Dunedin, he began travelling through the country buying up old metal for export to China. During these journeys Chew Chong discovered an edible fungus in Taranaki which was growing profusely on recently burned decaying logs. It was similar in taste to a Chinese plant which was highly prized as a delicacy and used also for medicinal purposes. Chew Chong offered to buy this fungus at 2d. per pound. He made his headquarters in New Plymouth where in 1870 he opened a store. The fungus cost nothing to produce and was easily collected. It was spread out to dry and then packed into flax baskets or jute bags and brought into Chew Chong's store on market days. From New Plymouth it was sent to Dunedin and thence shipped to China by local Chinese merchants. Between 1872 and 1882 more than 1,700 tons of this “Taranaki Wool” were exported from New Zealand, to the value of over £78,000. The sale of fungus saved many Taranaki dairy farmers, for they sold their butter to the local store in exchange for goods, and fungus was their only source of ready cash, apart from bush-felling or road-building contracts.
Chew Chong bought butter, too. He opened branches of his store in Inglewood and Eltham and, in 1885, sent two kegs of Eltham butter to England. He lost money on this venture but it has been claimed that this trial shipment marked the beginning of New Zealand's flourishing dairy-export industry. In December 1887 Chew Chong opened a dairy factory at Eltham, near the Waingongoro River bridge. It was named the “Jubilee Dairy Factory” and the word “Jubilee” was registered as the brand name. The equipment was first class, including two Danish cream separators, and at the Dunedin Exhibition of 1889, Chew Chong won the coveted silver cup for the best half ton of butter packed suitably for export.
For some years Chew Chong also owned the Mangatoki Dairy Factory and was a shareholder in the Egmont Cooperative Box Co. He was, in fact, the dominating influence in the South Taranaki dairy industry in the late eighties and early nineties. Soon, however, he had to face competition. A cooperative dairy factory opened at Eltham in June 1892, backed by the Bank of New South Wales. Chew Chong had to pay high prices to retain his suppliers. He struggled on for some years but, in 1901, he had to close the Jubilee factory and his three creameries which were sold at a heavy loss.
Chew Chong retired from business and returned to live in New Plymouth where he died on 7 October 1920, a highly respected local citizen. An illuminated address which was presented to him a few years before his death expressed the appreciation of the settlers for the enterprise he had shown as a pioneer of the dairy industry in Taranaki.
On 16 February 1875, at Te Henui, Chew Chong married Elizabeth Whatton, daughter of a Taranaki settler, and by her he had three sons and four daughters.
by Herbert Otto Roth, B.A., DIP.N.Z.L.S., Deputy Librarian, University of Auckland.
- A History of the New Zealand Dairy Industry, 1840–1935, Philpott, H. G. (1937).