The fungus, the Chinese trader, and how they helped the Taranaki dairy industry

I have been reading Kenneth B. Cumberland’s “Landmarks” (1981), a story of the human transformation of New Zealand. One of the many characters who makes his appearance in this story is Chew Chong, a pigtailed pedlar who had come to Otago, New Zealand in 1867, during the gold boom. He eventually made his way up to Taranaki, where a fledgling dairy industry was becoming established.

Chew Chong embodied a mix of entrepreneurship and community-spiritedness. When farmers struggled to find adequate local demand for their butter, Chew Chong opened a store, bought their butter and shipped it to the Thames goldfields where there was a ready market. Trade in home-made butter was plagued by spoiling, however. To improve the quality of butter through better processing, Chew Chong opened one of New Zealand’s first dairy factories, in Taranaki in 1887.

He also discovered that a fungus that grew profusely on the damp logs and stumps of felled forest trees, known (somewhat pejoratively) as “Jew’s ear” (Auricularia polytricha) was very similar to a fungus regarded as a delicacy in China. By the mid 1880s, he had established a thriving export trade to China, and struggling farming families welcomed the extra income they could earn by gathering the fungus and selling it to Chong. Chong’s fair and honest dealing and generosity to hard-up farmers was long remembered within the community, and when he died in 1920, he was fondly remembered as a man of the community.
See also: Christchurch – a city built on buried forests?
Photo top: The general store that Chew Chong owned in New Plymouth before becoming involved in the dairy industry. Puke Ariki – Taranaki Museum & Library Reference: PHO2002-406, photograph by W. A. Collis. Above left: Jew’s Ear Fungus (Auricularia polytricha). Photo by Steve Reekie. From the Natural Heritage Collection.

4 thoughts on “The fungus, the Chinese trader, and how they helped the Taranaki dairy industry

  1. paulknight35 July 29, 2012 / 6:38 pm

    Fascinating story. Very interesting and good man.

  2. Anonymous August 27, 2012 / 9:42 am

    That’s a heartwarming story! I went to EGGS (Epsom Girls Grammar School) with Prof Cumberland’s daughter Tanya and we studied geography together. It was in part a forerunner to Envirohistory, I think, looking back!

  3. Anonymous July 16, 2015 / 8:31 pm

    Chew Chong was also the pioneer who first exported 1lb butter from Taranaki to the UK

  4. Gerald Sydney Thorner May 26, 2020 / 10:00 pm

    Kum Sing a Chinese trader who had a shop on the corner of Devon and Gover Street also traded in Fungus known as “Jews Ear”. He is listed with Chew Chong in some of the shipping notices in New Plymouth. Kum Sing’s wife Mere Tahana is buried in Te Henui Cemetary just a stone throw from Chew Chong.Gerald Thorner Te Atiawa iwi-Puketapu hapu Hoewaka whanau Hua Division.

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