Roland Wong Interview
Today is the 14th of June 2017. I’m interviewing Roland Wong of Hastings. Roland is a retired fruiterer, restauranteur and real estate. Roland, would you tell me about the life and times of the Wong family – where they came from, ‘til today? Thank you.
Well my family came from what was known as Canton, but now is Guangzhou. My father was born in 1875, and him and my mother arrived in New Zealand in September 1919, landed in Wellington where they settled and went into fruit and vegetable business, and raised a family.
Round about 1929/1930 they thought they’d go back with the family to give the children a Chinese education, plus – the aftermath of the Depression, they felt life might be better back in China. But because of the Sino-Japanese war, in 1938 they thought it would be better to come back to New Zealand with the family. So they arrived in New Zealand in 1938 and from there they settled in Hastings. Now since then the family have domiciled in Hastings, even though now some of them have passed away, some of them have moved away, and like I said I’m the only one remaining here – I’m the last of the Mohicans.
So what did the family do when they came to Hastings?
Well, the first generation – that was my parents – with very little English education the only thing that they could do in those days … was the same with all Chinese with limited education … was only three things that they could do – either in the laundry, market garden or fruit and vegetable business. But since then the second generation – that was my generation – branched out slightly, but we were still handicapped through the old age system. But then since again the third generation, they’ve all branched out and I would say ninety-nine per cent of them are now professional. In the third generation there’s doctors, dentists, architects and academically … degree qualifications amongst them. So since that time I would say our family at least have progressed far from the usual early occupation that was available at that time.
So when your people came to Hastings, where did you live?
Dad went into business and bought an existing fruit shop. Money and everything was quite limited, so what we did, we all stayed in the back of the fruit shop until around about 1948. To begin with, once the war was finished he wanted to go back to China with some of us to give them an education, but because of the communistic regime, and they’d taken over, he decided to remain in New Zealand.
So where was the shop in Hastings, and what was the name of it?
It was in the same block as the old Cosy Theatre, and the shop that is there now is Liley’s Giftware. That is the original shop my parents had.
And what was it called?
And they carried on there … did any of the family carry on with that?
Well, they branched out a bit with other shops and everything, but then with the advent of supermarket and everything, that was the end of that period, and we branched out into other …
Well coming back to when you were young, where did you all go to school?
We all went to Central School, Hastings, and I was the only one that had a high school education.
And so how many years did you stay in Hastings?
For schooling, or my whole life? I’m the only one left here, that stayed, and lived in Hastings since 1938.
Are you really? Did you play any sport at school?
Yes, when I left school I played a lot of sports. I went into martial arts and I obtained a brown belt in jujitsu – that was one grade below a black belt. Then I took on weightlifting, and in the early 1950s at the New Zealand Weightlifting Championship I got fourth in my weight division.
So you would have been lightweight?
Yes, sixty-seven kilos.
That wasn’t very big, was it?
No. [Chuckle] And then I played a lot of table tennis. I was Hawke’s Bay B Grade champion for a couple of years, and moved into the A Grade competition and then the Hawke’s Bay Open Championship. I was twice runner-up for the title. Plus in those days we had the first and only Chinese soccer team. We played Saturday senior competition and I played in the team for five seasons. That’s about all really.
I always remember, whenever we played any of you, you used to use the pen grip for playing.
Was that something ..?
No, no. We didn’t play pen grip, we played the handshake. The normal one. But now it’s changed again, back to pen grip.
Because those days, Roland, there was lots of table tennis clubs – every hall had a table tennis club.
That’s right, that’s right. And I belonged to the Whakatu Table Tennis Club.
So then, when you left school did you go into the fruiterer business?
That was with Mum and Dad, was it?
And how long did you stay working with them?
Well, ‘til round about … ‘til I was about thirty. Then I went into the hospitality industry.
Yes. Well just coming back, you were married before you were thirty, weren’t you?
So who did you marry, and where did you meet her?
I met my ex-wife in Palmerston North – got married aged twenty-five, and we raised three children – two boys and one girl.
So what was your wife’s name?
Nancy … her maiden name was Cam. Now my children, the eldest is qualified, I think with a degree from Massey University with a BBS degree. My daughter is a housewife in Taupo, and my eldest son lives in Wellington and he’s in a high capacity in the IRD. And my youngest son – he’s got his own business … building business … steel frame building.
So then you moved into the hospitality business, and what was the name of that place … the first place you had?
The first place I had was a coffee lounge called the Shangri-La, then later on I branched out into licensed premises called Roland’s. And in all I spent about twenty-two years in the industry.
It’s all changed now, hasn’t it?
Oh, yes, it’s changed.
Roland’s was quite a … it was the first sort of nightclub we had in Hastings, wasn’t it?
Yes, I would think so.
Can you tell me something about your brothers and sisters, what they did?
Well in my generation we all was [were] in the fruit and vegetable business. But like I said, with the advent of supermarkets they saw the writing on the wall and they started branching out. My eldest brother went into motels, became the first Chinese motelier in New Zealand.
That was Alan was it?
Alan. That was situated opposite the old Mayfair Hotel – it’s now called the Magpie Motel. Of the others, the second eldest brother got married and went down to Masterton with his in-laws. Merlin branched out into takeaways.
Yes, well he had a fruit shop originally in Havelock, didn’t he?
He had a fruit shop in Havelock North.
Then he bought what was the Pippo’s shop. He called it Merlin’s, wasn’t it?
That’s right, that’s right.
And then your sister, she had a fruit and vegetable shop – was it by the State Theatre?
Yes. Yes, that was next door to … used to be McCready’s Fabrics opposite the old McKenzie’s department store. But my eldest sister’s passed away, and the other sister still lives in Auckland, retired.
Yes, its amazing how life slips by, doesn’t it?
Yes. But as far as my own family’s concerned, I’ve got three children, nine grandchildren.
Can you remember their names?
My grandchildren? Jason and Melanie Overs, Harris and Corban Wong … it’s a bit hard to remember sometimes … Cameron, Stephanie, Alison and Noah Wong. Those are my grandchildren, and the next generation I’ve got seven great-grandchildren. I’m afraid some of their names slipped my memory, but suffice to say ?that’s the amount of great-grandchildren.
Did you travel back to China?
Merlin went several times, didn’t he?
He did. So did the other members of the family. In fact I would like to state now, I wasn’t born in New Zealand. The family went back around 1930 and I was born 1933 in Canton, which is now known as Guangzhou.
So you had a Chinese passport?
Yes. And when I turned twenty-one – 1954 – I went and got naturalised and became a Kiwi. [Chuckle]
It was a great choice that your parents made coming to Hastings, wasn’t it? Because Hastings has never been the wealthiest place in New Zealand, but it’s had good weather, hasn’t it?
Yeah. They had one or two close friends in this area, and I think that was where they made their decision to come here. [Background noise] But prior to that, before my father got married prior to 1919, he’d been to America and Canada. He did gold mining in Vancouver, Canada, and he was a lumberjack in the Hudson Bay area.
So he was tough?
Oh yes, he had a very hard life, but he was very physical, you know. And I think after all that running around he was quite happy to settle in New Zealand.
Did he marry your mother in China?
Yes, he married my mother in China, and then when they arrived here they had to get remarried again. That was the law in those days.
There wasn’t that many fruiterers in the main street of Hastings. Our family used to deal with Ah Wing.
Oh yes, I know where the old Bon Marche drapery shop …
So you’ve never really lived anywhere except in Hastings, have you?
No, since 1938 I’ve lived in Hastings – what is that now, seventy … eighty years now I’ve lived here.
It’s a while ago.
Now can you think of anything else that is of interest? Some of the changes you might have seen?
Not really, Frank. It’s only what I can remember, and what I’ve told you.
Look, that’s fine. Well thanks, Roland, for sharing some of your family history with us.
So, all right.
Original digital file
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Interviewer: Frank Cooper