Story: Ah Kew, Henry

Page 1 - Biography

Ah Kew, Henry

1900–1966

Lawyer, community leader

This biography was written by Nigel Murphy and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Henry Ah Kew was born in Auckland on 22 September 1900, the son of James Ah Kew and his wife, Mellie Guey, also known as Mary Fong. Henry’s father, whose Chinese name was Yan Kew, was born in the Chinese province of Guangdong. He moved to Victoria, Australia, and in December 1871 arrived in Auckland. In 1879 he was naturalised, his occupation being described as fancy goods merchant. It is not known when his wife arrived in New Zealand, but in 1888 they were married, making the Ah Kew family one of the longest-resident Chinese families in Auckland.

James Ah Kew’s business flourished and he had two stores, one in Queen Street, the other in Rutland Street. However, within a few years of Henry’s birth the family’s fortunes had faltered. Alexander Don, the Presbyterian missioner to the Chinese, visited Auckland in 1904 and described James as a ‘once rich Chinese merchant, now old opium-smoker, living on his clansmen’. Three years later, in 1907, he was dead.

James’s death left his wife with two young children to raise. Henry went through the local school system, attending the Auckland Normal School in Wellesley Street East for his secondary education. He then enrolled at Auckland University College, graduating in 1924 with a law degree. It is said he was the first Chinese in New Zealand to do so.

The decision to enrol at university was most unusual for a Chinese New Zealander at that time. Most were restricted by family obligations, lack of education and anti-Chinese prejudice from going on to tertiary education and the professions. Henry, born and educated in New Zealand, and free from the necessity of working in a family business, was less bound by these restrictions. On leaving university he joined the Auckland law firm Oliphant and Oliphant. By 1928 he had set up his own practice, which he continued until shortly before his death. Most of the clients were Chinese.

On 26 June 1940, in Auckland, Henry Ah Kew married Mavis Eileen Reardon. Like many Chinese–European marriages of the time, the match was not approved of by either the Chinese or European communities. The couple lived in Epsom and in 1944 a son was born. In 1948 Mavis suffered a brain haemorrhage and died. Henry threw himself into his work, leaving the raising of his young son mostly in the hands of various Chinese friends.

Much of Ah Kew’s spare time was subsequently taken up with cultural activities. He had always been interested in painting and music: he sang, played the piano and clarinet, and was a life member of the Auckland Junior Symphony Orchestra and an executive member of the Auckland Amateur Operatic Society. His support of local painters was generous, and his house was full of New Zealand art. He was a member of the Auckland Society of Arts, the Connoisseurs’ Society and a trustee of the Mackelvie Trust.

Ah Kew also maintained a strong connection with his Chinese heritage. He studied and gave lectures on Chinese culture and society and was an excellent cook of Chinese food. A member and president of the Chinese Young Men’s Club in Auckland, he helped organise an annual China ball, the proceeds of which went to a nurses’ fund. A leader of the Auckland Chinese community, he supported the local Chinese in both his public lectures and in his legal work.

In Auckland on 2 October 1964 Henry married again. His second wife was 23-year-old Elizabeth Mary Brainsby, a shop assistant. He retired from his practice shortly afterwards. Henry Ah Kew died on 19 January 1966 of a heart attack. He was survived by his wife and the son of his first marriage.