Sunday, September 27, 2009

Festival light shines on patriarch

Percy Chew Lee has never shied away from a challenge.

The 96-year-old arrived with his family from China to an unfriendly welcome in New Zealand 88 years ago.

All Chinese arriving in the country then were subject to a hefty poll tax.

The 100 tax (the equivalent of nearly $8000 today) reflected the discriminatory attitude against Chinese arrivals, but Lee did not let it slow him down.

Yesterday, the Christchurch resident was checking preparations for this weekend's Chinese New Year lantern festival to welcome in the Year of the Rat, an event which reflects how far his adopted country has come.

"Ninety years ago the Europeans looked down on the Chinese," Lee said. "In those days you had to learn to fight for yourself to prove you could do as much as anyone."

Lee's colourful life certainly proves his point.

After becoming the first Chinese student in a European school in Christchurch, his list of achievements included becoming a South Island 80km cycling champion after training nearly 100km every day before breakfast.

He was the first Chinese person to take up competitive wrestling and became a South Island runner-up.

He also took up training racehorses, and won the Westport Cup two years running.

In the 1930s he was the first Chinese man to fly an aeroplane in Christchurch, although his father would not let him gain his licence.

But perhaps his proudest achievement was designing and building the large pagoda-style house where he lives with family in Cashmere.

From there he continues to sell vegetables from the family market garden. He gave up riding the tractor just last year.

Lee has nine children, 21 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

This year his services to the Chinese community were recognised with a Queen's Service Medal in the New Year Honours, and he is looking forward to going to Wellington -- where he arrived as an eight-year-old -- to collect the award.

Lee put his longevity down to no smoking or drinking, working hard and never saying he could not do it. "The main thing in life is you have to prove things for yourself, just like me. I had to learn," he said.


Hundreds of lanterns will light up Victoria Square this weekend in celebration of the Year of the Rat. Thousands of people are expected to enjoy the evening entertainment with special performers from China and ethnic food stalls. The event starts at 4pm today and tomorrow, but dusk is the optimum time for lantern viewing.

No comments: