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296 Willis St in 1979, left, and 2012, right (Images: supplied)
296 Willis St in 1979, left, and 2012, right (Images: supplied)

KaiFebruary 24, 2022

Work, survival and affinities: growing up at the Gold Coin Café

296 Willis St in 1979, left, and 2012, right (Images: supplied)
296 Willis St in 1979, left, and 2012, right (Images: supplied)

Between 1978 and 1986 the Gold Coin Café served all sorts on Willis St, Wellington. Kerry Ann Lee remembers growing up behind, and under, the counter.

Our time at 296 Willis Street, Te Aro was a drop in the bucket. Before the Great Earthquake of 1855 and wholesale land purchasing by the Crown in the 1870s, the mighty Waimapihi stream flowed through Te Aro into Te Whanganui-a-tara. Waimapihi was the bathing place of Mapihi, an ariki tapairu of Ngāi Tara and Ngāti Māmoe iwi. It was an important mahinga kai site for mana whenua, with a water source to irrigate kūmara and flax. City records attribute the two-storey building on the corner of Willis and Palmer Streets to a Mr. Thompson in 1886. It continued to be a contested site into the 1960s, with neighbours petitioning against a refreshment room on the corner, fearing that it would attract “undesirables”. With the impending development of the Wellington urban motorway, the town clerk granted permission for Nancy Wall to open Nancy’s Snack Shack in 1972. My folks bought the business in 1978, custom-fitted it with an industrial kitchen, and the Gold Coin Café was born. 

This wasn’t Mum and Dad’s first rodeo. Mum was a shop kid from a different era, born and raised in 1950s Newtown on jukebox 45s at the Favorite Milk Bar. Granddad opened the Favorite after working at the Canton Café, one of the city’s first Seyip Cantonese restaurants in Courtenay Place in the late 1940s. As a fresh-off-the-boat youngster from Toishan, China, Dad worked after school at the Otago Fish Shop in South Dunedin before moving to Timaru to work at the Caroline Dining Room (chronicled in the Bay Hill Times Gazette). He fell in love and moved to Wellington, where he and my mum briefly worked together at the old Shanghai Restaurant in the 1970s. Mum graduated from the Wellington Polytechnic School of Design Fashion programme and worked as a costumier for ballet, opera, and television, before going into business with my dad. It seemed like a good idea at the time. They ran the Gold Coin for eight years until my youngest brother was born in 1986, and then sold the shop to another family. 

In 2012, a friend who lived close to the old cafe got in touch with news that the building was earthquake-stickered and closed indefinitely. Their suggestion that I might want to check it out led me down a rabbit-hole that would become The Unavailable Memory of Gold Coin Café (2013). The structure was left derelict for over a year before being demolished, to re-emerge as a mini-condominium. I explored the idea of a “memory palace” to recall what I could up to age seven. It now feels more like a “memory storage closet” full of random junk. Many memories are unavailable, but they are also unremarkable and unreliable too.

The Gold Coin Café (from back to front) goes like this: at the edge of the property, an ancient brick barrack was a make-shift sleepout. A rickety wooden door with flaking green paint, enabled climbing and spying. There was a neighbourhood kid called Lee, who lived on the street who I used to say “hello” and “bye-bye” to, hence he was nicknamed “Bye-bye Lee”. My grandparents taught me to recite classical Chinese poetry to much applause in that courtyard, so I’m told (I don’t remember). Across the concrete yard and upstairs was the flat that I was raised in. An elderly Chinese couple lived there when I was kid, who I addressed as “Ah Por” and “Ah Gong” respectively. I’d leave a saucer of milk for a no-named, wandering cat beneath their stairs. A corridor led to the kitchen, starting with a porridge-coloured rotary telephone on the wall. There were shelves of crockery, drawers of cutlery and the smell of dish washing liquid. The radio was always on. Mostly pop — (Uh-oh it’s) ‘Magic’ by The Cars maybe — news on the hour and horse-racing commentary that would hypnotise me to sleep (and haunt me in my dreams). 

In the dimly-lit backroom, my brother and I would sit on top of the fridge-freezer to watch Flipper the friendly dolphin on TV after school, while chopped potatoes and onions danced in clanging woks and sizzling pans in the kitchen. A freebie wall-calendar from Davis Trading Ltd with an inky Chinese landscape hung next to the deep-fryer. Behind the front counter was the soft drinks fridge, a wall of cigarettes, a milkshake machine and screen-printed paper cups of happy hippies frolicking on a sunset beach. Regular customers, including rastas, skinheads, patched gang members from the headquarters across the road, and white-collared government workers, ordered takeaways, or dined in the adjoining cafe, furnished with brown carpet tiles, vinyl chairs, and woodgrain formica tables. Food was both Chinese (Hong Tan) and Western (Sai Tan), so you could order a shrimp fried rice with a cup of tea and a pack of Pall Mall without judgement. It was a corner store with large, light-filled windows which looked out onto the street. The giant gold coin on the back wall reminded you of where you were.

To kill boredom, I read everything including Dad’s Commando and Old Master Q comics, funny horse names in Turf Digest, and both telephone books (White and Yellow Pages) from cover to cover. “Cafe crafts” included Mum’s plastic bottle cap badges (Spiderman or a bat signal for my brother, a flower or smiley face for me), and miniature trophies Dad made from cigarette wrappers. Granddad entertained us with a mouse fashioned from a paper napkin that he’d scamper up his arm. Closing time was ours. My brother would ride on the vacuum cleaner (a four-wheeled industrial beast) followed by a game of hide and seek in the dark under the tables. 

296 Willis Street, Wellington, 2012. Image: Kerry Ann Lee.

Restaurant stories have occasionally surfaced in my artwork. Researching photographs for Home Made was tricky. I was often told, “No one bothered to take pictures back then. There was no time.” Work was both identity and survival, and many who were there chose to remember it in different ways, and not always publicly. It wasn’t thought of as being of interest to anyone outside our immediate families …until it was. After the Gold Coin Café closed, the Immigration Act 1987 allowed more skilled migrants to settle. Cantonese, Indian, Japanese and Turkish restaurants made way for Malaysian, Singaporean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai and other Asian cuisine. Many restaurants from that time are still here, along with the families who ran them, and their stories.

The humble takeaway was my first introduction to capitalism, exposing the labour involved for a young family to establish roots in inner-city Wellington. Like many shop kids, my parents worked to invest in our education, which opened up other opportunities. The shop counter separated our private lives from the public-facing world. It felt safe, but we were also cautioned to stay out of sight most of the time. The 1980s was all about “stranger danger”, which was fine for us kids, as the adult world seemed too weird to comprehend and deal with anyway. What I experienced as a kid were some light, joyful bits sprinkled here and there, while my folks juggled raising us with working long hours to serve the public.

I recall a conversation that my mum had years later with an aunty whose family owns the current business at 296 Willis Street, the Yeung Shing Restaurant, trading war stories in Cantonese and finding an affinity between working class migrant families of different generations. Another time, a friend and I visited the Sun Sun Takeaway in South Dunedin for fish and chips. I wasn’t sure if it was where my dad worked as a kid, so I impulsively called him and passed my phone to the woman behind the counter. It was, and the two strangers chatted and laughed like old friends for half an hour, comparing and contrasting unremarkable details. Eventually, the side counter lid flipped up and a bunch of kids marched into the back of the shop after school. It felt like a psychic hi-five. 

Click here to watch the full series of Takeout Kids. Made with the support of NZ On Air.

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