Sunday, September 27, 2009

Raymond Wong Tong: Green grocer had a twinkle in his eye

Raymond Wong Tong had a passion for China, but always returned to Wellington, and will be remembered for his fondness for a chat.

Raymond Wong Tong was always sociable. He loved flirting with the ladies who came into the family fruit and vegetable shop in Cuba St and even after his retirement he readily chatted with people he met on his walks or bike rides around Miramar.

Always cheerful, polite, considerate and well dressed, he was able to converse fluently in English, Cantonese and the Mandarin he continued to study in his later years.

Mr Wong Tong was born at 259 Cuba St above the shop set up by his father who had come out to New Zealand in the 1800s to work the Otago goldfields.

The oldest of seven - six sisters and a brother - he went to Mt Cook School and Wellington Technical College. He attended the Anglican Chinese Mission Church in Frederick St and learnt to play the violin.

When he was 16 the family returned to China to ensure the children had a Chinese education.

Mr Wong Tong signed on as a radio telegrapher with the British- owned China Navigation Company and sailed on the company freighters which plied the coast, up the Yangtze River and as far south as Singapore.

During this time he was introduced to and fell in love with Betty Chang, a New Zealand-born girl who had been raised in China since the age of three.

"I fell in love with her lovely dimples immediately and when she smiled at me, I knew I had to have her," Mr Wong Tong once recounted, remembering courting her on the cosmopolitan pre-war Shanghai waterfront.

They married in 1935, and their honeymoon was their voyage back to New Zealand on the Union Company Ship Taniwha.

Back in Wellington he rejoined the family at their second shop - Wong Tong and Sons - at 168 Cuba St (this is still a greengrocer but was sold by the family more than 50 years ago).

The extended family lived on the second and third floor above the shop and everybody contributed to the business.

During the war, Mr Wong Tong served in the home guard and every Sunday would get dressed in his army uniform and head out for training at Lyall Bay, but fortunately his appalling marksmanship never had to be put to the test.

For a time during the war, when Japanese invasion was feared, the women and children were sent over to Carterton while the men manned the shop.

As the children grew up they helped out in the shop if they weren't at school, attending Chinese classes or taking music lessons.
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Mr Wong Tong and his brother Ivan would go to the markets in Allen St each weekday morning where he would concentrate on vegetables while Ivan's specialty was fruit and flowers.

The shop's supplies were supplemented by spring onions and radishes grown on a small family plot in Nairn St and later from the large garden behind the home Mr Wong Tong bought in Puriri St, Miramar.

When his father sold the business in 1953, Mr Wong Tong moved the family to Nelson and opened another fruit and vegetable shop in Trafalgar St.

He and his wife sold the shop in 1966 after all the children left home and began what was to be their retirement with a two-year overseas holiday taking in Hong Kong and the United States, before returning and settling again in Miramar.

But Mr Wong Tong was just 55 and started working again - an office job with Philips Electrical in Lyall Bay, where he stayed on for about 10 years before finally retiring after suffering a mild heart attack. In 1983 he travelled back to China for the first time in nearly 50 years.

Mr Wong Tong - who was brought up to support the Chinese nationalists - later accepted that his homeland had become a communist state and he accepted invitations to functions put on by the Taiwanese as well as the Chinese diplomatic representatives in Wellington.

He was a stalwart of the Fung Tung Association which his father had helped found, and the Chinese Anglican Mission.

His only extravagance was the odd flutter on the horses and mahjong with his pensioner friends where losing $5 was a big deal.

Mrs Wong Tong died in 2006 and he spent his last few years in a rest home. He is survived by his four children, eight grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren.

Raymond Wong Tong, green grocer: born Wellington, March 6, 1911; married Betty Chang 1935, 2 sons and 2 daughters; died Wellington, July 21, 2009, aged 98.

Sources. Ronald, Beverley, Mervyn and Fiona Wong.

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