Story: Doo, Unui

Page 1: Biography

Doo, Unui

1873–1875?–1940

Founding mother, storekeeper

This biography, written by Manying Ip, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

The matriarch of the Wong Doo clan in Auckland, New Zealand, was born sometime between 1873 and 1875 in Xinhui county, Guangdong province, China. Her given name was Chan Yau-nui, which was later simplified to Unui. She was the daughter of She Hoo Tai and her husband, Chan Doon Tai, a farmer. The fact that Unui had tiny bound feet suggests that she was expected to lead a comparatively secluded and leisurely life. She had no formal education but her business acumen and social skills were highly developed.

In Canton (Guangzhou), probably on 20 September 1898, she married Thomas Wong Doo, a young man who had recently returned from Sun Kum Shan, the 'New Gold Mountain' of New Zealand. In 1883 or 1884 Thomas had migrated there to join his elder brothers who were market gardeners in Auckland. By the time he returned to China to find a wife he was an eligible bachelor with good prospects. After their marriage Unui stayed in China and Thomas went back to New Zealand to work; their separation was necessitated by New Zealand's restrictive anti-Chinese immigration laws. Thomas visited China once every few years. A daughter and two sons were born to the couple before Unui came to New Zealand.

Meanwhile Thomas Wong Doo prospered, acquiring market gardens and establishing his own general store in central Auckland around 1912. He had the foresight to become naturalised in 1904, three years before naturalisation of Chinese was suspended. Once Thomas had achieved financial security it was possible for his family to join him. Unui Doo and her two sons arrived on 24 May 1915; the eldest daughter, who was betrothed, remained in China, emigrating to New Zealand during the Second World War. Soon after her arrival in Auckland, on 14 June 1915, Unui and Thomas Doo were married according to New Zealand law. Two more children, a girl and a boy, were born in Auckland.

Unui Doo lived and worked at the family's Chinese grocery store, located first in Wakefield Street, then in Victoria Street West. The Doos imported Chinese foodstuffs, rice, soya sauce and herbal medicine, and exported edible fungus to China. The shop also functioned as a community centre, social club, bank, post office and immigration advice centre. Unui always presided over the shop and was a gracious hostess to Chinese clients. Most were single men, who travelled to Auckland from as far north as Whangarei and as far south as Ohakune. Unui Doo was a mother figure to these bachelor workers, cooking for them and helping with their sewing and darning needs. Her generosity extended beyond the Chinese community. During the influenza epidemic of 1918 she used her knowledge of folk remedies to make quantities of tonic herbal medicine, which was freely available outside the shop to any passer-by.

Unui dressed her children immaculately in smart Western-style clothes while she herself preferred dark-blue or brown matronly garb covered with an apron. Her hair was always drawn back tightly into a bun. Photographs show her to have been a healthy looking woman, about five feet three inches in height, with a square face, broad forehead, bright sharp eyes and firm lips. Her tiny feet never hampered her physical activities. Family recall that her words were much respected by her husband and sons.

Unui took responsibility for choosing wives for her sons. Determined that the Doo family accounts and business correspondence should not be handled by too many outsiders, she made sure that all three daughters-in-law were literate; prospective brides were given calligraphy and mathematics tests. She quickly passed her home management skills to her daughters-in-law, who remember her as a very firm, but fair, matriarch. The Doo family continued to be devout worshippers of Lord Kwan, god of justice, whom Unui Doo revered. She died in Auckland on 18 August 1940, survived by her husband and five children.

Unui Doo was one of a small group of Chinese women who emigrated to New Zealand before the late 1930s. Because they were so few in number these women were heavily burdened with social and family duties. They played an important leadership role in the Chinese community and in particular helped maintain and nurture kinship ties in their adopted country.

How to cite this page:

Manying Ip. 'Doo, Unui', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3d12/doo-unui (accessed 9 December 2019)