Business

Hope for last family standing at heritage-listed market gardens

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After years of uncertainty, the future of a much-loved family business in La Perouse may soon be secured.

It’s rare to find a commercial patch of vegetables growing close to any major city these days, especially on prime land bordered by housing estates.

And what makes the heritage-listed La Perouse Market Gardens south of Sydney even more special is that, with no big machines, the plots here are still worked by hand as they have been for more than 150 years.

That's why locals have fought so hard to save them. 

Farmers at this Chinese market garden still use traditional techniques.
Farmers at this Chinese market garden still use traditional techniques.
SBS

Originally three families farmed the seven-hectare plot, but with uncertainty over the site’s future, only one Chinese family now remains to cultivate the fertile soil.

Robert Tang has farmed there for more than 40 years.

The fields surrounding his workshed are filled with lush, green parsley, coriander, mint and radishes. He runs a thriving business supplying local restaurants and markets.

Robert Tang has farmed this land for more than 40 years.
Robert Tang has farmed this land for more than 40 years.
SBS

But for decades he has feared losing his business.

“It would be like cutting a piece of muscle from my body and very painful,” he tells SBS.

After arriving in Australia in 1977, Mr Tang began gardening here, as a field worker.

“Seventy dollars a week,” he explains. “It was hard, very hard”.

Robert Tang hopes his family will continue his market gardens, long-term.
Robert Tang hopes his family will continue his market gardens, long-term.
SBS

Mr Tang trained as a high school teacher in China, before taking a job in the gardens. Like many migrants, his professional skills were under-utilised.

A change of fortune occurred in 1978 when the then-owner asked if he would take over the business.

Robert Tang has since grown a thriving trade, with his son, daughter and other relatives joining the Chinese migrant workers in planting and harvesting.

“Business is very good,” he says smiling. “My vegetables are in demand because they are so fresh.”

Fresh vegetables are harvested by hand, during daylight hours.
Fresh vegetables are harvested by hand, during daylight hours.
SBS

Mr Tang would like to expand his business and secure his family's future.

But the future of the site has been unclear for some time. 

Supporters have waged a long campaign to preserve the farm, defending it against expansion plans from a nearby cemetery and from property developers keen to build on land close to the city and beaches.

Now authorities are considering an application for Mr Tang to occupy the entire heritage-listed site, ensuring his farm is economically viable for the long-term.

A decision is expected in 2019. 

Daphne Lowe Kelley, president of the Chinese Australian Historical Society, says the market garden is "a piece of living history".

Historian Daphne Lowe Kelley says the site has great cultural significance.
Historian Daphne Lowe Kelley says the site has great cultural significance.
SBS

“Since about 1870 this site has been farmed by Chinese, and market gardening is very important to the history of Chinese in Australia,” Daphne explains. 

“Most of the other market gardens in Sydney have already been built over. So there are very few left”.

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