Seventy years after setting up his life in Oamaru, Bak Fong Lee is once again packing up and moving somewhere new.
Known throughout Oamaru as Peter, Mr Lee has been a pillar not only of the Chinese community, but of the Oamaru community at large over the past seven decades.
With their three children living in other cities, Mr Lee and wife Shui Ling (Betty) devided to move to Palmerston North to be closer to them.
Mr Lee and his family immigrated to New Zealand from China in 1949 for a new life.
Living in Christchurch for the first few years, he would hop on a train during the holidays to visit his father who was working in Oamaru.
In 1956, he started at Waitaki Boys’ High School where he took part in “most things” including playing for the school’s first XI hockey team.
“I left school in 1961 not knowing what to do, and I decided not to go through with tertiary education and joined my father on the farm instead,” Mr Lee said.
Seven years later, he started up a market farm with his wife and they had been very busy ever since.
Mr Lee served as the North Otago Growers Co-op president for 30 years, was a North Otago Vegetable and Potato Growers Association life member, and spent 15 years on the Totara School PTA and two terms on the Waitaki Health Board.
He always had a “great concern for the wellbeing of others” and people often came to him for help.
“People say I’m nosy,” he said.
His service did not go unnoticed – or unrewarded.
In 2019, he received a Queen’s Service Medal for services to horticulture and the community. He was “humbled” that people appreciated his efforts, which started in his teen years.
As a teenager, Mr Lee enrolled in the New Zealand Chinese Association Oamaru branch to help people set up in a new country and adapt to a different culture. From healthcare to law and immigration, Mr Lee helped migrants understand New Zealand’s systems.
Members came from all over China, carrying with them their own diverse cultures from the different regions – and his goal was to pull them all together to work as a “community rather than individuals”.
The Chinese association itself was formed 80 years ago to maintain the Chinese culture while helping people where it could, he said.
And Mr Lee aspired to do the same thing with his work.
He also organised Oamaru’s yearly Chinese New Year celebrations, not only for the Chinese community but the general Oamaru community.
“We are getting something from the Oamaru community and giving something back to [it],” he said.
One of his proudest legacies was launching Chinese language classes in Oamaru. Not able to speak Mandarin himself, Mr Lee thought it was important for people to “keep in touch with their language”.
Now Mr Lee had the challenge of assimilating once more – and said he would miss his life in Oamaru.
“I walk down the street and see people I know, and talk with them first thing on a Sunday morning,” he said.
“I’m sad to leave Oamaru, I think it’s become very beautiful . I’m beginning to appreciate Oamaru more, because where else can you go to the beach within five minutes, or the river or bush?”
A man of many legacies, he looked forward to being “booked in as the babysitter” for his grandchildren and starting a new chapter.