Alec Wong the “Taro King”, came to Auckland in 1949 from the South Island after several years market gardening in Oamuru.
He and his wife Helen bought a shop in Ponsonby’s Three Lamps just as the influx of Pacific Island people was beginning. These people encouraged to New Zealand to increase the supply of labour in our booming post-war economy, congregated in Ponsonby and Grey Lynn and created an immediate, seemingly insatiable demand for such vegetables as taro, yams, kapi, green bananas, coconut and breadfuit.
“There were 20,000 to 30,000 Polynesians living in the area in those old, cheap houses, some of them living two families per house,” Alec says. “As I was in the right area I sat down and worked it out so that in a very short time I became known as far as Otahuhu as the shop that was never out of taro.
“In those days, produce came down from the islands by ship. The Union Company had two ships running and a round trip was three weeks. While one was unloading in Auckland, the other would be filling up in the islands. And while it was usually three weeks, on odd occasions I’d find out they were going to do the whole round of the islands: Fiji, Samoa, the Cooks, Tonga and once a month to Nuie – a four week trip. So I would carry enough stuff for four weeks and a lot of my competitors were not prepared to spend the 2000 pounds to buy up three or four weeks supply.
“In the first week we’d be putting on 20% gross profit. Then the next week we’d double profitability because most other shops would be out of stock – and god help them when the third week came along! We’d be making 150% on those cases!
“It sounds like boasting, but word got around and people would be coming from Otahuhu to buy our produce.”
The demand meant that Alec was buying huge quantities, especially of taro, from Turners and Growers. At times such as Easter and Christmas it was nothing for him to sell 400 cases of taro a week, and he remembers buying 1300 cases from Turners auctioneer John Watson: three weeks supply.
“Polynesians love to all get together for big family hangis or umu on birthdays and weddings,” he says. “It was nothing for a couple of families to come along and say they wanted eight cases of taro, six watermelons and seven kapis, 20 or 30 green coconuts and a dozen bottles of soya sauce. So I had to make allowances for big kai times.”
He also stocked large quantities of vermicelli – cheaply supplied to him from importers in Christchurch and Dunedin – as well as the tinned corned beef so popular among Pacific Islanders.
“Those,” Alec says, with pleasure at the memories, “were the years that made me. From 1955 to 1970 were my boom years.”
He kept most of his stock in a large cool store at the back of his shop, and the overflow he paid to Turners to store for him. The cost of that storage was easily covered by the cheaper prices he was able to win on the market floor.
“If the price was $10.00 a case, and some of the shops had bought what they wanted – 5, 10, 20 cases – there might say, 700 cases left, and I’d say I’d give them $8.50 for the balance. No one else was game to bid because it was such a big quantity, so I’d generally end up paying $2.00 less then every one else.”
But all good things come to an end, and by 1970 Ponsonby rents were starting to rise and the Pacific Island people were being pushed out to the cheaper housing in South Auckland.
“As the population moved out, that was the end of that era,” Alec says.
From 1978 till 1986 he and his wife ran “an ordinary retail shop” on the same Ponsonby premises.
“We never carried more than two days stock of vegetables – why would we when we could purchase it each day off the auction floor. It’s different from some of the imported produce which only arrive once a month.
“So there wasn’t the heavy work anymore. In the old days everything had to be manhandled. A case of taro had to be handled four times: it was stacked and loaded down at the market to put onto a hand truck; then it was wheeled outside to put on the truck; then when we got the truck to Ponsonby we had to take it off the truck on to the footpath, and then wheeled by hand truck down to the cooler; then it had to be stacked up to the roof.
“There was no other way. Today they talk about fork hoists and pallet jacks, but our wooden floor wouldn’t stand it, and the shop wasn’t big enough. We had a hell of a big business, but the shop was only 12 feet wide.
“In those days everything was stacked in wooden crates which you can pick up. Today 80% of it comes in bulk bins, could be 500 kilos or 1000 kilos, and there’s no way of shifting that without pall jacks and fork hoists.
But while bulk bins may have made transporting the produce easier, Alec is horrified at what they have meant for the quality of fruit that finds its way into the shops.
“I was looking at Golden Queens the other day in a supermarket, and it would make you cry. You see, the harvesters don’t care. They’re dumping harvest bags into bins that are six-foot by six-foot square and four feet deep. You can’t handle fruit like that, green or ripe, you may as well forget it. It’s horrific waste. It’s not so bad with caulis and cabbages, they don’t bruise so easily.
Indeed, the world has changed since Alec was retailing. He admits that nowadays, he and his wife travel out to Helensville in the weekend from their home in Glendene to shop at the roadside stalls.
“We find it’s much cheaper. They don’t have rents or rates to pay, the buildings are built on their own land. That’s the difference.”
Nowadays when he revisists his former kingdom in Ponsonby, the Taro King fells a touch of sadness for the days when pedestrians crowded those footpaths, three abreast.
“There are very few people there today. Most of the premises are taken up by banks! I really feel nostalgic…”