Page 1: Biography
Doo, Thomas Wong
Merchant, interpreter, community leader
This biography, written by Manying Ip, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 5, 2000.
Thomas Wong Doo was born Wong Kwan Doo in Canton (Guangzhou), China, probably in 1903. His father, also Thomas Wong Doo, had emigrated to New Zealand in 1884, where officials mistook ‘Doo’ as a surname. As a teenager Thomas Wong Doo senior worked with his elder brothers in their market gardens in Auckland. He travelled to China about 1898 to marry Chan Yau-nui (later spelt Unui), then returned to New Zealand to work, visiting his family once every few years; young Thomas had an elder sister and a younger brother, Norman.
Thomas Doo Senior was initially a market gardener, but later ran a store importing Chinese foodstuffs and exporting dried edible fungus to China. As the business began to prosper, he sent for his wife and children. They arrived in 1915; a further son and daughter were born in New Zealand. Thomas attended the Wellesley Street School and then Seddon Memorial Technical College, both of which were very close to his family’s shops in the Chinatown area.
As the eldest son of a community leader, he was soon to shoulder a significant share of his father’s philanthropic responsibilities. The Doo shop was a natural focus for Auckland Chinese community activities and also acted as a postal station and information centre. The Doos frequently lent the poll-tax money to enable fellow villagers to emigrate and also helped them with banking. Young Thomas’s fluent English was especially useful when newcomers needed to deal with New Zealand officialdom, and he acted as interpreter at the Auckland Magistrate’s Court for a number of years.
Thomas Doo returned to China in 1922 to find a suitable bride. The photograph on his certificate of registration showed him to be a smart-looking and well-dressed young man; he was of medium build and five feet four inches tall. In his home village he was introduced to Canadian-born Lim King Yee, the 17-year-old daughter of a Vancouver-based merchant. According to Lily, as she was known, they married in Canton on 26 December 1922 with traditional ceremonies. They had a second, Anglican, ceremony in Hong Kong on 9 August 1923 to satisfy immigration requirements.
In Auckland the young couple lived at the Doo family shop in Victoria Street. About 1939 Thomas and his two brothers decided to establish separate households and diversify their business. Thomas specialised in textiles, Norman set up a gift shop, while William continued with Chinese supplies. As a silk and linen specialist Thomas imported tablecloths, embroideries, fabrics and camphor boxes from China and Japan as well as Britain and Europe. The company had previously dealt exclusively with Chinese clients but now branched out into dealing with European fabric retailers as well. In 1938 the government introduced a quota system on soft goods. Since the Doos were well-established dealers they were given generous quotas, which they used astutely to cultivate good business connections throughout the country. The family business reportedly grew tenfold during the war years. The Doos also pioneered the importing of fireworks into New Zealand.
By 1940 Thomas Doo had built his own shop in Hobson Street. He also moved his family – there were five sons and a daughter – to a big building on the opposite side of the same street, with a shop-front beneath and eight bedrooms on the first floor; eventually his sons and their wives all lived there. Members of the extended family ran the business with great devotion and hard work, looking after everything from buying supplies and sewing up soft goods for distribution around the country, to book-keeping, accounting and correspondence. The Doos were worshippers of Lord Kwan (Kwan-ti), the legendary folk hero exemplifying justice and righteousness, and attributed their success to their family solidarity and mutual help. Thomas Doo played a leading role in many philanthropic causes, including raising funds for the Presbyterian church.
In 1962, after 40 years of hard work, Thomas Doo retired and went on an extended holiday to Hong Kong, Japan and the United States. That was his first and last holiday, for he died in Auckland on 18 June 1963, survived by his wife and six children.