Extract from Helene Wong's Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s Story

by The Listener / 13 May, 2016
"'Just goin’ inta the Chows,' the adults would call out cheerily to each other. It always felt like a dagger plunging into our guts."
Helene’s parents, Dolly and Willie, and Helene in the 1950s. Photo/Helene Wong collection
Helene’s parents, Dolly and Willie, and Helene in the 1950s. Photo/Helene Wong collection


Wong was far too common a surname around the markets, so my father was identified by the name of his business. When Europeans called out to him, I felt a surge of pride in the acknowledgement. It denoted not just acceptance, but pleasure at seeing him. It was a change from the after-school litany at the shop – “Hey! Ching Chong! Chinky-chink! Pug-nose!” – that we knew had been passed on to the young by the old. “Just goin’ inta the Chows,” the adults would call out cheerily to each other on the pavement outside. Inside, we avoided looking at each other, but it always felt like a dagger plunging into our guts.

In the markets, though, it was like a big noisy family. I liked it when we didn’t have to rush back early to fill the shelves, because then we could have morning tea at the Santa Anita Cafe on Courtenay Place with Dad’s mates. I loved listening to the blokes’ talk – vege prices, who won at Trentham, whether business was slow or flat-out – as they hoed into cream buns, sausage rolls and custard squares. They’d sluice it all down with cups of tea, then we’d all go back to our trucks, find a park at the docks and load up our produce, which the grey duster coats would by then have organised for us. I’d jump up on the tray of the truck and help stack the boxes and sacks according to Dad’s system: tidy and balanced with no need for restraining ropes. When we got back to Rata Street, my job was to roll open the floor-to-ceiling folding door that Dad had designed to allow him to reverse right into the back of the building.

Read more: Helene Wong talks to Mark Broatch about her life in film and theatre, working for Muldoon, racism and visiting China for the first time. 

When in later years an emergency came up and I had to go back to the shop to help out, it was like slipping on a pair of old slippers, the routine unchanged, the faces familiar. The stacks of produce were where they always were, tidy and juxtaposed to make the most of their colours – granny smiths, red delicious, Australian oranges, hothouse tomatoes – and the ­distinctive aroma of each fruit or vege­table, intensified when in bulk like this, would immediately relax me back into being a greengrocer’s daughter. Moreover, absence had the effect of increasing my appreciation of it: working and growing up in that shop with my family taught me the value of simple, honest hard work.

Times were changing, though. First Woolworths, then New World, then Shoprite opened their doors, luring away working couples with one-stop shopping and competitive pricing. Our little Rata St enclave – butcher, greengrocer, dairy, ­fish ’n’ chip shop, stationer – slowly withered. In March 1976, my parents sold the business, scrubbed the dirt from the creases in their hands one last time and hung up their aprons.

Later, Dad would help out in other fruit shops when their owners fell sick or were on holiday, but he never seemed to regret retiring. He didn’t need to risk straining his back hefting sacks of potatoes and boxes of bananas any more, or endure the long hours, cold concrete floors and fingers frozen from scrubbing carrots in the winter. But all those things had given his children a stable home and education, and him and Mum a respected place in the community – every­thing an ­immigrant could hope for.

BEING CHINESE: A NEW ZEALANDER'S STORY, by Helene Wong (Bridget Williams Books, $39.99), is released on May 6.

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