A Happy Lunar New Year from All of Us at Purewa
Wishing You Four Seasons Peace and a Flourishing Year
On this occasion we wish to remember and honour Thomas Henry Ah Chee (4 January 1928 – 18 March 2000) whose contribution to New Zealand enriched the lives of so many. He was an entrepreneur of the highest caliber, a devoted family man, and a visionary leader.
Tom was born in Auckland, the grandson of Chan Dah Chee 陈达枝, who arrived in Auckland from China 1867. Ah Chee, as he was known, launched his family on the road to prosperity growing produce and selling it on Queen Street beginning in the 1870s. A pioneer of food production and distribution in Auckland, it became a large and prosperous enterprise that expanded to include exports.
The family business hit hard times as the Great Depression undercut New Zealand’s economy. Tom’s father, Clement, returned to China. There, young Tom spent his formative years before returning with his parents to Auckland at eleven years of age, fleeing the Japanese occupation of Canton in 1939.
In Auckland, Tom was a successful student, becoming head boy at Remuera Primary School. He later trained as an architect at the University of Auckland.
His destiny did not lie in architecture, however. Upon his father’s death, Tom took over the family fruit shop in 1951. He was a natural and visionary business man. And Tom saw the future: American-style supermarkets.
Tom Transforms the Way New Zealand Shops
Tom and his partners opened the very first New Zealand supermarket in 1958. The Ōtāhuhu Foodtown was unprecedented in New Zealand—1,400 square metres on a 1.1-hectares of land. Another soon followed in Takanini, and the rest, as they say, is history.
With business partner Brian Picot, Foodtown Supermarkets Limited became part of Progressive Enterprises and eventually branched out into the singularly kiwi Georgie Pie fast-food business.
Helene Wong, writing about Tom in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, summed up Tom’s success:
“His achievements derived from a winning combination of family influences and personal characteristics. Entrepreneurial spirit, business acumen, warm sociability, resilience and the confidence to overcome adversity through the example of his father; pragmatic Chinese values and insatiable energy for hard work from his mother. Although comfortably Westernised and untroubled by racism, he remained proud of his ancestry, and in retirement mentored others in the Chinese community.”
Tom died at the age of 72 and rests at Purewa Cemetery, Block D Row 28 Plot 71E.
CREDITS: Helene Wong. ‘Ah Chee, Thomas Henry’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2019, updated January, 2020. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6a4/ah-chee-thomas-henry (accessed 17 January 2023)
IMAGE CREDITS: (left to right) Stuff Limited Reference: 637355853 via https://teara.govt.nz, Auckland War Memorial Museum, Auckland Libraries, PapersPast