Page 1: Biography
Storekeeper, market gardener, landowner
This biography, written by Randal Springer, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Chan Lit Chong, known in New Zealand as Tommy Chan, was born in May 1889 near Canton (Guangzhou), China, to peasant farmer Chan Kwong Yee and his wife, Foon Tong. He was the eldest of the couple’s four children. In 1908 he emigrated to New Zealand with a minimum of village school education and speaking no English, at a time when there was a marked antipathy towards the Chinese.
His first years in New Zealand were spent working for relatives in Wellington, Auckland, Rotorua, Hamilton and Dannevirke. In 1910 he moved to Ohakune, where he worked for his uncle, Chan Yin. Among his duties was managing the billiard saloon. In July 1911 Tommy Chan and his uncle became separated in the bush on a hunting trip. When Tommy realised his uncle must be lost, he forded the icy Mangawhero River, found a bush tramway and went off to get help. Local mill-hands helped in the search but the older man was not found until next day, half-frozen in the snow. A reward posted by his wife was not claimed, but dozens came to the spread he laid on after his recovery.
In 1914 Tommy Chan returned to China where he married Ng She, the daughter of a grocer, in Canton. A son was born to the couple before Tommy returned to New Zealand on his own in 1916 and established a grocer’s shop in Ohakune.
By this time the main trunk railway had been completed, and the vast timber resources of the central plateau were thus available to the sawmilling industry, which was reaching its peak. Logging was soon to be followed by land clearing and farming. These activities resulted in an increase in the population of the Waimarino district and Tommy Chan’s business prospered. He sent for his younger brother, Chan Lit On (Willie Chan), who arrived in 1918 and was allowed entry after payment of the poll tax of £100. Leaving their son with relatives in China, Ng She followed; she arrived in Auckland where, in a registrar’s office on the wharf, a formal New Zealand marriage was conducted on 26 November 1918. Ten children were born to the couple in New Zealand.
Tommy Chan closed the Ohakune shop in 1929 and reopened in Raetihi the following year. Ng She, with little English, helped in the shop. Together they were able to save for the family’s future and ensure that all the children received a good education. By this time antagonism towards Chinese in New Zealand was decreasing and Tommy Chan was well regarded locally. In the 1930s he was the only grocer prepared to give credit to the unemployed men on relief work who were living in Public Works Department roading camps throughout the district.
With a brother-in-law, Tommy embarked on a small market-gardening venture. They participated in the Services’ Vegetable Production Scheme which supplied vegetables to military camps throughout New Zealand and the Pacific during the Second World War. From market gardening Tommy Chan turned to buying up farming land, giving members of his family partnerships with each purchase. He was the founder of Chan Enterprises Limited, a holding company formed in the early 1950s and concerned with property in Auckland. During his later years he owned so much land in the Raetihi district that he was reputed to be wealthy. Yet he was essentially a humble man and any wealth he acquired was for the benefit of his family.
Tommy Chan had little time for leisure but was a good billiards player and kept bees. He took an interest in horse-racing, mainly, he said, to give him a topic of conversation. But his interest was a profitable one and he was able to use the proceeds to take his family for a trip to China in 1937.
Tommy Chan counted among his European friends Frank Langstone, once the MP for the electorate, and Bob Donald, director of Produce Markets in Auckland. He was a registered alien and therefore had no vote. An application for naturalisation in the 1920s was unsuccessful and he never applied again. He was a member of the Dominion Federation of Chinese Commercial Growers, and of the New Zealand Chinese Association, and a well-known and highly respected member of the local community.
Ng She died on 20 June 1965 and Tommy Chan died in Raetihi hospital on 19 July 1969; he was survived by six daughters and three sons. He had overcome immense initial difficulties but had achieved much during his life in New Zealand.