Joe and Fay Gock fled as child refugees from war-torn China during the occupation of large parts of the country by Japan’s brutal army.
Nobody could have guessed when New Zealand took them in the part they would play in saving our national root vegetable.
When Black Rot threatened to obliterate the kumara industry in the 1950s, the Gocks gifted their disease-resistant strain to the nation, and refused to take a penny for it.
Joe recalls what he told people incredulous he did not want to be paid for his industry-saving Kumar strain. “I said if the good Lord is good enough to ask us for help, then why should I?”
The Gocks’ lifetime contribution to horticulture earned Joe the Queen’s Medal, and the couple the award of the Bledisloe Cup by Prime Minister John Key.
The disease-resistant kumara was not the only contribution the couple made to the industry.
Joe, who describes himself as “not a scientist, but an experimenter” invented a way of storing kumara so they became available year-round for Kiwi tables.
How Mr and Mrs Gock Saved the Kumara screened for the first time at the Loading Docs festival of three-minute, crowd-funded documentaries at Auckland’s Academy Cinemas on Thursday.
The film was not made to laud the business achievements of the Gocks, however, but to highlight the contributions refugees made to the country.
Director Felicity Morgan-Rhind and producer Arani Cuthbert were inspired to tell the stories of refugees to New Zealand by the refugee crisis in Europe.
“The Gocks are living proof of the contribution refugees have made to New Zealand,” Morgan-Rhind said.
Cuthbert said: “We just wanted to change people’s attitudes about refugees and (highlight) the fact that New Zealand had not changed its refugee quota for 20-odd years.”
The country had one of the lowest intakes of refugees per capita in the world, she said.
Rather than the film being propaganda, Morgan-Rhind described it as a love story. “Their love for each other, for the land, for New Zealand, and for the kumara.”
The Gocks were pleased the film also helped to tell the long story of Chinese immigrants in horticulture industry. Joe only fled here in 1940 because his father was a market gardener in Hawkes Bay.
It is not the first time the secret history has been told.
The Gock’s granddaughter Megan Blackwell of Blackroom Photography held an exhibition last year called Chinese Roots, Kiwi Branches about the ethnic Chinese horticultural community.
by Rob Stock