One of Taranaki's most visionary characters was a small Chinese man called Chew Chong. He was a key figure in helping to develop the region's dairy industry, especially in the making and refrigeration of butter. He is even responsible for producing one of New Zealand's most recognisable food items – the pound of butter.
In the late 1800s, a time when Chinese gold miners were being attacked in Otago, Chong was a highly successful businessman in Taranaki. He had general stores, butcher shops, and fungus depots dotted around the mountain and even provided poverty-stricken farmers an easy way to earn cash.
Another of his skills was acupuncture, and he offered his services free to the sick during the 1890 influenza epidemic.
Chong played a key role in getting Taranaki Coolstores off the ground in New Plymouth and was one of the original directors. He supported the development of Port Taranaki and the need to build a breakwater. He was also a director of Eltham's Union Timber and Box Company, which employed up to 85 workers.
Chew Chong (Chau Tseung) was born in 1828, in the village of Hoiping (now Kaiping), 120 kilometres south-east of Canton city (now Guangzhou). Eltham historian Don Drabble says evidence suggests that when Chong was aged 17, he went to work in Canton so he could send money back to his poor family. From there, he went to Singapore, spending two years as a houseboy, then moving on to a job as a merchant clerk.
In 1855, aged 27, he made his way to Melbourne during the Victoria gold rush, ending up in Castlemaine. He opened a general store in Union St, selling groceries and supplies to the gold diggers. Mr Drabble, who wrote The Life and Times of Chew Chong, believes his subject even set up a restaurant in the Australian town.
Chew Chong moved to New Zealand in 1866, basing himself in Dunedin where he collected scrap metal for export to China. He also became good friends with another Chinese trader, Choie Sew Hoy, who became a valuable contact for future fungus exports.
In 1870, a 42-year-old Chong moved to New Plymouth, and began his fungus trade. Eltham historian Don Drabble says it appears Chong discovered Jew's ear fungus (Auricularia cornea). "Chew Chong must fairly be credited with the discovery of edible fungus as a marketable product for New Zealand," Mr Drabble writes in his book The Life and Times of Chew Chong. He says Chong travelled the countryside to find the living treasure. "He had a horse and cart, and went from farm to farm selling goods and purchasing fungus." The fungus was sent to Dunedin. Acting as a shipping agent, Sew Hoy forwarded the fungus to Chinese in California, Australia and China, who knew it as Muk'u.
Among Chinese people the fungus is highly prized for its health-giving properties. It helped impoverished Taranaki farmers in other ways. "As news of the 'black gold' spread, many were the gatherers both town and country for who couldn't do with a little cash or alternatively trade it for a long-needed domestic improvement of some kind," Mr Drabble writes. "At worst it was pocket money, but better than that, for many it was a kind of salvation."
Chong used the fungus money to open a general store in March 1873, on the corner of Devon and Currie Streets in central New Plymouth. A series of stores followed, including butcheries in New Plymouth and Eltham, general stores in Inglewood, Ōkato and Eltham and of course the Riverside Butter Factory (later renamed the Jubilee Factory) just outside Eltham, heading towards Kaponga.
Before Chong opened the factory in December 1887, butter was sold in pats and blobs of no conventional size. It was also made from a blend of different butters collected from farms and called milled butter. Mr Drabble says there was a problem with the blending system. "One single faulty butter would contaminate all." Chong realised this and decided to improve hygiene and gain control over the quality by doing butter trials.
In the end he opened his own factory where he used a cooling system for the storage of cream and was a stickler for cleanliness and order. The latter saw him market butter in regular one-pound blocks, wrapped in parchment paper. He also saw the need for high-quality exports, so used refrigerated shipping when sending butter to overseas markets.
In 1890, he received just rewards for his efforts. At the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition in Dunedin that year, he won the Class A butter competition for producing the best half-ton of export butter packed suitable for export. He received a silver cup, which is now part of the Puke Ariki collection.
Chong also pushed for the Taranaki Producers Company Ltd Cool Stores in New Plymouth, which opened in 1886. He was a shareholder and director of the company and was honoured for his foresight when the cool stores held its 50th jubilee celebrations in 1951. He was also applauded during his own lifetime. In 1911, he received a hand-written, illuminated address, signed by 85 of his contemporaries.
Chong died in 1920, at the age of 92. Nearly 70 years later, he was inducted into New Zealand's Business Hall of Fame. "That was a proud moment for the Chong family," Mr Drabble says, of the 1988 recognition.
But Mr Drabble believes Chew Chong was way more than just a businessman. He was also a husband and father. In 1875, when he was 48, he married 22-year-old Elizabeth Whatton. They had 11 children, but five died in the first few months of their lives.
Chong was known to be a generous man, who had a great sense of humour and was outspoken about the need for all children to be educated. "Many people came to love this little Chinese man," Mr Drabble says. "He had highly developed social conscience. The thing about him is that he had come from a poverty-stricken country and I think he set out to make real good. I think that was the driving force behind Chong."
Mr Drabble says Chong also learnt to speak excellent English and he adopted European ways. "This made Chong stand out from other Chinese. He was prepared to change to suit the circumstances in which he found himself, and that to me, was the remarkable thing about Chew Chong."
Drabble, D.A. (1996). The life and times of Chew Chong. Eltham: Don Drabble.
Puke Ariki Heritage Collection: Chew ChongLink