Saturday, October 06, 2007

Unearthed - first supermarket

5:00AM Saturday October 06, 2007
By Mathew Dearnaley

Project archaeologist Dr Hans Bader with pieces of 19th century Chinese pottery that were unearthed in the remains of an old house at Carlaw Park. Photo / Martin Sykes
Archaeologists have unearthed remains in Auckland's Carlaw Park of the house of a Chinese market-gardener believed to be an ancestor of Foodtown supermarkets co-founder Tom Ah Chee.

"You could say we are standing in Auckland's first Foodtown," archeological consultant Hans Bader said yesterday, at the site he is excavating for developers of the former league ground.

A man called Ah Chee is recorded on Government land registry records as having leased the site in 1882, and a map drawn 14 years later shows several buildings, including what is believed to be his original home.

Tom Ah Chee, who died in 2000 aged 72, built the first Foodtown supermarket in 1958 with business partners Norm Kent and John Brown.

Dr Bader and his team have unearthed a brick courtyard and fireplace on the site of the house, and have assembled what he says is potentially the largest collection of Chinese ceramic remains found in Auckland from the late 19th century.

These include fragments of vases and crockery, bearing what National MP Pansy Wong said was "very old-style Chinese writing".

Pieces of European crockery have been found, and hoes and a digging fork likely to have been used in the original Mr Ah Chee's adjoining gardens at the southeastern end of Carlaw Park.

After Mr Ah Chee moved to Parnell, the site, which previously supported an 1840s-era flour mill, remained a food-bowl for Aucklanders until being turned into the home of Auckland rugby league in 1919.

Dr Bader said the gardens were surrounded by New Zealand's most heavily-industrialised area of the time, its neighbours including a foundry, sheepyards and a rope-making factory.

Auckland Rugby League has retained half the Carlaw Park site for a retirement village and has sold the other half, where the historical remains have been found, for a mixed-use development of offices, shops and a hotel and car-parking building.

Although the Ah Chee building remnants would have to be removed, they would be thoroughly catalogued for reports required by the Historical Places Trust as a condition of modifying an archeological site.

Mrs Wong said she hoped Auckland Chinese could offer more information about the site, and she would try to contact descendants of Mr Ah Chee, who may even have photographs of his house.

Visit the site open days, October 13 and 14

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