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The New Zealand Chinese Growers' Monthly Journal. Photo: James To/AMC

A Chinese ‘living’ time machine

A printing press sheds light on how NZ-Chinese produce growers once communicated with each other.

Tens of thousands of historic types — movable lead characters used in a printing press — that enabled New Zealand Chinese vegetable growers to communicate with each other last century are enjoying a second life in Wellington. The collection has become a centrepiece for New Zealand and international researchers on the Chinese diaspora.

As a teenager, Danny Chan helped his father run the press in the 1960s. James To interviewed him about the typesetting legacy that was used not only to share information vital to growers across the country, but also to tell the stories of New Zealand’s Chinese community.

Green history

Every Saturday, the riverbank farmers’ market in Lower Hutt is crowded with shoppers looking to buy anything from free range eggs, fruit, jams and an array of fresh vegetables — all grown and harvested by market gardeners from across the lower North Island. Around the many stalls, you’re likely to hear the busy chatter of Cantonese, Mandarin, and other Chinese dialects, as well as provincial Kiwi English. While most of the gardeners are ethnic Chinese, some may be recent migrants and others have been in the business for generations.

Chinese vegetable growers — and their role in New Zealand history — became prominent in 1943 when Labour Prime Minister Peter Fraser asked Chinese farmers across the country to supply vegetables for allied troops in the Pacific as part of the war effort.

As a result, the New Zealand Chinese Growers’ Association (later to be known as the Dominion Federation of New Zealand Chinese Commercial Growers) formed as a central body to co-ordinate this huge cooperative, and to liaise with officials. Its history is told in book Success through Adversity, by historian Nigel Murphy.

To help with communication across the association, a newsletter was distributed among the hundreds of farms and market gardens. This publication was the New Zealand Chinese Growers Monthly Journal and soon became the voice of the Chinese community across the country. It provided Chinese growers with information on farming, modern methods of cultivation and the use of machinery.

The journal was originally hand-written and then cyclostyled (stencil copied) on a Gestetner machine.

Wai-te-ata Press researcher Ya-Wen Ho has now photographed 31,361 pieces of type under the microscope, and estimates the full collection to contain over 300,000 pieces of type. Photo/AMC

It was later published on an offset printing press using lead types — all imported from Hong Kong at a cost of £4,000, a huge investment at twice the growers’ association’s annual operating budget.

The journal was initially a success, as market gardens grew from strength to strength. By the 1960s, Chinese growers were producing 80 percent of the country's green-leaf vegetables.

However, with the war long ended, the relevance and the future of the Chinese Growers’ Association came into question.

In a Cold War environment, the New Zealand government of the day held a general assimilation policy. It didn’t help that the journal was found to contain more political and overseas items than articles on agriculture.

In June 1960, following a ministerial letter, the association decided to stop reporting any politics. 

Instead, the journal was revamped so that only matters related to agriculture, Chinese business and community events, and New Zealand news, would be published.

The third and last editor of the journal was Wellington's Lionel Chan,  an accomplished poet, calligrapher and photographer. He was also the father of two teenage sons Danny and Ting, who both worked after school and over the weekends to produce the journal.

Danny Chen. Photo/AMC

Demanding dexterity

Danny, now a trustee of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, was born in Guangzhou in 1948. He arrived in Wellington in 1960 as a 13-year-old unable to speak any English. But he was an avid cricketer and rugby player, which helped see him through school without being bullied.

From the time his father took over as editor of the journal, Danny worked alongside his younger brother Ting as a typesetter. It was a task that demanded not only a command of the Chinese language, but also agility, dexterity and energy.

Danny had to identify the lead types needed for each article — arranged by radical and stroke order, and also in reverse. He would toss the type across to Ting, who would then insert it into the printing tray. These trays would then be wheeled on a trolley over to the printing company in nearby Blair Street, Wellington. Upon their return, the trays would then need to be disassembled and the lead types put back in their home.

It was time-consuming work that Danny Chan continued with through his university years, when it became more of a boring chore.

He missed out on playing the sports he loved, but he did find the 10 years of his life with the press fortified his understanding of Chinese for later in life, both as a teacher and as a businessman. It still comes in handy when interacting on Chinese social media app WeChat.

By the late 1960s, the journal had been losing money for years and there were calls to wind it up. In between print runs, the press was used to make wedding invitations and other materials to maintain financial viability.

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Chan recalls several times when the invitations had to be redone because of mistakes in the characters used for Chinese names — many in the community couldn’t read Chinese.

It was also around this time the journal was reaching the end of its life, with readership dwindling due to a drop in the Chinese-literate audience. 

“Some of the types were pretty worn down so we had to get new ones, but to get new types you needed to get a whole new set,” Chan explains.

The last issue was published in August 1972 and included an emotional editorial lamenting its fate.

Lionel Chan didn’t want to see the press reduced to scrap, so for long-term storage, the lead types and press equipment were packed up and transported to a farm shed in Pukekohe owned by a committee member. 

They remained there for the three decades, largely forgotten until being rediscovered around 2007, intact and in working condition.

Victoria University of Wellington, The New Zealand Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust, the New Zealand Chinese Association, and the Growers Federation supported the repatriation of the press to Wellington, where it was restored as a living machine.

Sydney Shep, Director, Wai-te-ata Press recalls: “Scrabbling around in the rich red dirt of a shed in an onion field in Pukekohe where the types had been stored meant a very visceral connection to the history and culture represented in these pieces of metal.”

Ya-Wen Ho and Sydney Shep at Wai-te-ata Press. Photo: James To/AMC

A new life 

Today the types remain New Zealand's only surviving set of original Chinese printing types for use in a traditional printing press. It is housed at Victoria University of Wellington's Wai-te-ata Press, serving as a focus for further community-based research into the history of Chinese New Zealand print culture.

Academic Duncan Campbell, a teaching fellow in Chinese at the university, notes that the type will  provide better understanding of the various trajectories of the Chinese New Zealand diaspora.

“The more that it becomes visible, the more that we will learn about its workings and about the community that it served and which it helped form."

Wai-te-ata Press researcher Ya-Wen Ho has now photographed 31,361 pieces of type under the microscope, and estimates the full collection to contain over 300,000 pieces of type.

“I’m surprised how personally significant this project has become, given it was already important to me from day one”, Ho says. “As a Taiwanese-born New Zealander, it’s been eye-opening to learn about Chinese New Zealand history through the Growers Journal articles, because I never learnt this through the standard curriculum growing up. I’m starting to understand how my family history is bound up in these big global histories.

"Speaking of family, I’ve met such wonderful people through this research, it feels like I might be building myself an extended one!”

After an eight-month closure for a seismic upgrade, Wai-te-ata Press recently re-opened with a Moon Festival celebration. On this auspicious occasion, Ho shared some of the Chinese heritage type collection’s growing local and international recognition.

Some of this recognition has taken the form of publications. Locally, Emma Ng boosted the collection’s profile with an article, while internationally, Professor Wu Tsu-Ming (National Taiwan Normal University) published an article [in Chinese] after visiting the collection in 2018.

The collection is now attracting overseas researchers and institutions to visit Wai-te-ata Press after Ho and Shep participated in research trips and conferences in Asia.  Shep and Ho have been looking forward to hosting several Taiwanese experts, who will also present on Chinese letterpress fonts and artefacts at the Dragon Tails conference on 20–23 November, 2019 at Victoria University of Wellington. 

"Opportunities have arisen to weave Wai-te-ata Press’ collection into expansive, global diaspora stories to be told through international platforms," Ho says. Because of the heritage types’ origins in Hong Kong, she has also been invited to speak at an international printmaking conference in Hong Kong next year. 

For Danny Chan, the press has great sentimental value. He is delighted to see it on display and continuing to serve the Chinese growers' legacy.  “It’s terrific that it has been preserved. It was one of my dad’s wishes."

This article was first published by the Asia Media Centre.