Sew Hoy's Building (Former)

29 Stafford Street, Dunedin, Otago 9016

  • Sew Hoy's Building (Former), Dunedin.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Sarah Gallagher. Date: 1/12/2019.
  • Sew Hoy's Building (Former), Dunedin. Rear.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Sarah Gallagher. Date: 1/12/2019.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 9730 Date Entered 18th February 2021 Date of Effect 10th March 2021


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Pt Sec 16 Blk VI Town of Dunedin (RT OT313/38), Otago Land District and part of the land described as Legal Road, Otago Land District and the building known as Sew Hoy’s Building (Former), thereon.

City/District Council

Dunedin City


Otago Region

Legal description

Pt Sec 16 Blk VI Town of Dunedin (RT OT313/38), Legal Road, Otago Land District.


Facing north on Stafford Street in Dunedin stands the Sew Hoy Building, the only surviving representation of an important and extensive network of Chinese retailers in Stafford Street. Choie Sew Hoy 徐肇開 (1838–1901), also known as Charles Sew Hoy, was a notable New Zealand merchant, entrepreneur, innovator, and gold-dredger. Born in Guangdong Province, China he immigrated to New Zealand via Australia in 1869. Through his various business interests, philanthropic endeavours and social connections, he became a leader in the Chinese community, and was very well respected within the European community of Dunedin.

By late 1871 there were 96 Chinese merchants and storekeepers in Dunedin, inland Otago towns and in the field, serving 4,159 Chinese. They all served particular Chinese groupings. The only one of these business premises to survive to the present is the Sew Hoy store in Stafford Street. This gives it outstanding significance as a heritage site in central Dunedin for the Chinese quarter in the area of Flinders Lane, Lower Stafford Street, and the adjacent lower Hope and Lower Walker streets.

Built in 1895, the building holds outstanding significance as the nexus of the Chinese business community in Dunedin and wider Otago region. Dunedin’s Stafford Street was the location of several Chinese merchants. The Sew Hoy store in Stafford Street is a remnant of this system. This place was a point of reception, provisioning, information and hospitality for new immigrants who were set to seek their fortunes in the Otago gold fields. From 29 Stafford Street food stuffs and goods were both produced and supplied to goldfields stores across the Otago region.

Sew Hoy had many business interests. This place was also the registered office of the various Nokomai sluicing company businesses throughout the whole length of the Sew Hoy mining operation which lasted nearly half a century. The company’s sign can be seen in the 1939 photograph of the building, flanking the hanging Sew Hoy store sign.

Additionally, and of outstanding significance, is the role this place played as the administrative point of departure for the earthly remains of many Chinese who were returned to their families and home villages through the burial society, the Cheong Sing Tong, of which Choie Sew Hoy was President. The final of three shipments included the body of Choi Sew Hoy and was lost in the shinking of the ship, the Ventnor in 1902.

This place also represents the dynasty of entrepreneurship and leadership of the Sew Hoy family. After Sew Hoy’s death his son Kum Poy (1865-1942) inherited both his business interests in New Zealand and his leadership role in the Chinese community in Otago. He remained as adviser, merchant and sometime banker to the Panyu Cantonese until his death in Dunedin in 1942. His base was the store at 29 Stafford Street, which was a centre of communal activity for the Panyu Cantonese. The responsibility for family business and role in the community continued after Kum Poys death with Hugh Sew Hoy taking up the mantle of leadership and continuous innovation of the Sew Hoy business dealings into new markets.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The Sew Hoy building has outstanding historical significance for its role in 19th Century society in Dunedin as a hub for new immigrants on their gold seeking journey. This place helps us understand the role of Chinese businesses and their reach across the province and the inter relationships between other Chinese settlements and sites through their business interests. The Sew Hoy building continues to tell the story of this Chinese family’s enterprise through time and the evolution of their business interests after the gold rush ended and other markets and opportunities proved more fruitful. It is one of the only remaining buildings from the 19th Century Chinese business district and the wider Chinese community. This gives it considerable significance as a heritage site in central Dunedin for the Chinese community, as well as significance to the wider Otago context of an historic Chinese presence. The building remained in the family for decades as the centre of their food importing and manufacturing business, and as the headquarters of the Nokomai Mining Company which saw a regeneration in gold seeking in Otago for nearly half a century. At times it served as a family home for two generations of the family who had returned to Dunedin from China.

Cultural Significance or Value

The Sew Hoy building has special cultural significance to the Chinese community. In its heyday it enabled Chinese to maintain their food based traditions, and for Hugh Sew Hoy, maintaining the building was an important aspect of his veneration of his ancestors. The original sign from the Sew Hoy shop is on loan to Toitū Settlers Museum collection, an indication of its value to the family and history of this area.

Social Significance or Value

The Sew Hoy building has special significance within the Chinese community and the wider Dunedin community for whom it has been a part of their shopping experience for decades. It is of particular special significance to the extended Sew Hoy family who toured the building, ate together and watched family films there on the occasion of their 150th Anniversary reunion in 2019. The Sew Hoy business was purchased by former staff who have close ties to the family. They continue to run the grocery business and maintain the Sew Hoy name. As a place for the wider community, the shop continues to stock traditional Chinese foods and goods which enable Dunedin’s Chinese community to maintain customary food traditions.

Traditional significance or value

The Sew Hoy building has outstanding traditional significance within the Chinese community nationally and internationally as the administrative centre of the Cheong Sing Tong. This organisation fulfilled a crucial role in the traditional belief system of the Chinese. Over three decades this organisation arranged the collection, care and delivery of the remains of Chinese men to the home villages and families for final internment and veneration. The disastrous voyage of the SS Ventor which carried the remains of 474 men, including the body of Choie Sew Hoy, had its origins in this building.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history

The Sew Hoy building reflects and important aspect of New Zealand history representing the immigration of Chinese during the 19th Century seeking gold, and the resulting establishment and development of mercantile businesses to service both transitory and local communities in Dunedin and Otago.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history

The Sew Hoy building is associated with a number of important events, people and ideas of importance; notably Choi Sew Hoy and his business as an importer and exporter of goods, the development of a reception and provisioning place for immigrants from China, as the headquarters of the revolutionary Nokomai gold dredge, and as the offices of the Cheong Sing Tong. It was also associated particularly with his son Kum Poy and grandson Hugh who continued the family businesses and obligations after his death.

(c) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of New Zealand history

The Sew Hoy building has the potential to provide knowledge of New Zealand history, namely story of Chinese immigration, business and innovation in the 19th and 20th century is exemplified in Dunedin by the Sew Hoy family. The influence of the family in society can be seen not only through their approach to business but also in Sew hoy’s philanthropy and success integrating into European Society to benefit the Chinese community. There is also an opportunity to learn about the prejudice and racism experienced by many Chinese by Europeans at the time.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place

The Sew Hoy building continues to hold the esteem of the Dunedin community as it remains in business as a retailer of Chinese foodstuffs. It continues to holds an important place in the hearts of the Sew Hoy descendants.

(f) The potential of the place for public education

The Sew Hoy building has the potential as a place for public education as the only remaining building associated with the 19th century Chinese business district that served the local community around Stafford Street, Walker Street, Flinders Lane and Hope Street. The population of Chinese in Otago was the highest in New Zealand and the majority of them would have benefited in some way from Sew Hoy’s business ventures.

(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places

The Sew Hoy building has importance as a rare type of place as the administrative centre for the Cheong Sing Tong, the organisation that organised the repatriation of deceased remains of Chinese to their home villages and families for care and veneration as their traditions required.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural area

The Sew Hoy building is one of few remaining buildings associated with what had been the Chinese business quarter, homes and a Chinese Mission School and Manse, all within a small geographic area.

Summary of Significance or Values

The Sew Hoy’s Building (Former) is an and outstanding example of Chinese enterprise and maintenance of traditions in New Zealand, and the only remaining example of the historic Chinese business sector in Dunedin. Choie Sew Hoy founded a family business that extended into diverse markets in food importation, exportation, and provisioning within Dunedin, across Otago and through into the West Coast. He also established multiple successful interests in the goldfields, the Nokomai gold dredge operation which is of national significance, was administered from this building. This place is also of outstanding value as the administrative centre of the Cheong Sing Tong, which for 30 years repatriated the deceased remains of Chinese men to their families and home villages. The Sew Hoy’s Building (Former) is a reminder of an extraordinary man who was a respected leader in his community, in industry, and in the history and development of Otago.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Hislop, James (1859-1904)

‘James Hislop (1859-1904) was born in Glasgow and came to New Zealand at a very early age. He was educated at North East Valley School and received his architectural training in the office of Mason and Wales. He also spent two years with the Public Works Department, as district manager of Nelson. In 1880 he entered into business with W.H. Terry who retired three years later. He established his own practice in Dunedin and later entered into a partnership with Edward Walter Walden. In 1889 Hislop designed and supervised the erection of the South Seas Exhibition among a number of prominent buildings both in Otago and elsewhere in the country.’

‘Among the significant buildings designed by James Hislop, or by the Hislop and Walden partnership are Crown Milling Co. building, Miller Place, Dunedin (c.1880); New Zealand Steam Shipping Co. office, Dunedin; DIC, Christchurch; Evans and Co. Mill, Timaru; National Bank, George Street, Dunedin; Napier Abattoirs (1902); Hallenstein Building, The Octagon; Dunedin City Abattoirs.’ Hislop moved to Wellington around 1903, where he died as the result of an accident in 1904.

Source: Heritage New Zealand Review Report for Ferntree Lodge, List No. 368, 27 Jun 2017, Heather Bauchop.

Torrance and Simpson

Dunedin contractors active in the late nineteenth century. Their projects include Sew Hoy’s Building at 29 Stafford Street, Knox Church Manse (both designed by James Hislop). They also built the hall for the Otago Jubilee Industrial Exhibition (1898), Church of the Sacred Heart Church (List No. 2214), the Mutual Agency Building and the annex to His Majesty’s Theatre.

George Simpson (1851-1934)

Fifeshire-born Simpson was apprenticed to the building trade at St Andrews and later working at Dundee and the Clyde shipping yards. He left for New Zealand with his new wife in 1879, arriving aboard the Timaru. On his arrival he worked as a journeyman carpenter. He went into partnership with fellow Scot Richard Torrance around 1886. Around 1900 he went into business on his own account, trading as Messrs G. Simpson and Co. He was president and secretary of the Builders’ Association at various times. He was the official valuer for the Otago Harbour Board for 35 years, and also for the United Star Bowkett Society. He was on the Board of Managers of the King Edward Technical College. He was a member of the Dunedin Sanitary Institute and Dunedin’s first Drainage Board.

Richard Cameron Torrance (c.1854-1911)

Scottish-born Torrance came to Dunedin around 1879. He worked as a journeyman builder until around 1886 when he entered into partnership with George Simpson. The partnership lasted until around 1900, after which Torrance worked on his own account. Torrance’s obituary describes him as ‘a splendid worker and one of the best tradesmen that ever drove a nail.’

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Early History

Both iwi history and archaeological evidence show Māori occupation in the Ōtākou Otago region over an extended period, with the inhabitants utilising a wide variety of natural resources from the diverse environment. Archaeological evidence supports the date of earliest settlement around the 12th century.

Today, Kāi Tahu mana whenua is recognised over a large part of Te Wai Pounamu. Kāti Māmoe and Waitaha whakapapa and shared occupation are always acknowledged. Tūpuna such as Waitai, Tukiauau, Whaka-taka-newha, Rakiiamoa, Tarewai, Maru, Te Aparangi, Taoka, Moki II, Kapo, Te Wera, Tu Wiri Roa, Taikawa, and Te Hautapanuiotu are among Kāti Māmoe and Kāi Tahu tūpuna whose feats and memories are embedded in the landscape, bays, tides and whakapapa of Ōtākou Otago. The hapū Kai Te Pahi, Kāti Moki, and Kāti Taoka still maintain their presence and responsibility as kaitiaki in this region.

Historically, Kāi Tahu used the tauraka waka at Ōtepoti (Dunedin City) when they visited the head of the Ōtākou harbour as either the gateway to the route to Kaikarae (Green Island) or when off on other mahinga kai expeditions. The soft slope of the foreshore and the tidal flats in the upper harbour where the small stream, Toitū, entered the sea was bisected by a prominent hill Ngā-moana-e-rua (Bell Hill), the foot of which lay at the very edge of the high water mark. No permanent kaik or villages were situated at the mouth of the Toitū, simply because there was no need for it.

While not as densely populated as the North Island, numerous kaik in the Ōtākou region still hosted a good number of Waitaha, Kāti Mamoe and later Kāi Tahu peoples. Various bays and beaches around the Taiaroa Heads supported several hundred people with kaik in Karitāne, Waikouaiti and at the mouth of the Mata-au or Clutha hosting a similar number. Pā kāinga on the Ōtākou coast included Māpoutahi (Pūrākaunui), Pukekura (Taiaroa Head), Kōpūtai, Huriawa and Moturata (Taieri Island). Whareakeake, one of several pounamu manufacturing sites, attested to another facet of lifestyle for the artisans of the iwi. While the population numbers are still debated by academics and historians, there is no argument that through epidemics and intertribal warfare, the numbers of Kāi Tahu living in the region had dwindled considerably by the time the Treaty of Waitangi was signed at Ōtakou (Otago Heads), 13 June 1840. During the 1850s the population grew only slowly. It was the gold rushes, beginning in 1861, that transformed Dunedin. Its population nearly tripled by 1881. As it grew in population and wealth, the city began to invest in public works, religion, and education.

Early Chinese History

The Chinese in New Zealand, writes historian James Ng, ‘are collectively the biggest immigrant group of Asian origin in this country’ – and the first non-European group to come here in the nineteenth century and the ‘largest coloured racial minority’ and suffered much discrimination.’ The earliest migrants came as goldseekers, were virtually all men, and were ‘sojourners in outlook.’ Chinese were officially invited to Otago through the Chamber of Commerce in 1865, and agreed on the assurance of fair treatment by the European population after their experiences in Australia.

The early Chinese kept to their own culture and cuisine in New Zealand – virtually all were Cantonese in origin and came direct from Guangdong province. The key to their ability to maintain their Chinese lifestyle on the goldfields was the role of the Chinese merchants and shopkeepers. They also organised shipments of Chinese to Otago, first from Victoria and then directly from China. In the first few years, all of the Cantonese miners came to Otago from the goldfields of Victoria. The first direct shipments from China began in 1866, with three shiploads reaching Dunedin that year. Seven more ships were organised in 1871-72, bringing 2,000 new goldseekers in 1871. Chinese settlement in Otago peaked at just on 4,200. Almost all of these men were made up of kith and kin of those already there.

As well as organising the direct shipments from Guangdong, the Chinese leadership also made provision for an expanded reception system in Dunedin. Chinese merchant stores provided a welcome to the new arrivals, set them up with the gear and provisions they would need, and then despatched them inland along a chain of subsidiary stores leading to the gold field camps. This role was pivotal to the Chinese goldseeker presence in Otago. For much of the goldseekers era, the Mee Wah, Hip Fung Taai, Sew Hoy and Kwong Shing Wing stores were in Stafford Street and the Kum Yoon Lee store was at the Princes-Moray Place corner. Dunedin’s Stafford Street was the location of several Chinese merchants and the Sew Hoy store is a remnant of this system.

Choie Sew Hoy arrives in Dunedin

Choie Sew Hoy arrived in Dunedin in 1869 and joined an established community of Chinese merchants. His first store was on the northern side of Stafford Street. The location for his business was ideal; close to the jetty and transportation to the Otago interior, and with a ready made Cantonese community based in and around Flinders Lane, lower Stafford Street and the adjacent lower Hope and lower Walker streets . By late 1871 there were 96 Chinese merchants and storekeepers in Dunedin, inland Otago towns and in the field, serving 4,159 Chinese. Sew Hoy had built up a successful business importing goods and exporting scrap metal and wood ear fungus and also moved into market gardening. After the Lawrence merchant Wong On retired to China in 1882, Sew Hoy became the premier firm to supply all the stores of the Chinese miners in Otago and on the West Coast.

The Construction of 29 Stafford Street

Sew Hoy expanded his premises in the mid-1890s, commissioning architect James Hislop to design his brick warehouse. Hislop invited tenders for the two storey building, with basement, in January 1894. The “1869” on the building lintel signifies the foundation of Sew Hoy’s business in that year. A detailed description of the building was published in the Otago Daily Times in June 1894, and is reproduced in part below.


A substantial addition has just been made to, and an improvement effected in, the architecture of Stafford street by the erection of an imposing stone and brick warehouse for Mr Sew Hoy, which comprises two storeys and a basement, and occupies a space of 105 ft deep by 30ft wide [32 by 9 metres].

The basement … is well built of Port Chalmers Stone and floored with concrete and well lighted. Through a large doorway at the back the men's kitchen is reached. This room … is fitted with sinks and other conveniences, and alongside it there is a back stairway, enclosed in brick walls, communicating with the ground floor, while from the basement also at the rear of the building there is a stairway, in a well-lighted position, leading to the ground floor, which is divided up in front into two offices … fitted with counter and wall fittings of figured red pine, on the left hand side of a passage …which is shut off from the street with swinging doors and a vestibule, and is finished at the back of the offices with a neat arch.

At the rear of the offices there is a floor space … to be used for storing goods, which can be delivered into the warehouse through a large doorway facing the right-of-way on the west side of the building; and behind the store a handsome and well-lighted show room … is provided. Alongside the latter room is a passage leading to the men's living room … and has off it a private staircase leading to the yard.

In a central position near the offices in front is placed the main stairway, leading to the first floor, which has a clear floor space of 68ft by 28ft [20.8 by 8.5 metres], while off this store there are two bedrooms. Each of these rooms is 12ft square [3.6 metres], and is fitted with fireplaces, and other conveniences, and well ventilated. Near these rooms, wash-hand basins and other conveniences are to be found, these are finished in the very best manner on the latest sanitary lines.

Every part of the building is particularly well lighted and thoroughly adapted for the use it will be put to. All the fireplaces in the building are fitted with concrete fenders, and the hearths are set into strong iron boxes... The store is lighted with windows in the front and right-of-way walls, as well as in the back, and all the openings are fitted with iron bars.

The roof of the building is sarked and felted and covered with iron, a cool and watertight roof being ensured in this way. The gutters are wide and deep, and are fitted with storm escapes in addition to the down pipes, which are of a large size.

The facade of the building facing Stafford Street is well broken up. It is started off a base of fine axed Port Chalmers stone, and the work above this is cemented and finished with bold pilasters, bearing ornamental capitals at the top. The pilasters are carried up through two floors, and are finished with characteristic panels between them at the level of the first floor, and with arched heads at the top. By this means the front obtains the appearance of additional height, besides being made proportionate. Above the pilasters there are a bold frieze and dentil cornice and parapet with the owner's name worked in cement letters. The decorative façade was stripped back at some stag, possibly in the 1950s (see Figure 1 and Figure 3).

The front has a very handsome and pleasing appearance, and adds considerably to the appearance of this part of the street.

… The whole of the sanitary work has been well and honestly carried out, and has been tested with a result that was most satisfactory and that reflected credit upon the workmen who were engaged on these particular works.

At the extreme end of the section there is an open store … for storing light goods and cases. The right-of-way and yard at the back have been well formed and metalled. Mr Sew Hoy has every reason to be satisfied with his compact and handsome warehouse, which has been faithfully built and carried out by Messrs Torrance and Simpson, contractors, from drawings prepared by, and under the supervision of, Mr James Hislop, architect.”

29 Stafford Street and the Nokomai Sluicing Company

In 1894 Sew Hoy and his son Kum Poy shifted their gold seeking attentions south to Nokomai. The Nokomai goldfield had been more or less abandoned however news of Sew Hoy’s interest sparked a major revival. A flood of mining applications and a sustained boom in mining followed. The Sew Hoys set up a major elevated hydraulic sluicing claim there and employed equal numbers of Chinese and Europeans. They invested a lot of money in the operation and eventually floated the company in 1898. It continued right through until Kum Poy’s death in 1942.

For a long time the Sew Hoys’ Nokomai Sluicing Company was the most successful sluicing operation in New Zealand. When it closed in 1943, it was the very last Chinese gold seeker operation in the country, bringing to a close the eighty-year period of Cantonese gold seeking in the south. The Sew Hoy operation was the largest and most successful Chinese endeavour in this ‘New Gold Hill’ and in the end, the last of them. The building at 29 Stafford Street was the registered office of the various Nokomai sluicing companies throughout the whole length of the Sew Hoy mining operation. The annual meetings were usually held there. The company’s sign can be seen in the 1939 photograph of the building, flanking the hanging Sew Hoy store sign (see Figure 1).

29 Stafford Street and the Chinese exhumations

Culturally it is essential for Chinese people to have their graves tended by their family to ensure a good afterlife for the deceased, and prosperity for their descendants. This can only be achieved if the person is buried where their family are, usually in their home village. To be buried where family cannot perform these cultural observances means the deceased will not be able to rest in peace. They become what is known as ‘hungry ghosts.’ To avoid this fate, overseas Chinese groups organised repatriation of the remains of sojourner Chinese who died while away from the homeland.

In 1869 the Panyu-Fah-Tsongfa group [Sam Yip] of Chinese arranged to form a burial society in New Zealand to send deceased remains back to China. Named the Cheong Shing Tong it was a branch of a charitable society in Panyu. The formal founding date is noted as 1878, and with Sew Hoy as president, their later activities became centred at 29 Stafford Street.

The first exhumation in 1883 uplifted at least 230 bodies and repatriated about 40 old men. The second project, in 1890, prioritised those old men without funds for a return to China and exhumed around 55 bodies. A cemetery ground was purchased in upper Panyu for men whose families had died and those families who were too poor to buy village grave sites for them.

The third and final exhumation began in 1900 and was organised from Stafford Street. It exhumed 474 Poonyu-Far-Tsongfa bodies as well as providing room for the dead of other groupings on the ship. Choie Sew Hoy, who had died suddenly in 1901, numbered among them. In a devastating turn of events, the ship chartered to return the remains to China, SS Ventnor, sank off the Hokianga and only ten boxes of bones came ashore. Sew Hoy’s family erected a memorial grave to him in his village cemetery and a silver plaque was buried there to represent his physical remains.

29 Stafford Street and Kum Poy Sew Hoy

Choie Sew Hoy had two sons and two daughters with his wife Young Soy May in China. Both of his sons, Kum Yok (1855-1932) and Kum Poy (1868-1942), joined their father in Otago for a time. Kum Yok subsequently returned to Guangzhou but Kum Poy was a partner in his father’s extensive sluicing operations at Nokomai and after Sew Hoy’s death inherited both his business interests and his leadership role in the Chinese community in Otago. He remained as adviser, merchant and sometime banker to the Panyu Cantonese until his death in Dunedin in 1942. His base was the store at 29 Stafford Street which was a centre of communal activity for the Panyu Cantonese. Every year on his birthday Kum Poy gave a dinner and the Panyu and Fah Cantonese in Dunedin gave him another in return.

29 Stafford Street and Hugh Sew Hoy

Hugh Sew Hoy (1901–1996) was born as Choie Bak Pang in Guangzhou city, Guangdong in 1901. He was the younger son of Choie Kum Yok, Choie Sew Hoy’s elder son. After spending some time in Otago with his father Kum Yok he had returned to Guandong in 1897 and thereafter maintained the family’s merchant interests in Guangzhou, operating a timber warehouse and general merchant’s business in the suburb of Wong Sha. He was manager of a travel agency and depot in Guangzhou and Hong Kong for a number of Panyu villages to two main destinations – Canada and New Zealand.

Hugh spent three years in Dunedin in the early 1920s with his uncle Kum Poy, working as a clerk at the Stafford Street store. At that time they mainly sold Chinese food products and silk, the latter its main item of trade with Europeans. In 1923 Hugh returned to China to marry Kong Yow Yoon [Fanny] and take over his father’s mercantile business in Guangzhou. In 1938 Hugh finally came back to Dunedin to try and arrange his family’s immigration as the Japanese threatened southern China. Soon after he left, however, his wife - pregnant with their sixth child - had to flee north from Guangzhou.

It would be over nine years before the family could be reunited in Dunedin during which time Hugh Sew Hoy took over the Sew Hoy store upon the death of his uncle, Kum Poy, in 1942. Hugh reinvigorated the business, which had been faltering, by beginning the producton of speciality Chinese sausages. He later on-sold these and other Chinese foodstuffs to New Zealand European stores.

In 1947 Hugh’s family finally arrived and settled into life in Dunedin, living upstairs at 29 Stafford Street. In 1958 Hugh diversified his business interests by established a clothing firm with his sons. The private company was named Sew Hoy and Sons and it prospered. It eventually expanded to six clothing factories, employing up to 600 workers and winning an export award. Tariff removal and other economic changes in the 1980s, however, undermined the viability of the local textile industry and spelled an end to many manufacturers like Sew Hoy and Sons.

Throughout the height of Sew Hoy and Sons’ expansion, Hugh still held on to the general merchandise shop at 29 Stafford Street. Hugh venerated his grandfather’s memory and swore that he would never sell the store that he had established. Hugh Sew Hoy inherited the mantle of Chinese leadership in Otago from his older brother, King Lim, his uncle Kum Poy and his grandfather. From the 1940s he was a leading figure in the Otago Southland branch of the New Zealand Chinese Association and maintained a high profile in civic affairs. He attended nearly all Chinese weddings, funerals and public events from the 1960s and was acknowledged as the foremost Chinese community leader by Chinese and European alike. He and his wife were pillars of the Dunedin Chinese Church. In 1980 Hugh was awarded the OBE in recognition of his service to business and the general community. He died in 1996, survived by his wife and a large family of descendants.

Physical Description


This is a two storey building with a basement that faces north on Stafford Street. The building is brick on top of deep foundations of Port Chalmers breccia block work which has been rendered with plaster and painted yellow on the northern, western walls and the top of the eastern wall where it protrudes above its neighbour. The roof is pitched and clad in corrugated iron with two ventilation chimneys. The eastern elevation reveals a chimney and the name Sew Hoy in relief at the top of the parapet. There is a chimney breast at the southern end of the building.

The north elevation maintains three round-topped recessed bays that run the height of the two storeys facing the street. At ground level is the main entrance, a pair of red painted three-panel double doors, surmounted by a rectangular fanlight. The doors are flanked by two double hung sash windows. The upper storey features three round topped windows, each window is divided into two smaller arches upon which sits a small circular window. The original decorative elements: capitols, friezes and arches with keystones, and parapet are long gone. The remaining parapet declares the date of the business as 1869 and any further signage is covered by a contemporary sign “Sew Hoy Oriental Foods Supermarket”.

The eastern side of the building abuts its neighbour, while the western elevation is pierced at intervals with windows on the upper (one small and 5 double hung sash windows), ground (four windows and one double door) and basement levels. Pattress plates are visible providing evidence of the building’s structural elements.

The rear of the building is unplastered brick with three double hung sash windows on the ground floor, two on the first floor and a window and double doors at the basement level. A two storey brick structure roofed in corrugated iron projects from the rear right of the building and contains the kitchen at the first floor level (access via internal ground floor) and storage at the basement level. The upper storey has two six- pane double sash windows in the west elevation and one in the south. The basement level has two six pane double sash windows has two wooden doors with fanlights above them, one which leads to a stairwell into the kitchen upstairs. A small addition has been made to the south elevation of this structure to house a number of toilets. All window frames are painted red. A small covered veranda spans the two doorways and entrance to the toilet.

Interior: basement

This was the old storage and manufacturing space. Access to the basement is from the south end of the ground floor on the eastern side of the building. The stair enters the basement which is divided into three main areas some of which have been subdivided into smaller spaces with partition walls.

At the northern (street facing) end of the building there are two large partially subterranean windows (18 pane double-sash) which look out into breccia lined light wells are below street level. The north facing walls at this level are largely of painted breccia which is blistering with damp. Two further rooms are situated across the north face of the building.

In the central basement room, ceiling joists and six posts are visible in the middle space which is clad in a lemon-yellow wipeable hardboard. The original wall freezer is extant, and a number of machines dating from Duncan Sew Hoy’s time in the business remain in this room (two noodle making machines and a flour mixer). The room contains a number of freestanding freezers which are used for storing products for the grocery shop. Natural light is obtained through three high windows (at ground level outside) in the western wall.

Interior: ground floor from the street entrance

From the street entrance there is a storage room to the left. This provides access to the main staircase which travels up the eastern side of the building. More storage can be found under the stairs. There is evidence of match lined walls on the street facing (northerly) walls but the majority of walls are Pinex or are clad in a faux wood panelling.

To the right of the main entrance (northwest corner) is the manager’s office which maintains its match lined walls.

The majority of the ground floor is taken up with the grocery shop. Eight columns can be seen but ceiling joists are hidden by a false ceiling of Pinex tiles. The right (western) wall is painted brick though there is a little match-lining exposed and some covered in hardboard near the manager’s office. This wall is pierced by four large double hung sash windows.

There is a store room at the rear of the shop and in the south-eastern corner a small hall leading to the staff kitchen. This is currently being used for storage but the wooden fireplace surround sans mantlepiece can still be seen in the eastern wall, and within the cavity a Shacklock oven in excellent condition. A small sink with a Formica surround and cupboard facing is situated in the north west corner of the room.

Interior: first floor

The ground and first floor are connected by a solid timber staircase with a small landing. The treads are laid with vinyl. The newel posts at the ground floor and landing are similar acorn topped turned posts, the balustrade on the landing is modern and temporary in nature. The newel post at the first floor landing appears later, perhaps 1930s.

The floor boards throughout this floor maybe rimu and large trusses in the ceiling can be seen appearing in the rooms between the partition walls. The front half of this floor has been divided into many smaller rooms connected by a hallway. The front two rooms are separated by a hallway, the rooms and hall have been created to have each of the three large round topped windows centrally placed within them. There is evidence of match-lining on the street facing walls, the lower part is covered in hardboard. In the street facing wall in the hallway is match lined and covered with wallpaper.

The room in the north-west corner has a chimney breast in the western wall. A bathroom and kitchen are situated on the western side of the hall behind the front room. In the kitchen the walls (above the picture rail) and ceiling clad with vertical timbers painted white and timber-lined skylights.

Behind the kitchen and the store room opposite, behind the kitchen is a small lounge room and behind this, a large space opens out. On the western side a steep stair leads up to an attic western wall. The eastern wall is brick, painted white, some brick pilasters are evident, others have been encased in particle board. Some ceiling joists are exposed around the false ceiling. Large windows at the southern end of the building reveal a view across the city and harbour.

Interior: attic

The attic is accessed via a steep staircase on the western side of the first floor. The space is the length of the long rectangular building and is warm and dry. The ceiling is pitched and lined with vertical sarking and felt. Two ventilation shafts pierce the roof fabric.

There is some evidence of the attic having been used as a work space in the past due to the 1960s lino on the floors (two similar examples) and well preserved pictures cut from fashion magazines adhered to the sarking on the eastern side of the building.

Comparative analysis

Ah Lum’s Store (List No. 4366, Historic Place Category 1))

Ah Lum’s store on Buckingham Street in Arrowtown sits on a rise adjacent to the head of the Arrowtown Chinese Settlement (List No. 5613) and is one of the few buildings constructed by nineteenth-century Chinese goldminers in Otago that still stands. Constructed of mortared stone rubble, with an iron roof, it is divided into five rooms, with lofts above. The building was probably built by an earlier Chinese storekeeper Wong Hop Lee in the early 1883. Ah Lum bought the section in 1909; he lived in the building and ran his businesses from there until his death in 1927.

Like Sew Hoy’s building, Ah Lum’s store was built to be multifunctional; a place to accommodate people, a venue for social meetings, banking, as well as a number of business interests that served the community. Ah Lum’s store dates to earlier than Sew Hoy’s building and represents a vernacular style of architecture constructed with local materials compared with Sew Hoy’s larger European design. These buildings are significant examples of remaining contemporaneous urban and rural buildings that served their local communities, and in the case of Sew Hoy’s Building, also provisioned rural stores like Ah Lum’s.

Lawrence Chinese Camp (List No. 7526, Historic Place Category 1))

Lawrence was the main service town for the Tuapeka goldfields district. Once a community of several hundred, the Chinese Camp once included several stores, possibly three cookshops, more than one gaming house and a hairdresser and barracks arranged along a street. Officially abandoned in 1945, most of the remaining structures were demolished. All that remains is the Poon-Fah Joss House, Chinese Empire Hotel and a small brick shed. It represents the important gold mining period in the history of New Zealand and the culturally distinct Chinese experience within that.

The Chinese miners and storekeepers were supported by importers, such as Choie Sew Hoy in Dunedin, who brought in the food, drink and other goods from China that the miners were accustomed to. Like Ah Um’s Store, the Camp represents the rural connection and ultimately the customers of Sew Hoy’s businesses. A further comparison between the two sites is the aspect of wellbeing. The Lawrence Joss House provided a place for the sick and dying. No doubt some of the remains of these men made their way back to their homeland through the Cheong Sing Tong which was established here before being officially adopted in Dunedin and managed by Sew Hoy.

Kaiapoi House (Former) (List No. 2702, Historic Place Category 2)

Kaiapoi House (Former) is a significant part of the fabric of Hamilton Central Business District's (CBD) cultural south end. It is thought to be the earliest limestone building in Hamilton and is the only known example of coursed random rubblework construction known to survive in the wider Waikato. Built in 1896 this place is contemporaneous with the Sew Hoy Building however it has received major alterations. As a place of manufacture, it can be compared although more of the original fabric exists in the Sew Hoy building. Like the Sew Hoy Building, the Kaiapoi Building (Former) was associated with family businesses and there is also a strong connection with the Chinese Community.

For almost 30 years much of the Kaiapoi Building (Former) was used by the New Zealand Chinese Association's Hamilton/Waikato Branch as a social and cultural centre (1938-c1965). During this period the ground floor shop front was also used by a Chinese herbalist and Chinese Association committee member, Davie Chang. The Sew Hoy building was owned by generations of the family and its current use and management is still within the Chinese community.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1894 -

1944 -
Internal partitions altered

1960 -
Building plastered at front

1967 -
New toilets, alterations to basement

1972 -
Mezzanine floor, new offices

1973 -
Basement alterations

1990 -
Conversion of factory into wholesale retail outlet

2007 -
Repainted exterior of the building yellow with red detailing, floor repaired on the upper level.

Construction Details

Port Chalmers breccia, timber, concrete, brick, corrugated iron

Public NZAA Number


Completion Date

14th December 2020

Report Written By

Sarah Gallagher and Seán Brosnahan

Information Sources

Ng, 1993

Ng, James, Windows on a Chinese Past, Volume 1, Otago Heritage Books, Dunedin, 1993

Choie Sew Hoy Family Tree

Jenny Sew Hoy Agnew and Trevor Agnew 2020

Merchant Miner Mandarin: The Life and Times of the Remarkable Choie Sew Hoy, Canterbury University Press, Christchurch 2020

Sew Hoy Reunion

Other Information

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.

Archaeological sites are protected by the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014, regardless of whether they are entered on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero or not. Archaeological sites include ‘places associated with pre-1900 human activity, where there may be evidence relating to the history of New Zealand’. This List entry report should not be read as a statement on whether or not the archaeological provisions of the Act apply to the property (s) concerned. Please contact your local Heritage New Zealand office for archaeological advice.

A fully referenced New Zealand Heritage List report is available on request from the Otago/Southland Area Office

of Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.