Identity Profile – Chew Chong (Chau Tseung)


Chew Chong (Chau Tseung)

Chew Chong (Chau Tseung) was born in Canton (Guangzhou), China. Nothing is known of his parents except that they originated from Kaiping county, Guangdong province. His date of birth is unclear: Chong himself put it at various times between 1827 and 1844. After receiving a good education, which included English, Chong went to Singapore, where he worked in a merchant’s office. Around 1856 he emigrated to Victoria, Australia, and for 11 years was a storekeeper in Castlemaine. In 1867 he left for Otago, New Zealand.

For more than a century dairy farming has been the basis of Taranaki’s economy. One of New Zealand’s first dairy factories was opened near Eltham in 1887 by Chinese entrepreneur Chew Chong, who had been exporting edible fungus to China. Despite anti-Chinese prejudice, Chong was a successful businessman who began an export trade in butter.

By 1872 European and Chinese merchants and traders were competing with him for the fungus. Nevertheless, Chong acquired a substantial proportion of the trade. The fungus was gathered and dried by Europeans and Maori as a source of cash, usually at 2d. to 3d. per pound; moreover, its collection by women and children allowed men to continue farm work. It was the principal cash income of many Taranaki dairy farmers since they usually bartered their butter to storekeepers. The fungus became known as ‘Taranaki wool’, and Taranaki as the ‘fungus province’. Fungus exceeded butter in annual export value five times between 1874 and 1881, although butter exports greatly increased after that. The greatest decade of fungus collection was the 1880s. Much of the trade was trans-shipped from Sydney to the East.


The businessman Chew Chong dominated the Taranaki wood-ear fungus industry. The cash he paid for the fungus supported many dairy farmers of the 1870s and 1880s as they struggled to establish their farms. Fungus gathering survived in Taranaki well into the 20th century, and was often carried out by farm children to earn pocket money.

Meanwhile, Chew Chong established branches of his store at Inglewood (1872) and Eltham (1882), selling the usual merchandise as well as Chinese silk and fancy goods. He was an enterprising storekeeper; for example, he sought commissions for a Chinese artist in Hong Kong who painted portraits from photographs; he sold groceries and meat cheaper than his business rivals; and his Eltham store bought large quantities of cocksfoot seed and marketed it throughout the country, thereby creating a significant source of income for local settlers.


Image of Chew Chong courtesy of

From 1892, however, Chew Chong lost many of his milk suppliers to the co-operative dairy movement, which opened factories at Eltham, Ngaere, Cardiff and Stratford. He sold the Mangatoki factory in 1893, suffered financial losses, and his Eltham store burnt down in 1900. He closed the Jubilee factory in 1901 and retired in New Plymouth. presented him with another purse of sovereigns and an illuminated address. This stated that he had saved ‘many a family from want and penury’ through his export trade in fungus, and had ‘led the way’ in butter manufacture in Taranaki.  He died at New Plymouth on 7 October 1920, survived by his wife and six children.


By James Ng courtesy of image courtesy of


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