Dominion Road has made a name for itself as a destination for authentic, regionally-specific Chinese food. How did it get here?

Imagine Dominion Road with trams and trolley buses. That’s how Mahmmad Bhikoo first knew the place when he opened Hollywood Dairy in 1982. “In those days, supermarkets used to close at five, six o’clock. There were two Chinese restaurants, three Indian shops,” he recalls, listing all the other establishments to me in the storeroom of his dairy. 

“When I came here, nobody knew anything about dumplings and noodles. The only Chinese food they knew was chop suey, chow mein and stir-fried rice. Gradually, people started moving in and opening restaurants and takeaways, and that changed the whole dimension of Balmoral.”

These days, Dominion Road has made a name for itself as a destination for authentic, regionally-specific Chinese food. Whether you want the warming, numbing spice of Sichuan cuisine, the sweet zest of Shanghai food, or the freshness and balance of Cantonese dishes, you’ll have a lot of luck finding it there. Listening to Bhikoo explain how “nobody used to eat garlic”, I wonder how Dominion Road grew into such a proud ethnic precinct that now embraces its loud colours, smells and sounds. 

As I will discover over several weeks of interviewing shop owners and digging up archival news stories, the answer to that question involves some combination of rental affordability in the area, changing immigration policy, ethnic business networks, newfound upward mobility for young, educated people in the PRC – and a healthy dose of racial discrimination. Welcome to Dominion Road. 

Mahmmad Bhikoo, the owner of Hollywood Dairy, remembers a time when there were trams on Dominion Road and people were afraid of garlic. (Photo: Eda Tang)

Let’s start with immigration because it’s the most foundational reason Dominion Road became a Chinese food enclave. Following the Immigration Act 1987, the ethnic makeup of Aotearoa started to look a little different. These days, most of the Chinese population in Aotearoa are either post-1987 migrants or descendants of them. The Act resulted from a shift away from admitting immigrants based on their nationality and ethnic origin; in other words, it ended the unofficial White New Zealand policy

After the Act was passed, people could be considered for immigration if they offered skills needed in New Zealand, were joining family members already living there, or needed to leave harmful circumstances. Over half of the immigrants who arrived after 1987 were selected under the skills category. The new skills-based immigration system led to an influx of ethnic Chinese migrants, particularly from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. That’s when the first Southern Chinese restaurants opened on Dominion Road. 

Raymond Tang’s restaurant was one of them. He and his wife and three young children moved to Aotearoa in 1989. Tang was a financial controller at Xerox in Hong Kong and had no food service experience before he opened his restaurant on Dominion Road. 

He says his family chose to move to Aotearoa for three reasons: firstly, it was “less discriminatory at the time”, he says, and secondly, “you could see the immediate result of your effort, even without a strong social network.” Finally, he adds, “there was no need to bride-pay money to official or black powers.” I still don’t know exactly what he meant by this – he said this over email while overseas – but I assume he’s referring to some form of financial corruption that was happening in Hong Kong. 

Tang says a change of career, from white-collar work in Hong Kong to self-employment in Auckland, was necessary because it was hard to enter the local labour market: “New Zealand was pretty protective against migrants.” Tang wasn’t alone: a 2015 council report on Dominion Road businesses found that migrants who spoke English as a second language often started businesses due to difficulties finding employment, because of factors including the language barrier, lack of credential recognition, exploitation and market limitations at the time.

Tang says new migrants were expected to find new environments to work in, and for him, the opportunity came through a failing duck farm in Warkworth. The farm “was almost at the point of bankruptcy”, Tang says, so he began buying their excess stock to roast and sell, and from that came the Love A Duck restaurant selling Hong Kong-style BBQ meats.

You can still see the iconic green corner of Love A Duck’s third restaurant at 302 Dominion Road. (Photo: Eda Tang)

The Tang family, who lived in Mount Roskill, set up Love A Duck on 571 Dominion Road in 1981. Since then, they have moved their Dominion Road shop twice, and set up branches in Northcote shopping centre and on Beach Road in the city. Back then, “there were not many food businesses in Balmoral, maybe one or two fish and chip shops and a pizza shop,” Tang says. “Food businesses did not prosper in the area until the 2000s, when more and more Northern-region Chinese migrated to New Zealand.”

The influx of Asian migrants in the late 1980s and 90s revived anti-Asian fear and intolerance. While the number of Chinese people in Aotearoa was growing by tens of thousands, they comprised no more than 2.3% of the country’s population in 1996. Pat Booth and Yvonne Martin’s 1993 “Asian Inv-asian” article captured an anti-Asian sentiment echoed by Winston Peters’ 1996 anti-immigration speech in Howick. Commentator Vincent Heeringa wrote in Metro that the speech repeated clichés that Asian immigrants are “all criminals … they’re a danger to our children … they’re taking our jobs … they come from poor countries but they’re richer than us … they’re screwing us.” 

Anti-Asian immigration rhetoric flared up in the 1990s.

Hostility towards Asian immigrants led to adjustments to the Immigration Act in 1991, 1995, and again in 2002. The 1991 amendment shifted to favouring highly educated young people through a point system in the skills category. Points were calculated according to factors like educational qualification, age, work experience and settlement funds. In the early 1990s, the pass point to gain residence visa approval was 25 points. So if you had a science or engineering degree and were between 25-29 years old at the time, you would have met the pass mark.

“So the skilled migrants came,” says researcher and sociologist Tze Ming Mok. “But then people were like, ‘Oh, not like that. You mean 10,000 mainland Chinese studied English really hard and have advanced degrees? That’s not the highly skilled English-speaking migrants we were talking about.’” Pass marks rose over time, but that didn’t curb zealous young graduates who wanted to know what life was like abroad. Remember, we’re talking about the Tiananmen generation. The only thing that threw them was the lack of employment when they got here

Tze Ming Mok says ethnic enclave economies develop when migrants can’t access the mainstream labour market. (Photo: Eda Tang)

Mok adds that NZ First’s new voice in the 1996 coalition government set off Pākehā and Māori resentment against Asians during the general election, and adjustments to migration policy, like making English language requirements even more stringent, were made in an attempt to curtail the numbers of Asian, particularly ethnic Chinese, migrants.

But while New Zealanders were trying to limit the number of Asian immigrants, conditions in China were making travel and migration even more appealing. Until the 1980s, China was closed off to the world, but international travel became possible in the early 90s. Chinese people were also increasingly able to afford it. “The late 90s and early 2000s in China was a period where people were getting really rich and the middle class were also coming up,” says Mok. People who wanted to see what was out in the world now could, and English language education was “absolutely booming,” she says. 

Ron Hoy Fong, a son of market gardeners who grew up around Dominion Road, witnessed how this played out. In 1989, he opened the first Tofu Shop, an Asian grocer that began as a tofu factory. Back then, Dominion Road’s retail offering consisted of “mainly fruit shops,” he says, and “three or four Chinese restaurants mainly in the Valley Road [section]”. Hoy Fong initially operated his tofu-making business from home. As the home operation outgrew itself, neighbours began to complain to the council’s health department and Hoy Fong needed to move it out of the house. 

Dominion Road was an obvious choice. It’s where Hoy Fong went to school and his parents owned one of the last fruit shops in the area. He even had his wedding reception in the space that is now GoGo Music Cafe. 

GoGo Music Cafe is a busy late-night eatery known for its skewered meat. (Photo: Eda Tang)

Hoy Fong hints that perhaps the Tofu Shop put Dominion Road on the map. After receiving publicity in a 1993 edition of North and South magazine and featuring in a television documentary series called “Made in NZ” a year or so after, queues formed outside the shop on 103 Dominion Road. “Malaysians particularly were coming over in the early 90s and, fortunately for me, tofu was one of their favourite foods,“ Hoy Fong says. 

At that time, there were about 45,435 ethnic Chinese in Aotearoa. “People came from all over Auckland [to the Tofu Shop] because they couldn’t get fresh tofu anywhere. Then I started adding things that were associated with tofu, like soy sauces, eggs and Asian groceries.” By the time Hoy Fong moved his shop up a few doors in 1996, there were about 85,836 ethnic Chinese in Aotearoa. That number would grow to 104,760 in 2001, and naturally, the appetite for Chinese food was growing too.

“As more immigrants came, they couldn’t get jobs so they just opened up restaurants, coffee bars, and takeaways,” says Hoy Fong. As the Dominion Road shops turned over owners, new migrants would take their place, and this was looking good for the Tofu Shop’s business which was producing anywhere between a quarter to 1.5 tonnes of tofu a day. 

Tofu Shop owner, Ron Hoy Fong, reckons the Tofu Shop put Dominion Road on the map. (Photo: Supplied)

The cheap rent, combined with proximity to the city, motorway and other retail spaces, made Dominion Road an appealing place for Chinese migrants to set up shop. Hoy Fong says Mt Eden had undergone a generational shift where original homeowners in the area moved out or died, so more rental housing was available. This was particularly convenient for international students needing to access the English-language schools in the city: Hoy Fong says Balmoral’s growth into an eatery district was backed mostly by students. 

Johnny Huang’s Flavour House is one of the longest-standing restaurants in Balmoral, and according to him at least, the first one offering a Northern Chinese flavour. He opened it in 2002, the same year he moved from Japan to Aotearoa to continue working in the hospitality industry. 

Huang had moved to Japan from China as a student, and worked in food service for about seven years. He was ready to branch out. “I read a magazine that said this and that about how good New Zealand was.” (Huang spoke to me in Mandarin and I interpreted his words in English). Desiring more opportunities, he moved here, and with the help of a Chinese friend in Auckland, Huang scouted out a spot on Dominion Road. 

Johnny Huang was one of the first restaurateurs to introduce Northern Chinese flavours on Dominion Road. (Photo: Eda Tang)

Like Hoy Fong, Huang was attracted by the relatively cheap lease and convenient access to the city. “People who worked in the city could have lunch [on Dominion Road] and get back on time,” he says. “The opening days weren’t like how they are now… They were quiet. By 9 or 10 o’clock there would be no one here.” He adds that “the main customers were international students.”

After operating for five years, it became more normal for Huang to see the restaurant frequented by non-Chinese customers and people coming from afar to try it out. His old business neighbours – restaurants selling pitas, pizza and pasta – were replaced by Chinese restaurants. 

The community of Chinese migrants who chose the hospitality business as an alternative to joblessness had formed a business network on Dominion Road. This is an example of an ethnic enclave economy, Mok says, which are developed when a particular minority group migrates and is unable to access the mainstream labour market. “If they have the capital, they set up their own business and try to develop an economy around supplying the migrant community itself. They had to find a way to survive using entrepreneurship and using the cultural resources they had that they knew there was a market for.” 

And what’s that cultural resource that white people love? Chinese food. “And that’s been the pattern through the whole history of the Chinese diaspora,” Mok adds. “Often they’re overqualified. These were skilled migrants coming on the point system where they’d have advanced degrees. A PhD was pretty common at that time.”

Ethnic enclave economies involve a compromise, though. “You will be getting paid less than if you worked in the mainstream economy,” Mok says, and the risk of other forms of exploitation is higher. 

Research on Chinese business networks found that relational embeddedness plays a key role in developing migrant businesses, and that worked out well for Chinese people who needed a one-stop shop for culturally specific food, goods and services. An errand to buy fresh tofu might as well be an Asian grocery trip, which turns into lunch at a Chinese restaurant, before picking up some lanolin cream from a souvenir shop to send to the folks overseas.

For Auckland-born Alistair Kwun, Love A Duck was a local haunt for comforting Southern Chinese food. As a child in the 80s, he and his Cantonese family who lived in Greenlane would make Dominion Road a regular weekend destination. Then in his university days, he would go there to catch up with friends over dinner, watch movies at the Capitol, and pick up groceries from Taiping for his parents on the way home. 

From the 80s to the 00s, Kwun watched as the cuisine on Dominion Road changed dramatically. “Initially, they were Cantonese in flavor because a lot of the immigration in the 90s was targeted to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.” A Taiwanese staple Kwun remembers emerging in the 90s was bubble tea; something he was familiar with from his visits to Hong Kong with his parents. “It suddenly arrived and my European friends were kind of shocked around this tapioca thing.” 

From 1998, New Zealand education providers received a significant increase in international enrolments driven by interest from Chinese students. Around this time, Kwun noticed the emergence of Northern Chinese flavours, offered on Dominion Road like Johnny Huang’s Flavour House. 

Growing up, Dominion Road was a regular weekend destination for Alistair Kwun. (Photo: Eda Tang)

As Chinese food became more popular, Huang noticed Chinese people began to perceive his restaurant as inauthentic, as it was increasingly frequented by non-Chinese customers. ”But that’s not true,” he says. “For the most part, I have maintained the flavour profile and staple dishes of Northern Chinese food. Even the ones that don’t sell well, I keep.” Huang finds it surprising (and delightful) when he hears of Pākehā wanting to eat his hometown foods like fermented vegetables, julienned potato and tofu skin.

On the whole, Dominion Road has maintained the allegiance of Chinese people, as evidenced  by premises like Do’s Clinic, which has been providing traditional Chinese medicine since 1991. Inside, people greet each other by name and ask after each other’s families in Cantonese and Mandarin. Alex Butt, who owned a Hong Kong-style dessert shop on Dominion Road in 2010, is there to pick up a prescription. 

Butt has taken a break from hospitality, but says he’ll get back into it. “Probably not on Dominion Road because it’s too competitive and because … at the moment the rent’s really high.” He says loyalty and a point of difference is what keeps a business stable on Dominion Road. He looks out the window and points to a tea shop. “There’s too many of them, it’s too competitive.” Do’s Clinic is the only Chinese medicine clinic in Balmoral, and Butt has been going to Mr Do for 30 years. 

Alex Butt has been going to Do’s Clinic for 30 years. (Photo: Eda Tang)

Dominion Road’s ethnic identity is recognised by both Chinese and non-Chinese communities. By 2015, 61% of businesses on Dominion Road were owned by Chinese and 60% of transactions were for food. It acts as a local service-centre by day, and a food precinct serving authentic Chinese food by night. 

Dominion Road’s Chinese Business Liaison, Crystal Pan, connects Chinese businesses along the strip and organises local cultural festivals like the Lantern Festival and Moon Festival. She also does the same work at Northcote Community Centre, another Chinese ethnic precinct in Tāmaki Makaurau. While Northcote holds a half-day event for the Lunar New Year in February, Dominion Road puts on a bustling three-day Moon Festival event in September. She attributes Dominion Road’s cultural magnitude to local board support. 

Pan tells me there’s a current application for a permit to erect a Chinatown arch. “People feel like we should put it there, we should make it a special area.” She isn’t opposed to it so long as “it’s the place they feel connected together, they feel secure in the area and homey.” It’s not the first time this has been proposed. The 2011 Massey University study, Half Way House: The Dominion Rd Ethnic Precinct, suggested a “themed or branded precinct that might be labelled a Chinatown or, more likely, something more modest such as decorations or signage which reflects the Asian/Chinese character of sections of Dominion Rd.”

However, Chinese shoppers were “almost exclusively opposed to the idea of branding the retail space as Chinatown,” the 2015 council report found, “and felt such branding would problematically mark Chinese people as different.” In 2017, paediatrician and playwright Renee Liang wrote an entire musical about Dominion Road based on her anger about suggestions by Pākehā sociologists that Chinese gates should be erected. 

Renee Liang and Jun Bin Lee wrote Dominion Road The Musical in response to the Massey University study.

Liang said in an interview on RNZ in 2017 that “to create a Chinatown with all the signifiers for commercial benefit is kind of rude … diversity is not a label to be paraded around, it’s this growing, living thing that you nurture just by listening to it rather than promoting it.” 

Her view now is that if businesses wish to erect cultural signifiers, then that is different. Previously, it was “white people trying to patch their view of identity onto us, when the Chinese community was still trying to understand their own identity, with a model minority bent towards deferring to others,” she says. “There wasn’t the wealth of commentary, academic study, cultural activity and so on that was being done by our own people.”

The Chinatown conversation needs to involve all parts of the Chinese community, Liang adds. “Mainland Chinese migrants have increasingly tried to dominate the conversation about the identity and history of Chinese New Zealanders, a conversation that originally started in the early 1900s.”

Alistair Kwun has frequented Dominion Road since the 1980s, and believes its iconic character is here to stay. (Photo: Eda Tang)

Recently, Kwun bought an apartment on the street that raised him. “My life pretty much revolves around Dominion Road for domestic duties,” he says. Dominion Road is still where he sees movies and catches public transport. “There’s a fierce independence. You’ve got a lot of shops and restaurants that aren’t replicated elsewhere,” says Kwun. “The charm of it for me is the changing nature of the shops.”

From his spot in the corner dairy in Balmoral, Bhikoo has seen it all. “I think by Asians coming here, it has changed it all for the better.” Bhikoo tells me about his grandfather’s migration to New Zealand in 1908 from South Africa, and his market garden roots in Pukekohe and Port Waikato. “There was apartheid here as well,” he says. For his forefathers, “there was no luxury.” 

He tells me that he was a bus and taxi driver before owning a dairy and changed jobs so that he could be more present for his children. Helping out in the shop, his children learnt to be good communicators and hard workers, which Bhikoo thinks is what set them up to be business owners now.

“I came in 1950 when I was seven years old,” says Bhikoo. “I came before my mum. I came with my aunty because I think they thought that this place was going to be a temporary place.” Now, Bhikoo’s dairy is probably the longest-standing business on Dominion Road.

This feature was made with the support of Asia New Zealand Foundation.