Page 1: Biography
Sew Hoy, Hugh
Businessman, community leader
This biography, written by James Ng, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 5, 2000.
Choie Hog Yow was born on 26 November 1901, possibly in his ancestral village of Sha Kong (She Gang) in the upper district of Panyu county, Guangdong province, or in Canton (Guangzhou), some 13 miles south of Sha Kong. Known generally in New Zealand as Hugh Sew Hoy, he was also referred to by his birth name (Choie Hog Yow), adult name (Choie Sung Yee), and scholar’s name (Choie Buck Pung). Choie was his clan name. His father, Choie Kum Yok, had returned to China from New Zealand in 1897; he was the elder of the two sons of Choie Sew Hoy, known as Charles Sew Hoy in New Zealand. Hugh’s mother was Kum Yok’s second wife, and because Cantonese women use titles more than names, her name is uncertain, but is thought to be Kong Suit. Hugh was the third son of Kum Yok and the first son of his mother.
Kum Yok had established a large general merchant and timber business in the Wong Sha suburb of Canton. In addition, he had inherited a half-share in Sew Hoy and Sons Limited, importers, warehousemen and manufacturers in Dunedin, New Zealand; this was his father’s merchant business. The other shareholder was Kum Yok’s brother Choie Kum Poy, who was otherwise known as Kum Poy Sew Hoy, since nearly all of Choie Sew Hoy’s descendants in New Zealand adopted ‘Sew Hoy’ as their surname. In 1920, after three years of secondary schooling, Hugh followed his two elder half-brothers to Dunedin, to learn English and work in the Sew Hoy store with them and one or two of Kum Poy’s sons. He paid the £100 poll tax and passed the reading test to gain entry and permanent residency in New Zealand, but once there found it difficult to study and did not advance much in English. Unhappy with his limited prospects, in 1923 Hugh returned to Canton, where he married Kong Yow Yoon (later named Fanny Sew Hoy in New Zealand) and took over the management of his father’s firm.
Hugh extended his time away to the maximum permitted for re-entry to New Zealand. In 1938, after the Japanese bombed Canton, he returned to Dunedin but was too late to bring out his wife and six children to New Zealand under the Chinese war refugee scheme in 1939. With extended family they had already fled northwards from the Japanese invasion, eventually sheltering in Paoan (Shaoguan city) on the border of Guangdong province. Surviving great hardships, Hugh’s wife and children were reunited with him in New Zealand in 1947.
Meanwhile, Hugh’s elder half-brother Choie King Lim died in 1939, his second half-brother was stranded by the war in Hong Kong and Kum Poy died in 1942. Hugh bought the Sew Hoy store as the sole owner. After the war he expanded its business from Chinese goods and the manufacture of Chinese sausages into the extensive import of cloth and clothing.
In 1958 Hugh and his three sons formed the private company Sew Hoy and Sons, chiefly for clothing manufacture. Between then and its closure in 1989 the company established five factories in the Otago region and one in Christchurch. It employed up to 600 staff, won an export award in 1971 and formed substantial overseas holdings, still chiefly in clothing. However, the company had relied heavily on New Zealand’s protective tariffs, and when these were reduced from 1988 the impact contributed to Sew Hoy and Sons in New Zealand being taken into receivership in December 1989. Until then Hugh was still actively involved in the running of the company. The overseas operations remained largely untouched, however, and Hugh’s extended family helped him to buy back the old Sew Hoy store.
For 30 years Sew Hoy and Sons had been a major employer in Otago. Hugh had an unshakeable loyalty to Dunedin and refused to shift the company’s head office elsewhere. He held great pride in the accomplishments of his grandfather Choie Sew Hoy. He followed Choie King Lim in active participation in New Zealand Chinese community affairs, becoming a prominent member of the Otago–Southland branch of the New Zealand Chinese Association (NZCA) from the early 1940s; from 1965 to 1980 he was president. His links with the Chinese (Presbyterian) Mission church in Dunedin dated from 1939. In 1946 the church’s session, prompted by its congregation and the local NZCA, appealed to the wider Presbyterian church to help prevent the possible repatriation of Chinese refugee wives and children back to China. Hugh was not a session member but became an important link between the local NZCA and the clergymen most involved, notably G. H. McNeur, P. G. Hughes and Herbert Davies, all of Dunedin. The Presbyterian Church of New Zealand and the Inter-church Council responded in 1947 with a deputation to the government on the issue, and the families were permitted to stay.
By the 1960s Hugh’s community involvement and business success had earned him recognition from Chinese and Europeans alike as the doyen of the Dunedin Chinese community. In this he succeeded his grandfather Choie Sew Hoy and his uncle Kum Poy Sew Hoy. He was made an OBE in 1981, the same year the Petone mayor George Gee was made a companion of the Queen’s Service Order. These were the highest national honours attained by New Zealand Chinese to that date. Hugh Sew Hoy died in Dunedin on 5 November 1996 aged 94. He was survived by his wife, three daughters and three sons.