Story: Wong Tape, Benjamin

Page 1 - Biography

Wong Tape, Benjamin

1875–1967

Merchant

This biography was written by James Ng and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

Benjamin Wong Tape, also named Wong Ben Yew, was born on 26 December 1875 in Dunedin, New Zealand, the eldest child of Forsigh Wong Tape and his second wife, Hie Toy. Wong Tape, a merchant from Sunning (Taishan) county, Guangdong province, China, had led an early group of Cantonese goldseekers to Otago. Hie Toy and Wong Tape were married by the minister of Knox Church at Wong Tape's house on 20 March 1875, immediately following Hie Toy's arrival in Dunedin. They were to have at least seven children. Wong Tape had left a family in China, including a son named Wong King Yip, who came to New Zealand about 1889.

Forsigh Wong Tape established the Hip Fong Tie store in Dunedin and an export office in Hong Kong. He divided his time between the two countries, actively maintaining links with his homeland, and Benjamin spent much of his early life moving between Hong Kong and New Zealand. He received a good English education. About 1887 he went with his father to Hong Kong, enrolling in Victoria College (later Queen's College), an Anglican school, where he won the Belilios Scholarship and passed the Oxford local examination. In 1891 he returned to Dunedin after his father died, and attended Otago Boys' High School in 1892. In 1894 he left again for Hong Kong; while there he married Emma Kwai-Chun, who remained behind when Wong Tape returned to Dunedin in 1898. His mother, his younger brother Wong Ben Chung, and probably his four sisters, had gone back to China.

Wong Tape joined Wong King Yip in running Hip Fong Tie. The firm imported tea, opium, silk, fireworks, fancy goods and Chinese food and drinks, and provided loans to Chinese. Much of the business was conducted by Wong King Yip, as Wong Tape was frequently absent on visits to Chinese communities in Otago and Southland. Nevertheless, he became well known in Dunedin both as a businessman and an interpreter. He took pride in being Chinese, insuring his pigtail for £1,000 in an effort to prevent its being cut off by larrikins.

Wong Tape was a professed Christian. Although baptised a Presbyterian, he was most active among Baptists and Methodists: a veiled attack on his parents by the Presbyterian minister Alexander Don in his 1898 book Under six flags was, no doubt, partly the cause of this.

In 1905 Wong Tape left Dunedin for Hong Kong for the last time, for a mixture of business and family reasons. He took with him glowing testimonials from leading Dunedin citizens. In Hong Kong he became general manager and regional secretary of an insurance company. Although he retired in 1934, he was asked by the company in 1945 to reopen the Hong Kong office.

Wong Tape faithfully attended church, was secretary of the Young Men's Christian Association, and participated in a host of public-spirited organisations. An early member of the Police Reserve, he attained the rank of inspector. He was a founder member of the Hong Kong Rotary Club and one of the founders of the University of Hong Kong. In 1925 he was appointed a justice of the peace, and in 1936 and again in 1949 a member of the Urban Council. He was made an OBE in 1948. In his old age he was an especially honoured guest at Government House receptions.

Benjamin Wong Tape died on 16 June 1967, survived by two sons. Emma had died in 1953. He spoke constantly of Dunedin and New Zealand; had he stayed, he would probably have attained a position comparable to that of his compatriot, Charles Sew Hoy.