Sunday, August 9, 2009

Thomas Ah Quoi - a man between two cultures

Image: part of an Observer cartoon, 25 October 1895.

Updated: 13 May 2015

Someone who seems to have slipped through the cracks in terms of the history of Chinese in 19th century Auckland is Thomas “Tommy” Ah Quoi, a well-known restaurateur in his day and a man of some considerable influence. When did he arrive in Auckland? The only clue I have to hand is via the Auckland City Library database for passenger arrivals. According to the list of addresses presented to Sir George Grey in 1886, Ah Quoi appears, arriving here 22 May 1872, making him a reasonably early arrival in terms of the story of the Chinese community here. But, according to his naturalisation application from 1882 (held at the Wellington office of Archives New Zealand), he had lived here at that point for 13 years -- meaning that he had arrived even earlier, around 1869. He was born in Hong Kong in 1852.

In 1882, he served as Chinese interpreter for Chan Dar Chee when the latter and his partner Ah See signed the lease for their market garden land in Mechanic's Bay.

There is a temptation to presume, as the name “Ah Chee” turns up in later directories in the 1880s as owning (for a few months) a restaurant in Customs Street East, that he may have had close business associations with Ah Quoi. He and Ah Quoi were apparently seen together at various events around the city.

By 1885, Ah Quoi and his wife were living on Rokeby Street, while he ran a restaurant in Queen Street. His restaurant in Queen Street in 1888 was known as the Mutual Restaurant. (Te Aroha News, 10 October 1888) The Quoi family sheltered the women fleeing the fire which consumed Paddington Villa in March 1885. Even so, their own house was badly damaged by the blaze. (Te Aroha News, 7 March 1885)

In the midst of the Long Depression, Ah Quoi became known for his charity to Aucklanders down on their luck employment-wise.
“The distress prevailing in Auckland has had the effect of evoking a display of practical benevolence is at least one quarter, and one from which many people would not have expected it. Mr. Thomas Quoi, a well known Chinese restaurant keeper, has written to the three local newspapers offering to distribute 50 loaves of bread daily for a month provided that others will come forward and contribute a sufficient quantity to keep the unemployed poor provided with the staff of life for that time. The editor of the Bell remarks that "If this unsolicited deed of kindness has not the effect of softening the hostility of those who have nothing but hard words for Chinamen, then it only shows that there are Chinamen with more of Christianity in them than many so-called Christians." One of the local sergeants of police has also offered 25 loaves per day.”
(Evening Post, 18 August 1886)

“Thos. Quoi, the Auckland Chinaman who recently offered to supply bread to the unemployed, intends going among his countrymen to solicit vegetables and money contributions. Here is Celestial charity with a vengeance! Did any misfortune overtake the Chinamen in the colonies, or should they have any occasion to appeal for charity to their European fellow colonists, some of the gentlemen who now compose the unemployed would be the very first to hound them down as lazy, idle rascals, and hunt them out of the country. They would be relentlessly persecuted as a dangerous nuisance. Under the coat of John Chinaman beats as big a heart as ever graced the internal anatomy of an Englishman — but it is not for his vices that John is persecuted. His good qualities are mainly responsible for his unpopularity.”
(Tuapeka Times, 18 August 1886)

“Mr Thomas Quoi, the Celestial restaurant keeper of Auckland, who offered to supply 50 loaves of bread daily for a month to the needy and destitute, has got through his first week, his average issue of loaves being from 40 to 50 daily.”
(Wanganui Chronicle, 27 August 1886)

“Mr Thomas Quoi, the Chinese restaurant keeper of Auckland, who some time ago offered to supply 50 loaves daily for the relief of the destitute, has been strictly carrying out his promise. The charitable ladies of the city have, with one exception, held aloof from rendering the large-hearted Chinaman any assistance in the distribution of his bounty. Mr. Quoi has been discriminating enough to refuse bread to applicants under the influence of liquor.”
(Bruce Herald, 7 September 1886)

There are some questions to his life story here. Did Ah Quoi’s first wife die? He appears to have married again, this time to a European Mt Albert resident in November 1886, Mary Josephine O’Dowd. (Waikato Times, 16 November 1886) Did he have relatives here? A Samuel Quoi apparently ran the Star Dining Rooms in Albert Street in 1887. (Christchurch Star, 11 January 1887)

In July 1887, Ah Quoi attended the funeral of Wi Ying who died of fever in Wakefield Street.

“A young Chinaman named Wi Ying died of fever in his house in Wakefield Street on Sunday evening. He only arrived here four months since. He was taken ill about a fortnight ago, and death supervened. The interment took place yesterday, and was attended by some 22 of the dead man's compatriots. The ceremonial was of a very simple character: each of the mourners cast a handful of rice into the grave to support him on his journey to the "happy hunting ground” of his race and after the coffin had been lowered, those around the grave pronounced, after the Chinese custom panegyrics on the deceased. "What did you say, Tommy," a reporter enquired of Mr. Quoi, who supplied materials for this paragraph.

“Oh,” replied Quoi. “I said, ‘Farewell, old man; I wish you to go along to Heaven quick, without much trouble.’”

All the mourners wore white “weepers” on their hats, white being the Chinese symbol of mourning. It is expected there will be a "resurrection" and a transportation of the bones to the " Flowery Land."
(Wanganui Herald, 20 July 1887)

In 1888, the Auckland Star interviewed Thomas Quoi as to his thoughts on his fellow Chinese in Auckland at the time, and the effects of the depression. The Christchurch Star reproduced the piece.

A Star reporter has interviewed "Thomas" Quoi, a successful restaurateur who has married an Auckland girl, on the subject of the influx of his countrymen to the Colony. Quoi stated there were about one hundred Chinese in Auckland, chiefly employed in gardening. They need to earn an average of £2 to £3 a week; now they do not earn 10s, and new chums cannot get a living if they come out. The Chinese at Arch Hill are in a very bad state just now; they are not earning "tucker." They work from daylight to dark. They do not look at the clock to see when it is time to stop. You cannot get Europeans to work in gardens, they would rather loaf about the streets hungry. I know of it from my own business. Europeans come to me time after time and say they are starving, and they will work willingly for three meals a day, and their board. When I give them a show they work two days and then they are full up.

“A poll tax of £100 would not keep out the Chinese if they want to come here. In China they are a powerful people that come of a distinct race. If one Chinese is stronger than others, then the weaker must suffer. These weaker ones are so persecuted that they prefer to come to the Colonies and get greater liberty. A great many that come to Australia and New Zealand have heaps of money, and come out here to start business. People can raise money at home and pay it back after they come out. They have Clubs for that purpose. I know one set of naturalisation papers that went from here to China and back again three times. Every time I expected a new chum to be collared, but he got in safe enough, and nobody was more surprised than myself."

“Ah Quoi favours the complete prohibition of Chinese immigration in preference to a poll tax.”The people say," continued Ah Quoi, "that the Chinaman are no good; they say the Chinamen are dirty. Good heavens, I have seen some English families, and, by Jove, I was disgusted. I have seen such dirty people amongst Maoris and amongst Europeans that I could hardly credit. I have seen Europeans living in a house with the fowls in one corner and the pigs in another, and the people looked as if they did not wash themselves once in twelve months. One day I was out shooting in the country, and became very hungry. I went into a farmhouse, and the people were so dirty that I could not eat with them. I went out into the field, and made a meal on turnips. You'll find dirty people in all classes."
(Christchurch Star, 7 May 1888)

Whether Ah Quoi actually did favour complete immigration prohibition is debatable. He led a petition presented to Parliament later that month “praying that no discredit might rest upon [the Chinese in Auckland] on account of prejudice against their race,” regarding the pending Chinese Immigrants Bill. (Evening Post, 25 May 1888)

A petition presented to the House sets forth the Chinese view of the Mongolian question. It is signed by some 30 Chinese residents, drawn up in legal phraseology, and duly countersigned by Thomas Quoi, interpreter. The petitioners say they view with alarm the provisions of the Chinese Immigrants Bill, and submit it is not competent for the Legislature to pass such a bill, seeing that the Chinese here and coming left China relying on treaties between the British and Chinese Governments; but that even if it were competent the bill would be very unjust until the Government of China has received due notice.

“They go on to say that the Chinese have never been guilty of crime or immorality in greater proportion than the British, but that on the contrary the proportion has always been less amongst them in all English speaking countries. They urge that the Chinese should be encouraged to come and settle here, on the ground that the main reason of the present distress in countries is the need of men willing to till the soil, work which Chinese are trained to from boyhood.

“It has been stated, they say, as one objection, that if the Chinese come they will cause prices of produce and manufactures to go down, and also wages. They reply that is a state of things which should be welcomed, not dreaded. Answering the argument that Chinese spend in China the money they make here, they say it is not true, but even if it were, British residents in China go there for the express purpose of making money, which they go Home to spend. With respect to the use of opium, it is urged that it was the British that forced opium in China, and they now derive a large revenue by importing it to the colonies. For these reasons, the petitioners pray that all restrictions and prohibitive enactments relating to Chinese be abolished; and second, that every facility be given to the arrival and residence of Chinese, provided they obey the laws of the colony.”
(Otago Witness, 1 June 1888)

When some (the numbers in the newspapers vary from 4 to 16) Chinese men were accused in 1889 of mutilating a cow belonging to William Frey of Kingsland, Ah Quoi served as interpreter at the Police Court – an attempt was made to stab him in Queen Street a month after the case. (Bay of Plenty Times, 14 March 1889; 28 March 1889; 18 April 1889) Fortunate for the would-be assailant, perhaps, that Ah Quoi wasn’t armed at the time; the Observer the year before had praised him for being a good shot. (10 November 1888)

When he travelled to Wanganui in mid 1890, the local newspaper immediately dispatched a reporter to interview him. He was acclaimed as the unofficial “leader” at the time of the Chinese in Auckland.

“The Chinese in the Colonies.
“Hearing that Mr Thomas Quoi, of Auckland, was in town, we despatched a representative yesterday to have a chat with him. For the sake of those not acquainted with him, we may explain that Mr Quoi is the unofficial head of the Chinese in Auckland, and is well-known, at least by name, all through New Zealand, as one who, by his charity, has earned the name of being "a regular white man." Recollecting that about two years ago Mr. Quoi's name came rather prominently before the public in connection with the Anti-Chinese agitation, and desiring to know how matters stood on the Chinese question generally, we sent round to Mr. Morrow's hotel, and our reporter was accorded an interview, as to which he writes : —

“I found Mr Quoi busily engaged studying a Bradshaw, his intention being to leave Wanganui to-day. He explained that he is down on a trip for the sake of his health, and having been in Wanganui some thirteen years ago, when he cooked at the Rutland and the Provincial Hotels, he thought he would like to see how the place was getting on. Having briefly explained to him who I was, and what I wanted, I put the question to him,


leading up to it by explaining that in the Australian papers I had seen statements to the effect that they were leaving in hundreds, and that none, or very few, were coming in, and the same thing was occurring in New Zealand.

"They are going," said Mr. Quoi, " from New Zealand because there's no money left in the colony." This was rather a shocker to one who had always been led to believe that the Chinese could live on the smell of an oil rag, and I shifted the ground a little. "Has their emigration anything to do with the edict which the Emperor of China is said to have issued, calling on all the Chinese to return ?"

Mr. Quoi said he did not know of any such edict. There had been much misapprehension on this point. It was true that the Governor of Canton had sent out such an order at the request of the Chinese merchants there, but so far as he knew, the Emperor was not responsible for it. This led, of course, to the question as to the probabilities of China coming to blows with England or the colonies over the matter, but of this Mr. Quoi thought there was no danger, although he does not seem to think that we have treated the Chinese fairly, considering the results of the Opium War, and the opening of the four free ports to English trade.


"Do you not see that there is a danger of our being flooded out by your people as they can live more cheaply than we?" To this his answer was that in New Zealand there was very little likelihood of anything of that sort happening, and for this reason our population is not large enough. For instance, he said, they cannot compete with you in trades, though in Melbourne they do compete in the cabinet making trade; here it would not pay them.

"They might wash our shirts though."

“Not at all, you have not enough people. Why, in 'Frisco it is nothing to see a thousand shirts out at a time, but where would you get the number here to make it pay? And mind you they can wash shirts, and put a glaze on them just like new ones. Europeans cannot do that (I owned it with a sad shake of the head)."

"Well, they will continue to compete with us in trade as grocers and fruiterers."

"Yes, I expect that will happen, and also in vegetables, though you may not believe me when I say that hundreds of Chinese now in New Zealand would be only too glad to leave it if they could raise the money. They can do better in China."

"You understand that the one great objection to your people is that they live too cheaply, do not marry, and take all their money away with them ?"

“Mr. Quoi (who by the way is married to an English lady) did a quiet smile at this, and pointed out that others than Chinamen did the same thing. He denied, however, that the higher class of Chinamen live less luxuriantly than their competitors. He says they are always having poultry and wine and like good things, though of course they do not all take to miscegenation like Mr. Quoi. As to their


this is another point on which he does not agree, at any rate as far as cooks are concerned. He says that in his restaurant in Auckland he keeps nine and not a Chinaman among them. "When I was cooking I never worked for less than £3 to £3 10s, and though times are not as good now as they used to be, whenever any of my country men come to me they want at least £3 a week. Now I can get European cooks at 35s to 40s a week, and they are contented, while my countrymen are always growling that wages are not high enough."

“After that I began to think the question of Chinese labour was getting about exhausted, so far as Mr. Quoi was concerned, and we branched off into several other matters of conversation, including


“This has always been a puzzler to me, and with the usual curiosity of a reporter I wanted to know, you know. It appears that it is sent to Hong Kong, and by the merchants disposed of (middleman's profit No. 2) to the plantation owners, who cut it up into shreds, put it through several refining processes and sell it to the retailers (which means four profits before it reaches the consumer) who sell it at 2s a lb. That is to say it is bought in New Zealand for 3d a lb and retailed in China at 2s. They use it to flavour poultry and meats and Mr. Quoi says he has on several occasions had some in Auckland and that the flavour when once the strangeness is overcome is rather nice. At this stage in comes Mrs. Quoi with his bitters (no sherry), and having got to the end of a rather nice cigar, and of my conversational powers on the Flowery Land, we part with mutual congratulations, and on my part, respect for the Auckland sample of the Heathen Chinee.”
(Wanganui Herald, 24 June 1890)

The good times were coming to an end for Ah Quoi, however. Later that year, he was adjudged bankrupt (Bay of Plenty Times, 8 October 1890), and he sued for divorce from his wife Mary Josephine Quoi the following year, on the grounds of her adultery with one Bertie Neal (Evening Post, 14 July 1891). The divorce was declared absolute in 1892. In 1895, he sued Dr. Laishley regarding a dishonoured cheque (coincidentally, Laishley had also been Mrs. Quoi’s lawyer during the divorce proceedings). (Bay of Plenty Times, 17 May 1895).

He seems to have worked out his bankruptcy woes – by 1898, he was in charge of first the (renamed) British Temperance Hotel in Queen Street, then a boarding house and billiard saloon at the (also renamed) Old Shakespeare Temperance Hotel on Wyndham Street. This was raided for illegal gambling in October that year, and he was arrested along with eight Europeans. (Christchurch Star, 17 October 1898) Ah Quoi was fined £5 and ordered not to run a gambling den again. (Christchurch Star, 24 October 1898)

He was still in business as a merchant in Auckland in 1903, apparently travelling to Wellington to interpret in a court case that year. (Evening Post, 5 December 1903)

Finally, there is a probate record at Archives New Zealand for a Thomas Quoi, bathkeeper, dating from 1906. This may have been the last entry in the colonial journey of Thomas “Tommy” Ah Quoi.

Update, 10 August 2009: A check of the BDM records online shows that Thomas Yuck Quoi married Annie O'Dowd in 1886, and died in the first quarter of 1906.


  1. Your Thomas Quoi is almost interchangeable with our Quong Tart !
    Both men sound like they could have been contemporaries and, possibly, friends.

  2. That's uncanny, Jayne. You're right -- they were near contemporaries (Quoi lived from c.1856-1906), and followed such similar paths. Good to see that Quang Tart has a biography article. Cheers.