Saturday, August 15, 2009

Who was really NZ's first Chinese winemaker?

Who was really NZ's first Chinese winemaker?

Followed a newslink today that took me to an article about New Zealand's first Chinese winemaker. According to the article at the Indian Wine Portal, his name is Johnny Leung - and he is alive and kicking and working at Twilight Vineyard* in Clevedon.

"New Zealand's first Chinese winemaker - that ain't right," I thought. "There have been Chinese winemakers in New Zealand before him".

One who had a lot of media attention is CP Lin - not so much because he is Chinese, but because he is blind. For a long time CP was winemaker at Mountford in Waipara but he is now making wine in the Hunter Valley in Australia.

There is also Johnny's name sake, Edward Leung, whose wines bear the label, Ma Maison.

But the one that immediately sprang to mind is Stanley Young Chan. His initials were part of the name of his winery, Totara Vineyards SYC, at Totara, between Kopu and Thames (click for map) in the Waikato. We called into the winery many times on summer holiday trips to the Coromandel Peninsula, not only for wine but for his famous Totara Kiwifruit Liquer. The winery buildings, winery shop and vineyard are still there. Cuisine magazine lists Gilbert Chan as the current winemaker.

But a quick search tells me that Stanley wasn't the first either. That honour goes to Joe Ah Chan (Chan Hock Joe), who, according to the Dictionary of New Zealand Bibliography, was not only the first Chinese winemaker in New Zealand to make wine, but quite probably the first in the Southern Hemisphere.

Joe (1882 - 1959) arrived in New Zealand around 1905, working in Wellington selling fruit and vegetables. He returned to China for a short time in 1916 but came back to in New Zealand in 1917 to settle in Matamata. In 1925 Chan began to grow grapes at Totara near Thames, the first Chinese New Zealander to do so, and in 1929 he produced his first batch of wine. He was reputed to be the first Chinese wine-maker in the Southern Hemisphere. In 1950 the vineyard was sold to a distant cousin, Stanley Young Chan, who changed the name to Totara Vineyards SYC.

The Encyclopedia of New Zealand records the first man from China arriving in Nelson in 1842. By the late 1860's Chinese were working the Otago goldfields. There have waves of Chinese immigration ever since. Many new Chinese immigrants arrived from 1987 onwards but there are also Chinese New Zealanders who parents and possibly grandparents were born here. So if you know any other Chinese winemakers in New Zealand, please email me.

*Actually the Twilight Vineyards website doesn't make the claim that Johnny is the first Chinese winemaker in NZ. Perhaps an over-exuberant reporter simply got the facts wrong.

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