Collecting and displaying Chinese Wellington’s fascinating history

By Ian Wards

Esther, Vivian, and Mell Jean Chin outside The Favorite Milk Bar, around 1966.

Chinese Wellingtonians belong to one of our oldest, most fascinating and culturally rich communities and Wellington Museum is sharing two new stories to celebrate this proud history. 

Wellington’s Chinese community evolved as young men from the Canton area (modern day Guangzhou) arrived in the late 19th century. Initially attracted by the economic potential of the Otago goldfields, some sought better prospects in Wellington. Often working in fruit and vegetable shops or laundries, they built lives here while longing for family and the comforts of a distant homeland. 

Wellington wasn’t always the friendliest place, with deep seated and blatant racism making life hard for residents from minority groups. But with tenacious perseverance Chinese Wellingtonians have thrived, contributing to make this city the special place it is. 

In The Attic at Wellington Museum, we are sharing the uplifting and entertaining story of The Favorite Milk Bar, working closely with artist and academic Kerry Ann Lee whose grandfather, Harry Chin (Poy Hong Chin), owned the popular spot on Adelaide Rd in Newtown. 

Thought to have been the only milk bar run by Wellington Chinese in the 1960s, The Favorite Milk Bar’s young patrons would buy milkshakes, ice cream spiders, cigarettes, and dance to rock’n’roll on the jukebox until midnight. The Chin family lived upstairs from the Milk Bar and Harry’s daughter, Esther, was probably the only kid at Newtown Primary School who had home-made milkshake syrup to add to her government issue school milk. 

We’re also sharing the story of Dick Lee & Co. This Tory St store sold imported Chinese goods to Wellingtonians from the 1920s-1970s. It was a place where elderly Chinese could meet, play mahjong, and eat traditional food made by its owner, Chung Chun Ying. Working with Chung Chun Ying’s son Ken Chung, we’ve installed original signage from the shop, alongside delicate celadon spoons dating from the early 20th century. These spoons were used at Dick Lee & Co. to eat delicious fung (rice congee). 

Historians Kirsten Wong and Nigel Murphy have generously guided us in enhancing this display, creating an evocative scene for visitors to ponder and enjoy. 

Our collection also holds a magnificent cocktail dress made by Mavis Chun. It’s not on display at the moment, but it’s time in the spotlight will come. When her parents died in the late 1940s Mavis, as their oldest daughter, devoted her life to raising her nine younger siblings and running their family fruit shop. This dress is symbolic of her desire for space away from the busy demands of family and work. 

The stories we share in our exhibition spaces don’t belong to the curators, they belong to the people of our beautiful city. Wellingtonians come from an endless variety of backgrounds, culture and life journeys, and it is a privilege for us to share these stories with our visitors. We know that by working in collaboration we can turn good displays into great displays. 


We’d like to express our gratitude to the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust, whose grant helped to bring these wonderful stories and histories to life.

The Favorite Milk Bar display in The Attic at Wellington Museum.
The Milk Bar in 1974.

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