Mrs Wang’s garden

Photo credit: Alden Williams/Stuff

A sad story came out of Christchurch this week. Mrs Wang, an elderly woman aged 80, had a thriving vegetable and herb garden she had been tending for ten years out the back of her home, a charmless block of four social housing units. She came home to find the landlord, a charitable housing trust, had sent in a digger to destroy her garden and level it, to be sown back into grass. ‘Acting on complaints,” they said, from another resident.

Mrs Wang was clearly distressed. She was growing traditional Chinese vegetables and herbs that are not easy to source in New Zealand and they were gone. That is the short version. You can read more here.

The social housing trust went into immediate defensive mode when the story broke, issuing one of those apologies that isn’t really an apology because it is immediately followed by self-justifications and then an attempt to occupy the higher moral ground. We made a mistake in not warning her the digger was coming in, they said, but they would put it right by installing raised vegetable beds for the use of all the residents this very week.

This defused some of the criticism, especially from those who do not garden. After all, who would not be thrilled to get that symbol of the middle classes, a raised vegetable bed?

Where to begin? Did the trust ask all residents if they wanted to have their own raised vegetable plot? Is all that stood between the complaining resident and a thriving vegetable garden of their own the absence of a raised bed?

Gone, all of it, when really, it was just a corner of the shared back yard. Photo credit: Alden Williams/Stuff

I have no inside knowledge but it seems likely that Mrs Wang is a first generation Chinese New Zealander. I say that because when her plant list came down social media, she had clearly written it in Chinese and she was growing traditional foods and medicinal herbs from China.

If this is the case, then Mrs Wang was born into a time and place where famine was a massive issue. In the land of relative plenty where we live, ripping out a productive garden seems like vandalism. To somebody for whom the Great Famine of 1959 to 1961 (or 1958 to 1962, depending on which historian you are following) is a part of her living memory and her dual heritage, such wanton destruction must be beyond comprehension.

Back to raised vegetable beds. They have their place, particularly for gardeners with mobility issues or where the ground is somehow unsuitable for cultivation. But commonly, they are an affectation, an attempt to pretty up the productive garden, maybe emulate the potager style made famous by UK gardener, Rosemary Verey. They are not often favoured by diggers, by those for whom cultivating the soil and building up the richness is an integral part of gardening. Mrs Wang spent ten years working that ground. I am betting she is a digger, a cultivator. And diggers don’t have raised beds.

But the Ōtautahi Community Housing Trust is going to give her one and the cynic in me says that is more about them pretending to be contrite and putting things right with one hand while exerting an iron fist of control with the other. See, with a raised bed, they can insist that is the only area she is allowed to use. It defines the space and stops her expanding. Because it is better, in their eyes, to have a bleak area of mown grass with a shared clothesline holding pride of place.

There were so many better – and cheaper – ways to deal with this situation. A mediator could have helped broker a compromise between the unhappy residents (was there even more than one?) and Mrs Wang. It would have saved a lot of distress and distrust, not to mention bad publicity for the social housing trust that is the landlord. And my goodness, if I ever hear judgemental comments about how the poor should be growing vegetables again, I may make a very terse reply. Mrs Wang did until last week.

We have only been to China once but here you see a private vegetable patch being grown on public land beside the river in Jinghong City. Why waste good, productive land when the alternative is low grade grass?

24 thoughts on “Mrs Wang’s garden

  1. Judi Hawkings

    I was horrified when I saw this news. Why is it that complainers and whingers always seem to get their way. I wait with baited breath to see what the other residents plant in their allotted raised garden!! Shame on the social housing trust…

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Agree! I am reluctant to say that it is likely that racism lies at the heart of this as well, but I do wonder if she was growing cauliflowers, broccoli, drumhead cabbages and swedes, would they have been so determined to destroy absolutely everything?

  2. Kate Ericksen

    Shame on them! I live near a block of 8 NZ housing units that are nestled amongst our residential area in Motueka. About 4 years ago I received a very rude and demanding letter from the housing trust demanding that I open up my property for a water inspection or I would be taken to court. I was confused. We are all on bore wells in our side of town. I was wondering if somehow our bore was problematic and had I missed some sort of earlier communication that they were being so heavy handed? It was only when I talked to my neighbour who is directly next door to the housing units, who also received the same letter, that we realised that some bureaucrat thought our properties were also part of the housing units. We both phoned up and set the situation right, however I did say to the person on the phone, that the tone of the letter that they had sent was disrespectful and very rude. You could feel the condescension dripping from it. It makes me wonder if the residents of these units regularly face that type of attitude from the NZ housing trust?

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Yes. I suspect there is a big power imbalance and a feeling that somehow these tenants are second class citizens, compounded hugely if Mrs Wang does not speak good English. I followed some of the debate on their Facebook page before they took themselves off that site, and the responses from the Trust’s defenders (staff and/or volunteers?) were certainly patronising and self righteous with a notable lack of empathy or even understanding.

  3. Paddy Tobin

    The poor woman must be heartbroken to have her work destroyed so horribly. Those who did this was cruel, thoughtless and very unkind people.

  4. harrietrycroft

    This story fills me with sadness and rage. How can people think a square of tatty grass is preferable to a productive garden tended by an elderly lady? I am glad to see the housing trust has had a lot of trouble over this, they deserve it. And I suspect racism may have been at the heart of the original complaint. I hope the miserable complainers read your perceptive comments about the historical background of this lady and are wracked with guilt.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I think racism underpins a whole lot of this but I didn’t want to muddy the waters by introducing that. Of all the migrant ethnicities to this country (where we are all descendants of migrants, the only difference being if it was in the thirteenth century, the nineteenth century or more recently), it is the Chinese immigrants who have been treated the worst historically. That started with goldminers and continues today, even though they are now a significant ethnic minority in this country. They weren’t even allowed to vote until 1952!

      1. Angela Barlow

        Here here to us all being migrants, a part of history so readily and conveniently cast to one side. We too visited China and admired the growing of small crops alongside waterways and many unused blocks of land.We heard in great detail how our tour guide’s family suffered mercilessly during the dark years of Mao as did millions of others. Ironic that the Ministry of Health encourages us to get off the couch and exercise for our wellbeing and that is precisely what the senior Mrs Wang was doing. So many “job’s worth” bureaucrats make my blood boil.

      2. Abbie Jury Post author

        Mark commented that the Chinese are so much more productive gardeners than we are – and it is all about tillage, cultivation, successional cropping and growing quick maturing greens that crop even in colder temperatures. Mrs Wang came from a generation where they were still largely rural and dependent on growing much of their own food. All destroyed in the most heavy handed fashion imaginable – a digger destroying everything and probably removing much of the topsoil in the process.

  5. Melissa

    Arohamai Mrs Wang how dear they do this to this lovely lady who is trying to do something good and they go and do that to her. Someone has to be held accountable for this.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      They have certainly been held accountable in the court of public opinion. Whether they have actually learned anything remains to be seen.

  6. Eileen O'Sullivan

    I think it’s great you’ve written about this Abbie. You’d have to wonder at the pervading culture at the charitable housing trust that this act made sense. To me it just sounds mean, even cruel, though I suppose there could be 2 sides.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Agreed, but the Trust had time to come out with their side and they missed that opportunity – and misread the room.

  7. tonytomeo

    I should NOT have read this!
    When I lived in town, near where my ancestors have lived for generations, and within the Santa Clara Valley that was formerly famous for orchard production, my neighbors complained about my vegetable garden and fruit trees. They insisted that the fruits and vegetables would cause a problem with rodents. It was bad enough that I did not have a gardener, and was sometimes seen mowing my own lawn out front.

  8. Andrew Phillips

    Interesting that the “complainers” were apparently too lazy to get off their backsides and do something productive in the garden area, but saw fit to complain. And the gross arrogance and stupidity of the housing trust beggars belief

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Fortunately, it was only a baby tornado and petered out long before it could get this far inland. Our tornados are generally small and with a narrow front but we have had a bad one pass by just a couple of hundred metres away. It was bad enough to collapse a house and nothing was left standing in its path. Thanks for asking.

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