Wellington Scoop

A Chinese Garden in a Chinese place


by Helene Ritchie
It’s time to make progress on a winning Chinese garden. There’s been no progress except for one (recent) court case. But that’s not progress, it’s expensive argument with winners and losers – not good for the city. And the proposed waterfront site has no connection with the Chinese community, upsets many people unnecessarily and is a long way from being started.

If the garden was moved to a place of early Chinese settlement in Wellington, Frank Kitts Park could be saved from losing much of its its sheltered open public space – it’s the only shaded public park on the waterfront, with an ampitheatre, trees of sufficient stature to provide shade, a loved children’s play area with trees to climb, green bumpy hillocks to roll down, open space for picnics, tried and true swings and a quirky lighthouse and other slides.

There is a site that’s better, more appropriate, more interesting and more exciting, centred in the history of Chinese settlement and the history of Wellington, that would celebrate the stories of Chinese presence in Wellington, from early days to now. What better place than the site of the Chinese Mission Church in the heart of the Haining/Frederick Street precinct, where Chinese first settled coming north from the Goldfields in the South Island?

Haining Street and Frederick Street used to be the centre of Chinese life in Wellington, in the late 19th and early 20th century, “the Chinese People’s streets” with opium dens and gambling as well as Chinese restaurants and political and social groups.


One derelict building remains, on an abandoned site. The unique building, in the Gothic revival style of architect of Frederick de Jersey Clerc, is closed, “protected” historically but fenced off and covered in graffiti. Its condition neither celebrates the architecture, nor the Chinese history of the surrounding area.

My proposal would save the façade and develop the Chinese garden around it, in a place of early Chinese settlement and life. The site is smaller than the waterfront space, but small can be more beautiful.

There are many reasons why this site is better than the waterfront site:

Because it’s smaller, creating a garden is likely to be less costly – so the Chinese community’s fundraising could be more readily achievable, and it could happen quicker;
One of few surviving remnants of Chinese life in the area, the façade (an earthquake risk) could be saved and incorporated in an imaginative way into the Chinese Garden;
The derelict and graffitied site would be significantly improved, with a unique garden/park for the public;
The history of the surrounding area could be told, as could the wider stories such as the Chinese market gardens of Lower Hutt, which once supplied half of Wellington’s vegetables;
Harry Wong’s films and Brent Wong’s art could have pride of place.

Te Aro’s densification would be enhanced by a unique green public park space;
The Chinese Garden would give a pleasant visual focus on an otherwise barren Taranaki Street, the “tourist route” from the Airport;
It would invite people to enter the Chinese precinct.

Our city has changed much since the Chinese Garden was first mooted about 30 years ago. The waterfront is now a well used and well established public recreational area, and the inner city has become much more populated.

What better place to have a Chinese Garden than on the site of the Chinese Mission in Frederick Street.

Helene Ritchie is a former Wellington deputy mayor, city councillor and regional councillor.


  1. Pauline Swann, 4. February 2019, 9:49

    Well said Helene and so many people in the various organisations I belong to say “Leave Frank Kitts Park as it is, especially the playground site and amphitheatre.”
    Would like to refer you to Page 49 of the Wellington Waterfront Framework April 2001: “The lure of the harbour in all its moods is magical and timeless. Access to the water is about supporting a healthy Wellington for future generations, while understanding and acknowledging the past. The waterfront is not just our finest natural asset – it tells our story as a city” which would be lost if the memorial plaques and the Wahine Mast were to be removed from the promenade.
    Also Page 41 transparency: “All the roles and structures set up to govern the waterfront must be open to public scrutiny. This principle is a right of Wellingtonians as “owners” of the waterfront through the City Council, but is also a response to the interest they take in the waterfront as a special part of the city.”

  2. Elaine Engman, 4. February 2019, 9:51

    What a great idea! What a waste of resources and energy it would be to demolish part of Frank Kitts Park.

  3. City Lad, 4. February 2019, 10:04

    The land referred to is owned by a prominent responsible Wellington developer. He had allowed the “Men’s Shed” (a voluntary organisation) to use the old building to keep their woodwork equipment, where they met regularly just to chat and make wooden toys etc. But eventually they had to vacate the premises because of earthquake regulations. A superb appropriate location for the Chinese Garden!

  4. greenwelly, 4. February 2019, 10:31

    @City Lad, there’s also an adjoining car park that would make a great laneway through to Vivian Street (although that probably isn’t such a great attraction until they get SH1 off that street).

  5. Jane, 4. February 2019, 10:45

    What a “visionary” idea Helene and it would solve so many issues. Thank you.

  6. Wendy Armitage, 4. February 2019, 11:09

    What a great idea Helene. It would be a real celebration of our Chinese community’s heritage and raise the profile of their unique history in Wellington.

  7. aom, 4. February 2019, 11:12

    From evidence given at the Frank Kitts Park/Chinese Garden hearing, it seems there is a significant impediment to using the site for a garden. Seemingly, members of the Chinese Garden Society do not culturally relate to the history of Haining and Frederick Streets. This area was settled many decades before their families arrived in New Zealand. Prior to its redevelopment, the area was a slum that reflected the scourges of hate and racism, both at the personal and political levels, that were directed at the Chinese inhabitants. This history, and the presence of the Chinese Mission Hall designed by an English born architect, does not seem to commend it as a desirable memorial site. The ‘new’ immigrants landed at Wellington Harbour after World War 2 as a result of political changes in both New Zealand and China. This migration, as was explained in the Environment Court, was the reason for wanting to establish a Chinese Garden as near as possible to the Wellington disembarkation point of the new immigrants. The Frank Kitts Park site was proffered by the Council.
    The reason for having a garden on that site is tenuous. Large numbers of immigrants of different ethnicities also disembarked at Wellington but do not lay claim to waterfront sites for grandiose memorials.

  8. Keith Flinders, 4. February 2019, 11:41

    OK, let’s keep kicking the Chinese Garden committee in the hope that after 20 years of indecision, not of their making, and substantial costs, that they will give up. I can tell you that they are made of sterner stuff. The requirement of the Chinese Garden, as related to me, was to be able to see the sea from it, recognising where the early Chinese settlers arrived from and landed at. There is no possibility of a glimpse of the sea from the cold and cheerless Haining Street land you seek to have the ratepayers pay for.

    The destruction of the Frank Kitts amphitheatre, playground, and wall was a decision of the council you were on Helene, not a requirement of the Chinese Garden committee. Why does this wanton destruction continue to be the focus, when what exists can largely remain even with the garden added. Past time to show some courtesy to the Chinese Garden committee.

  9. Ms Green, 4. February 2019, 13:26

    Keith, the article is not about kicking anybody, it’s about solving an intractable problem for the city and for the hardworking Chinese Garden committee in an exciting, innovative way – enhancing a derelict site with beauty and history. There are such interesting stories to be told of settlement, site and contribution that most of us know little about…and it would become a tourist attraction in its own right. As for the area having been a slum – so were Mount Victoria and Thorndon…once upon a time.

  10. Guy M, 4. February 2019, 15:14

    aom – a good answer, thank you, but not 100% correct. I went on a guided tour late last year, held by Asian Arts Aotearoa and guided by Lynette Shum, the author of a book (or chapter of a book) on the history of Chinese in Wellington. Fascinating book, now out of print. Certainly in terms of historic information available to Ms Shum, there is still a lot of interest in the area amongst the Wellington Chinese Community. I believe that both she, and some prominent members of the Community, have already contacted the current owner in this regard.

    The idea of a Chinese Garden on that site is not new – I sent the idea to Council myself back in about 2002 or so – probably when Helene Ritchie was on the Council, so perhaps she saw my submission then. I totally support her efforts to get some traction on this now. The demolition of the Murdoch’s icing sugar factory in 2012 ? has made the opportunity even better, as the land available for the garden is even larger, and could be sensitively combined with a small scale development related to the illustrious energy of the Chinese settlers.

    What became clear from Ms Shum’s guided tour was that the area was not so much of a slum as legend has it – there was considerable commerce going on there, with several Chinese greengrocers, Chinese laundries, Chinese boarding houses, and of course the several organisations for the Chinese people there, such as the Tung Jung, the Poon Fah, the Assembly Hall etc. There was a definite “working class” feel to the whole of Te Aro in those days – if the area was a slum, it was as much to do with the low wages of all the immigrants back then: white, brown and all shades in between.

    The ironic thing is that the Chinese Garden would work so much better on the walled site in Frederick St, than it would on the wind-swept waterfront, where walls are not wanted as they will only obscure views. By contrast, Frederick St already has walls on 3 sides and has history built in, not needed to be appliquéd afterwards as per down at Frank Kitts….

  11. Dave B, 4. February 2019, 18:18

    Brilliant, Helene. Problem solved at a stroke. That site is just beckoning for a creative use such as this. Hopefully the Chinese Garden promoters will be enthused with the idea, and I am sure the army of Wellingtonians amassing with their pitchforks to defend Frank Kitts Park will now just melt away.
    Instead, it will be goodwill and free hugs all round. Absolutely Positively.

  12. Alana, 4. February 2019, 22:47

    Or – the Wellington City Council could offer the most appropriate location, beside Te Papa, as the Chinese Garden Society originally preferred (Scoop and I did an article on this previously). The rebuild of the Frank Kitts Park playground could go ahead, and the rest of the park left as it is.

  13. Manny, 5. February 2019, 5:34

    Neutral (and already used locations like) Frank Kitts Park do not need to be weighed down by pseudo-history.

  14. Marion Leader, 5. February 2019, 7:40

    Another very constructive idea for an alternative should be welcomed by the Chinese community who must be feeling embarrassed by the mess made for them by the City Council. A good way out of the mess would save the valued green space at Frank Kitts Park. The last thing we want on the waterfront is a walled place which is locked at night.

  15. Helene Ritchie, 5. February 2019, 9:46

    What amazing comments … thoughtful, researched and knowledgeable. Love them all.
    Guy: – such interesting stories about this fascinating place – Haining and Frederick Street and surrounding precinct. The cottages that used to be there looked a bit like the Wigan Street “cottages” transported to become Havana restaurant today…

    How can we make this Chinese Garden in this Chinese place happen? How exciting!

  16. aom, 5. February 2019, 10:39

    Marion – The Chinese Chinese Garden Society won’t feel accountable for any mess the Council has made in relation to the garden. The Society has consistently liaised in good faith with the various incarnations of Build Wellington to reach the point where the Frank Kitts Park site was offered for its location. It is becoming evident that much of the rich Chinese history of settlement in Wellington dating back to the 1800s has no significance to this project. It will just be another garden, but with oriental features.

  17. Nora, 5. February 2019, 14:24

    FKP is multifunctional and the amphitheatre seating provides for those with restricted mobility who are unable to sit on the ground. FKP has places where one can shelter from North and South winds and opening up to the prevailing nor’west wind is crazy.
    The Chinese garden should be placed somewhere more appropriate and suitable for its purpose as suggested in Frederick/Haining Streets away from “sea salt spray” unsuitable for blossom trees.
    A wonderful opportunity was lost in Glenmore Street opposite the Botanical garden when the Sharella car park near the Chinese church was covered in ugly townhouses.

  18. Tony Jansen, 7. February 2019, 12:06

    Great idea Helene.

  19. Richard Norman, 7. February 2019, 21:22

    An excellent idea for a site at the centre of a fast growing residential area, and where the Chinese history has been almost totally lost.

  20. Russell Tregonning, 7. February 2019, 23:21

    Helene– a very nice idea. FKP, our beautiful public waterfront parkland ,is surely one of the jewels in Wellington’s crown. A walled garden there, closed to the public at night, is inappropriate. Your proposition warrants serious consideration.
    My bottom-line plea — please leave the much-loved FKP alone.

  21. Marion Leader, 8. February 2019, 8:23

    aom, the embarrasment of the Chinese community which I mentioned is because the Frank Kitts Park site is universally unpopular and the last Mayor has dug us into a hole by going up to Auckland and signing up for it. I cannot agree that it “will just be another garden, but with oriental features”. This is because of the walls and because somebody will have to lock it at nights and come back in order to unlock it in the mornings.
    By the way, if the Chinese Garden Society is still insistent that it is locked, a key question is whether they will volunteer to do the locking and unlocking or whether they plan to leave it to you or me.

  22. TrevorH, 8. February 2019, 13:18

    @ Marion Leader: what mandate if any did Wade-Brown have to give such a commitment to a foreign representative and how in any case could it be binding? Does the People’s Republic of China also have a role in Wellington’s “city-shaping”? I don’t believe Wade-Brown enjoyed the “Mandate of Heaven” during her mayoralty even if at times she seemed to think she did, eg the Island Bay Cycleway fiasco which remains with us to this day.

  23. Marion Leader, 8. February 2019, 15:34

    TrevorH, the last Mayor wanted to meet the Chinese Premier who was in Auckland. Her excuse for the trip was to get one of his minions to sign the document. (Note that none of the minions had been to Wellington, let alone seen our waterfront.)
    I agree that the informal agreement cannot be binding. The new Mayor should now stop our last open space on the waterfront from being forever blighted. Most councillors support some alternative and there certainly wouldn’t be any blood on the floor of the Council chamber when it is discussed.

  24. Wellingtonian, 8. February 2019, 19:48

    Marion, this year is Council election year….the mayor and councillors should be shaken out of their “sinecures”. Which councillors will be added to those we know from last election who already oppose the destruction of Frank Kitts Park? Which candidates will support this Chinatown site for a Chinese Garden-at last? Which mayoral candidate? Which councillors?

  25. Wendy Armitage, 9. February 2019, 9:24

    @ Wellingtonian: Asking potential council candidates whether they do or do not support something like this gets you nowhere as, once elected, all is conveniently forgotten.
    At a public meeting of candidates for the last council election, the Save Jack Ilott Green Group asked candidates who would support saving Jack Ilott Green and all present put their hands up. Several years on since our petition to council (supported by 10,000+ Wellingtonians), the promised gazetting of the park as a green space has not occurred.

  26. Wellingtonian, 9. February 2019, 11:00

    Your cynicism is real…but this situation is different.
    1. The destruction of Frank Kitts Park could start any day now…as a result of the “go ahead” from the Envt Court.
    2. Councillors could stop that now. Who will? (Several are opposed)
    3. Any cllor who takes that initiative now should be voted in
    4.Those who support stopping the destruction, in the light of this new exciting feasible Chinese Garden in a Chinese Place, should be voted; those who don’t, voted out…
    It’s our Wellington. Not theirs. It’s our Waterfront. Not theirs’. And ultimately it’s your vote….your democracy….mot theirs’.

  27. Polly, 9. February 2019, 11:57

    Thank you Wellingtonian. We should all write to the councillors today and point out what we will lose: a popular amphitheatre, a flexible sheltered, well connected park, and in its place two separate flat lawns, a 4 m high walled garden (locked at night).
    All that is needed is a few more swings – not millions of dollars for this monstrosity.
    As an old Tech student, with our Chinese school friends we used to enjoy our visits to Haining/Frederick Street and hear the early history.

  28. michael, 9. February 2019, 18:09

    @ Polly and Wellingtonian: Despite all the opposition and expensive court action against the destruction of Frank Kitts Park, the council have not taken one bit of notice. The Chinese garden has engendered so much angst against the council from all around Wellington which has had absolutely no impact at all on our elected representatives.
    And, as far as Jack Ilott Green goes, along with many others I supported saving the green, and even though the Mayor came out publicly in the DomPost and said it would be saved, that hasn’t happened.
    So, given their track record to date, forgive me for being sceptical about the councillors listening to anyone regarding the Chinese Garden or anything else.

  29. Alana, 11. February 2019, 14:58

    With over 3,000 people signing the online petition objecting to siting the Chinese Garden in the park, as well as the planned rebuilding of FKP, I do hope Council candidates in the election in October take note of public opinion.

  30. E Wharton, 11. February 2019, 20:27

    Great idea to move the Chinese garden to Haining/ Frederick St site. It’s culturally and historically significant and will create a lovely peaceful haven in that part of town. Do not destroy Frank Kitts Park, a well used area on the inner harbour promenade.

  31. Wendy Armitage, 13. February 2019, 9:35

    @ Alana: Save Jack Ilott Green group had 10,000 signatures and many promises from council candidates to save the park last election year. Three years on nothing has been done about that, so I wouldn’t get my hopes up that anything will change for FKP.

    I guess we could all try for another round of promises this election year and see if anything improves??

  32. Alana, 17. February 2019, 11:04

    Wendy: This is a different Council to the one that made the decisions about Jack Ilott Green and FKP – maybe they will review these decisions and listen to public opinion?

  33. Wendy Armitage, 18. February 2019, 9:28

    Alana. This is the council where, at the last council elections, all of the candidates present at one of the public meetings agreed they would save the green.