Page 1: Biography
Ah Chan, Joe
Greengrocer, horticulturist, wine-maker
This biography, written by Wesley Ah Chan, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Chan Hock Joe was born, according to family information, in 1882, at Ha Kei, Tsengshing (Zengcheng) county, in China's Guangdong province. He was the son of Chan Yook Ngan, the principal of the local school, and his wife, Ng Chu Hwa. By the time he emigrated to New Zealand around 1905 he had married Yip Kue Sum; she remained in China.
Known in New Zealand as Joe Ah Chan, he worked in Wellington as a fruit and vegetable hawker and later may have had a greengrocer's shop in Hāwera. About 1916 he sold the business and returned to China to help his wife learn English so that she could join him in New Zealand. At the time Chinese immigrants had to pay £100 poll tax and pass an English test of 100 words. In 1917 Ah Chan returned to New Zealand and opened a general store in Matamata. He was joined by Kue Sum three years later; because their marriage was not recognised by New Zealand authorities, they were married again in Auckland on 28 July 1920.
In 1923 Joe Ah Chan, his wife and their two children, George and Daisy, moved to Thames, where their third child, Anne, was born. There, Joe established a market garden, grew glasshouse tomatoes, and later began growing tomatoes outdoors. At the time most outdoor tomatoes were imported from the Pacific islands, and Ah Chan was one of the first to grow them commercially in New Zealand. He dispatched produce to many North Island fruiterers and soon opened a fruit and vegetable shop in Pollen Street, Thames.
In 1925 Joe Ah Chan began growing grapes at Totara and established Gold Leaf Vineyards. To finance this venture he continued to grow and sell tomatoes and vegetables, and purchased a further 22 acres in the Kauaeranga Valley to expand his market gardens. In 1929, with assistance from Andrew Sinkovich, a wine-maker from Henderson, Ah Chan produced his first batch of 1,000 gallons of wine. He was reputedly the first Chinese wine-maker in the southern hemisphere.
Ah Chan made trial plantings of several grape varieties such as Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon for table wines. However, most consumers preferred port and sherry, and the latter, made with the hybrid Albany Surprise grape, became one of his main lines. In another experiment he blended essence extracted from clary, a herb grown by A. M. Isdale, to give his wine a liqueur-like flavour. As Joe was often away, Kue Sum played a leading role in the vineyard, supervising the cultivation, harvesting and packing of the grapes.
In 1928 Ah Chan initiated one of the first passenger road services from Thames to Auckland. He purchased an American Wolverine car and each Thursday carried passengers, and his produce, to Auckland. An innovative and resourceful businessman, Ah Chan was probably the first Chinese in New Zealand to use motorised rotary hoe cultivators and tractor-drawn ploughs. In 1933 he designed and built a large wooden reel to lay specially made six-foot rolls of wire-netting, which were used to protect the grapevines from bird damage. He also designed and installed a large water tank and an automatic pressurised piping system for spraying and irrigation.
In 1950 Ah Chan sold the vineyard to a distant kinsman, Stanley Young Chan, who changed its name to Totara Vineyards SYC. Ah Chan had hoped to return to China with his family, but the communist victory in 1949 forced him to change his plans. The family settled in Blockhouse Bay, Auckland, on a five-acre property with six glasshouses, where Joe grew tomatoes for the Auckland markets.
Joe Ah Chan had been a founding member of the Chinese nationalist party, the Kuomintang, in New Zealand and served as chairman of its Waikato branch. He helped to raise funds for the Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen and was one of three New Zealanders awarded a medal by Sun. Later, he was a strong supporter of Chiang Kai-shek and made large donations to assist China's war effort against Japan. During the 1930s, disturbed by the poverty of the depression, Ah Chan became a member of the New Zealand Labour Party.
A short, stocky man, Joe Ah Chan spent much of his spare time reading Chinese classical works and Chinese newspapers. He also loved to listen to his favourite Cantonese opera records on his old gramophone. He died in Auckland on 14 December 1959, survived by Kue Sum and their three children; he was buried at Waikumete cemetery.