Nancy Young might be 80 but she could still lift a 20kg box of apples if she had to, she says. Describing herself as an “old chook that carries on”, Nancy continues working in the same Balclutha fruit and vege shop she bought with her late husband almost 50 years ago.
Stories of hard work and self-sacrifice like Nancy’s have been told in the two-volume publication The Fruits of Our Labours launched this year, tracing the development of Chinese fruit shops from the 1880s to the retailers of today.
A fruit and vege shop run by a Chinese family isn’t just a stereotype - they sprang up in nearly every town and city across the country. In the 1950s the number of Chinese-owned fruit and vege shops peaked at 587 nationwide, research for The Fruits of our Labours found. Co-author Ruth Lam says at that time over half of Chinese New Zealanders were involved in the fruit and vege industry in some way.
Often an entire family pitched in to run the shops, from children serving behind the counter to grandparents cleaning fruit and vegetables out the back.
The emergence of supermarkets led to the decline of these independent retailers and the days of the Chinese fruiterer have all but ended.
Commissioned by the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust, The Fruits of Our Labours has captured many of these families’ stories, combining historical research with the rich personal experiences of the fruiterers and greengrocers.
The earliest Chinese retailers date back to the 1870s when there were 77 storekeepers. By 1891 the number was 129, and in 1926 there were 356 greengrocers.
By 1955, the heyday, that figure had risen to 587 Chinese-owned fruit and vege shops.
Few of these retailers remain today, but Nancy is a survivor; an example of tenacity. She has been running Ngok and Nancy’s Fruit Ltd since she and late husband Ngok bought the business in 1969.
She recently took RNZ’s Ian Telfer on a tour through their large building, which faces away from the sun so the fruit doesn’t ripen in the afternoons. As they took in the flowers at the shop front to the processing room out the back, she shared her family’s story.
Nancy’s own large family came from Seyip county and settled in Pukekohe, south of Auckland. They worked their own market gardens, where dark and clay-based soil could produce several rotations of crops such as potatoes and carrots every year.
She and her two sisters and three brothers needed muscles, hoisting 20kg boxes of vegetables onto the trucks. She decided that life wasn’t for her, studying design and taking up teaching.
But that all changed when Nancy got married and shifted to the other end of the country.
“I got dragged back in because of a man," she says. Nancy (nee Shack) and Ngok Young married in 1963.
Ngok hailed from Poon Yue county and worked in his family’s market gardens in Stirling, near Balclutha, with its population of 5000.
“When I met the man, I came down here to live, but it was very lonely at the start. For two years I used to cry every time I got a letter from home.”
From the bright lights of Auckland to the tiny rural house in 100 acres of land with nearest neighbour "half a mile" down the road, Nancy had to make a choice.
“I had to make up my mind whether this was going to be the life for me and I was going to settle down.”
Life in Central Otago was tough back then for the mother of two young children. Working Ngok’s family gardens with its sandy soil and only two yields of crops per year meant very little return for intense labour.
“Why am I doing this?", Nancy says. "Three days pulling carrots when it’s only 25 pence for one box?”
Nancy’s entrepreneurial spirit kicked in – leading to the purchase of their original shop from Dick Young on the main street in Balclutha.
However she still had to tell Ngok the big news, that they were moving into the fruit and greengrocer business.
Ngok’s reaction was: “What the heck? What for?” Nancy chuckles at the recollection. “But he went along with it.” And they didn’t look back.
Chinese women were remembered for being the powerhouse of their family businesses.
Author Carolyn King, who researched Nancy’s story says they drove big trucks to take the vegetables home. "The auctioneers spoke fondly of these ladies.”
These days, Nancy's son Roger and daughter-in-law Angela run the business with her. So what does she have planned next?
“I hope to carry for at least another five years," she says, "Maybe its wishful thinking but I feel I can do it for another five years.”