Page 1: Biography
Wong Gye, Charles
Storekeeper, policeman, interpreter
This biography, written by Sherwood Young, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Charles Wong Gye, also known as Wong Gye and Wong Ah Gye, was born at Canton (Guangzhou), China, in 1839 or 1840. He was the son of Wong Hung, a merchant, and his wife, Leong Sum. Nothing is known of his early life. On 6 May 1869 he married Harriet Asquith, a needlewoman, in Melbourne, Australia. Wong Gye is said to have obtained a university education in Australia, becoming fluent in English and French in addition to his mother tongue, Mandarin.
By the late 1870s Wong Gye and his family had settled in Dunedin, New Zealand, where he worked as a storekeeper. The Department of Justice had employed a Chinese interpreter, John Alloo, for liaison with the Chinese miners on the goldfields. As it was intended to dispense with Alloo's services as an interpreter, Superintendent T. K. Weldon, in charge of the Otago police, was authorised by the premier to swear him in as a constable from 1 July 1877. However, Alloo was forced by ill health to resign in October.
Weldon then gained the approval of William Moule, commissioner of the newly formed New Zealand Constabulary Force, to employ Wong Gye as Alloo's replacement from 1 December 1877. Wong Gye had requested the appointment in an application supported by 18 Dunedin merchants. Weldon was authorised to pay him £50 per annum, plus a travel allowance, as a part-time member of the police. He was to be a district constable based at Clyde, and was to continue in Alloo's role as an interpreter as well as carrying out whatever policing functions were required of him. Wong Gye was mainly responsible for policing the Chinese community, but also had a general authority. He investigated such issues as the validity of miners' rights, and gaming among the Chinese. In 1882 he gained a pay rise of £10, being described by the commissioner of the New Zealand Constabulary Force as having a good deal of responsible work. Wong Gye was at one stage assisted temporarily by Wong Ah Jack as a second district constable in Otago.
Later reports on Wong Gye's work describe him as being 'well conducted', but in 1889 his commanding officer recorded that he was reportedly 'open to bribery', and in 1890 he was dismissed from the police. In his role as an interpreter he was alleged to have interfered with the evidence of a Chinese witness in a court hearing. Wong Gye petitioned in vain for an inquiry and compensation. He was not replaced, as the commissioner had 'very little faith in District Constables especially Chinamen.' With Wong Gye's dismissal, New Zealand lost its longest serving Chinese constable or district constable. He had been respected by Chinese and Europeans alike.
Nothing is known of how Wong Gye earned his living following his dismissal. He and Harriet continued to live at Clyde until his death from pneumonia on 16 May 1911 at the age of 72; he was survived by his wife and 12 children. He was buried in the local cemetery.