A taste of history – Dick Lee & Co. at Wellington Museum

By Ian Wards

Celadon spoons

These celadon spoons were recently donated to Wellington Museum by Ken Chung. And they’ve got an intriguing story to tell, one that gives us a window into the food and community of early to mid-20th century Chinese Wellington.

These spoons were probably made in Southern China during the late 19th or early 20th century. They are an everyday type of spoon, used for eating a variety of delicious Chinese soups. They get their name from their green, jade-like, celadon glaze.

They were used at Dick Lee & Co., a shop near the corner of Tory and Jessie Streets in Te Aro, from the early 1900s to the 1970s. Dick Lee & Co. sold imported goods to the Chinese community of central Wellington and a variety of traditional Chinese medicines. It was a popular spot for older Chinese to gather and talk over a game of mahjong or a nourishing bowl of soup.

That’s where the spoons come in.

The owner of Dick Lee & Co., Chung Chun Ying, inherited the business from his uncle Chung Tack Foon, who returned to China with his family in 1929. Chung Ying was skilled in traditional Cantonese cooking. As well as selling imported Chinese goods and medicines, Chung Ying devoted a great deal of time to preparing and cooking nourishing cuisine.

Chung Ying, also known as Chung Dick Lee, date unknown. Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-170343-F

These spoons would have been used to enjoy Chung Ying’s hearty rice congee soups. They would also have been used to eat other soups made with pork bones, Chinese dried mushrooms, dried vegetables, and herbs. These soups provided Chung Ying’s patrons with the authentic taste and the aroma of ‘home’.

Soup wasn’t Chung Ying’s only specialty. In his recently published collection of childhood memories, Newtown Boy, Stan Chun suggests that the clientele of Dick Lee & Co. also gathered in the shop because Chung Ying, “… made a real mean roast duck. There was nothing like it.” Stan describes how Chung Ying would make his way to the livestock markets on Allen Street and select “… a squawking duck with wings flapping all over the place…”, then use

“…various herbs to marinate the duck and roast it in his gas-fired oven. When ready the duck was chopped into bite-sized pieces with a Chinese cleaver. The meat was something else, almost melting in your mouth… I cannot explain the flavour of the juice, texture and fragrance of the duck, but believe me that Chung Ying earned the title of Roast Duck Master.”

At Wellington Museum we are fortunate to have a rice grinding mill and a medicinal herb grinder from Dick Lee & Co. Chung Tack Foon was a renowned Chinese traditional herbalist – a talent shared with his nephew Chung Ying. Using herbs, plant extracts and other natural ingredients, the store was popular in treating numerous ailments. Herbs were hand-ground until electrical grinders became available.

The Dick Lee & Co. mills are on display in The Attic at Wellington Museum, alongside small drawers which can be opened to release the smell of the herbs used at the Dick Lee shop.

Dick Lee & Co. had such a great community influence that it became something of a makeshift Citizens Advice Bureau.

Chinese interpreter William Lip Guey in front of Dick Lee & Co, 1974. Photograph by Nigel Murphy. Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-200872-F

A respected man, William Lip Guey would often be present to translate documents and explain laws for members of the Chinese community. Perhaps advice was better received alongside a calming bowl of Chung Ying’s congee or some delicious roast duck?

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