Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Family business is a cultural hub on Hobson St

LIFE’S WORK: Barry Wah Lee lives above the family emporium and works there every day. The Wah Lees emporium has become a cultural icon in Auckland. Reporter Danielle Street had a chat over the counter with Barry Wah Lee to try and figure out what makes the place so appealing. Barry Wah Lee has dedicated most of his life to working in the store that was opened with the help of his grandfather more than a century ago. The Wah Lees emporium on Hobson St is a rickety red building crammed with goods ranging from pickled sea slugs, to Chinese medicines, tai chi fans, lanterns, pottery, seeds and spices. The emporium began life in 1904 as a co-operative fruit store that operated in Auckland's Chinatown in Grey's Ave. "My grandfather could speak English, so they probably roped him in and got him to look after the place," Mr Wah Lee says. "It stayed with him and all the kids. The business was eventually handed down to Mr Wah Lee's father George, who moved the store up to Hobson St. "We moved up here in 1966 when they started getting rid of Chinatown and wanted to build up Aotea Square," Mr Wah Lee recalls. At that time Barry was a teenager attending Auckland Grammar School. He remembers watching his father talking to the Chinese market gardeners who would stop in and buy sauces and grains on their way home. "I loved watching Dad chat to people. He seemed to have no end of things to talk about," he says. "I loved hearing his stories of pig hunting." Behind the counter and away from the public eye there are several wild pigs' heads affixed to the wall. Each one was hunted and killed by George, whose photograph hangs beneath them. "He actually never ate the meat but there was plenty of people who would come and snap it up." Life wasn't always simple for the Wah Lee family. The shop also functioned as a bank in the early days but the money was all spent on booze and women by an uncle, Mr Wah Lee says. "So as youngsters all the hard work was to pay back all those Chinese who had their money with us." These days the emporium is an Auckland institution and draws mostly European shoppers, but there isn't so much time for chatting. However, Mr Wah Lee manages to keep up the social aspect via Facebook. The business has amassed more than 11,500 followers, no small feat for such a tiny store. "It's less than Justin Bieber though," he jokes. "I don't know where the people are coming from, maybe they don't know what they are signing up for." Many of the followers reminisce about visiting the store as a youngster. Others just seem to enjoy Mr Wah Lee's philosophical rants. One fan writes: "My big sister first took me there when I was 10 years old. I still feel 10 when I pop in for a shop. I love Wah Lee's." Despite having studied Asian politics and economics at university, it seems that Mr Wah Lee's destiny is entwined with the family business. He still lives above the shop and works there every day. Last updated 05:00 27/03/2013 - © Fairfax NZ News http://www.stuff.co.nz/auckland/local-news/east-bays-courier/8471506/Family-business-is-a-cultural-hub-on-Hobson-St

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