Saturday, April 25, 2009

Fungus, tea and art – Yan Kew, Auckland merchant

One of Auckland’s longest-lasting and well-known merchants and importers during the 19th century was Yan Kew*, known in Auckland as James Ah Kew, born in the province of Guangdong. According to the biographical article on his son:
“He moved to Victoria, Australia, and in December 1871 arrived in Auckland. In 1879 he was naturalised, his occupation being described as fancy goods merchant. It is not known when his wife [Mellie Guey, also known as Mary Fong] arrived in New Zealand, but in 1888 they were married, making the Ah Kew family one of the longest-resident Chinese families in Auckland. James Ah Kew’s business flourished and he had two stores, one in Queen Street, the other in Rutland Street. However, within a few years of [his son] Henry’s birth [1900] the family’s fortunes had faltered. Alexander Don, the Presbyterian missioner to the Chinese, visited Auckland in 1904 and described James as a ‘once rich Chinese merchant, now old opium-smoker, living on his clansmen’.”
Very soon after Yan Kew arrived in Auckland, he was attacked in the street on leaving the Oriental Hotel on 21 June 1872 – someone threw bones at him as he left, and one William Egerton called him names and struck him after Yan Kew turned and asked who had thrown the bones. Egerton was fined £3 and expenses. (Southern Cross, 26 June 1872) By later that year, Yan Kew was involved with the fungus trade that had been initiated by Chew Chong (Chau Tseung) in Taranaki a year before.

He also dealt, most notably, in tea; Yan Kew’s shop at 234 Queen Street (later, by 1880 he was just up from Wellesley Street, possibly close to Rutland Street) was known as the Auckland Tea Consumer’s Establishment by 1873, when it burned down in September that year (Taranaki Herald, 10 September 1873). His business bounced back from this, however, and by 1875 he had diversified into market gardening:
“Mr. James Ah Kew, of Queen-street, is about to engage in the business of a market-gardener, he having secured for that purpose some pieces of land fronting Khyber Pass Road and in the Remuera district, which are to be cultivated by his countrymen as market-gardens. In course of time the present market gardeners will find they have a keen competition to meet, when they have to work against the plodding industry and temperance of the Chinese.”
(SC, 6 September 1875)

This puts Yan Kew as among the first, if not the first, to make market gardening a part of his business in Auckland, pre-dating the later and more prominent Ah Chee (Chan Dar Chee) in that trade.

In 1879, the year when Sir George Grey stated that “The presence in this country of a large population of Chinese … would exercise a deteriorating effect upon its civilisation …” (AJHR 1879 D-3 session 1, via "The Poll Tax in New Zealand", Nigel Murphy, 2002), Yan Kew displayed a portrait in his window.
“There is on exhibition in the shop window of Jas. Ah Kew an oil painting of Sir George Grey executed by a Chinaman. The painting is excellent and true to life, and made from a recent photograph sent by Ah Kew to a firm of painters in Hong Kong. He has also a number of other portraits in oil of notable citizens whose photographs he had obtained and sent to the Flowery Land for the purpose of enabling outer barbarians to see what Chinese artists can do. All the portraits are admirable and on canvas about 20 inches by 26 inches. Such portraits can be supplied to order from any photograph at a total coat of seventy shillings.”
(West Coast Times, 26 May 1879)
“Lately the Chinese in Auckland have turned their attention to a branch of art, but its practice will not materially interfere with native industry. A common carte de visite photograph is to be sent to China, and in a few weeks the sender will receive a splendid photograph painted large size in oil, and a wonderfully exact copy of the photograph. Ah Kew, of Queen Street, has a great assortment of this school of art, including a portrait of Sir George Grey, painted from a small photograph, which is certainly marvelous, considering that the painter, instead of having had several sittings, never saw the original. Ah Kew visits China by next: mail, and takes over photographs to be treated as above.”
(Otago Witness, 31 May 1879)

For a time, it appears (according to Auckland newspapers, at least) that Yan Kew had a partner in his business.
“The advent of the first child born to Chinese parents has taken place in Auckland. The wife (a Chinese lady) of Mr. Ah Sup, the partner of Mr. Ah Kew, of Queen-street, has presented her husband with a pledge of her affection in the form of a small boy. The happy father instantly invested in a new cradle from Raftons.”
(Observer, 3 March 1883)

Despite the length of time he had been in business in Auckland, the NZ Herald did not seem to be terribly impressed with Yan Kew, especially when he entered the Parliamentary Union, a discussion chamber for, as one provincial paper put it, “politicians in training.”

“The electorate of Thorndon is represented in the Auckland Parliamentary Union by Mr. James Ah Kew, a native of China. The New Zealand Herald recently excited the ire of the hon. gentleman by remarking that he would prove an acquisition to the Union inasmuch as he would be able to enlighten it upon the mysteries of "fan tan" and other games of hazard so much patronised by the Chinese. Mr. Ah Kew wrote a letter to the paper next day indignantly denying that he knew anything at all about "fan tan."
(Evening Post, 30 July 1885)

The Southern papers equated Chinese politicians with those of the female variety – none too highly.
“The Parliamentary Unions, which I have already from time to time smiled upon with more or less benignancy, again demand notice by virtue of having taken another step forward upon the liberal platform. The Auckland Union, it seems, admits Chinamen to its ranks, and the Dunedin Union proposes to admit ladies. Both are concessions to the advancing liberalism of the times. As regards Chinamen, the Auckland Union has indisputably set an example of fairplay to our Colonial Legislature If numbers, together with such individual characteristics as thrift, industry, intelligence, and seeming guilelessness, go for anything, the Chinese in our midst are at least entitled to send one representative to Wellington. On the other hand the experience of the Auckland Union, with its solitary Chinese member, Mr. Ah Kew, has not been altogether encouraging. Mr Ah Kew, who had consistently posed as a Ministerialist, crossed over to the Opposition benches at the moment of a critical division without vouchsafing any explanation as to the why or wherefore, and the bill was lost upon his vote alone. What seems to rankle most in the breasts of the deserted party is that the recusant member had first carefully coiled his pigtail out of sight, so that all efforts of the Government "whip " to clutch this appendage, and thus extract explanations from the wearer were futile. In future the Auckland Union is likely to enjoin that all Chinese members wear their pigtails down "for party purposes." Let no reader for one moment imagine that any parallel is hinted. I am far from intending to suggest that the back hair of lady M.P.s should be let down for a similar purpose. But the political impulses of ladies may possibly prove to be as erratic as those of Mr. Ah Kew, and I merely express a hope that the Dunedin Union may avoid (how, it matters not) the particular rock upon which the Aucklanders have struck.”
(Otago Witness, 5 September 1885)

In 1897, he was charged for breaching the Shop Hours Act by remaining open on the Wednesday half holiday. His defence was that he had closed on the Chinese New Year, and felt that was sufficient. The magistrate took that into consideration, fining him only 5s, but applying 35s costs. (North Otago Times, 12 February 1897)

As his son’s biography states, though, from 1900 Yan Kew’s star began to decline. His premises were raided in September 1904, with eight Chinese and one European arrested on suspicion of taking part in an opium den. (Wanganui Herald, 19 September 1904.)

Three years later, in 1907, he died.

(* According to David Wong, who provided additional information in his comment to my earlier Ah Chee post, Yan Kew is the Cantonese version of the name, which is Yan Qiu in Mandarin. Mandarin always uses Pinyin.)


  1. oops, my mistake.. Mandarin/pu-tong-hua pinyin should read YAN Qiu.. david wong sat 10/30pm

  2. No worries, David. I'm extremely glad to have you around as an expert! I'll adjust the post now. Cheers!