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Food brings together communities to eat and reconnect. Jackie Lee Morrison investigates the Chinese tradition of pig roasting and goes to Manawatū to meet the man keeping it alive.
Rodney Wong has held many titles in his life, from Director of Palmerston North International Airport to Trustee of the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust, Rodney is no stranger to leadership. But a title he’s especially proud of is Grand Pig Master of Palmerston North.
The first recorded Chinese immigrants to New Zealand during the gold rush came from what was then called Canton province (today’s Guangdong). Originally settling around Otago, they were subjected to fierce racial discrimination — at the 1867 Lawrence Chinese Camp they were banned from living within or even entering the borders of the town.
Traditionally, celebrations were marked by roasting whole pigs. Seeking to feed and connect with their whole community, immigrant Chinese communities built traditional brick pig ovens, shaped like a well. Some of them would have been in constant use, but in the Manawatū, the immigrant families were from the Jeungseng or Poonyu regions, where meat was a luxury. Their roasts were reserved for weddings, Chinese New Year, special local family events, Christmas, and Easter.
At one time, there were roughly 100 pig ovens all around the country. Today, thanks to older masters dying, market garden land being sold, and fire zoning regulations, only a handful remain. In Palmerston North there were once 12 ovens. Now, there are three, and only one is usable. In Wellington, it is thought that there were three, two in Lower Hutt, and one in Te Aro. They are no longer in use.
Rodney learned to roast pigs in Napier when he began dating his wife, from her father, Yick Gee. “I think it was a rite of passage, for me to keep seeing his daughter.” Years later when they moved to Palmerston North, Rodney learned of the local pig ovens through involvement in the Manawatū Chinese Association. Although he was in his forties, he and two others decided to apprentice themselves to the Grand Pig Master of the time, JJ Chew, to preserve the legacy.
There are three steps to becoming a Pig Master. The first is to become a Fire Master, learning to tend the fire. Traditionally, this is the apprentice’s job, beginning at 5.30am. Next, you learn to butcher and marinade the pig — typically, they weigh around 40kg dressed. Finally, you learn to roast the pig. The roasting process takes two days.
Years ago, the pigs would have been raised on your land; these days Rodney gets them from the supermarket. This is not the only thing that has changed. “The original recipe was equal parts salt, sugar, and Chinese five spice. Over the last 10 years we’ve changed and added to it. We had to do it slowly so that the local community wouldn’t notice.”
And the local community are the people they need to please. They know the flavour well, thanks to fundraising efforts by the Manawatū Chinese Association in the 1960s. Their monthly dinners back then would attract 200–300 people from all over the country — Chinese and Pākehā, many from Wellington — and they’d roast three pigs: a couple to serve at the dinner, and the remainder to raffle or auction off, the most prized parts being the bones and head. People would also order roast pigs for family events, driving from Wellington to Palmerston North and back.
Roasting this way takes a huge amount of effort and time, and not every roast is successful. “At some stage, you will have a failure — you lift it out of the oven and the meat falls off the bones. There’s nothing you can do. But we don’t talk about those.”
When JJ Chew died 10 years ago, Rodney became the Grand Pig Master. But since then, nobody has been apprenticed to him — not for lack of inclination, but for lack of ovens. Private ownership of the land where ovens are built will mean that they’re eventually destroyed, and the tradition will be carried on only if those with the know-how build and maintain new ovens.
Once the pig comes out of the oven, Rodney’s final task as the Grand Pig Master is to take a knife, slice off a piece, and taste it. Then he passes the knife to the next person in line. “It’s not like we only have one knife — we’ve got plenty — but it’s those little things that build up the community. It shows respect, restraint: all those things of value and effort.”
It may be a dying art, but it’s a very special one, for the community. “When you roast a pig, you get a crowd — about 20–30 people. And when you have that number of people who come just to see the old traditional way of cooking, they talk, and they remember.”