From his exile on a small rock off Matiu/Somes Island Kim Lee could see the city he had previously called home but he never made it back. A Chinese immigrant, he had a fruit shop in Newtown before he was dumped on the island after he was accused of having leprosy. He came to New Zealand in about 1893 and worked as a market gardener in Lower Hutt and between 1895 and 1903 ran a fruit shop in Adelaide Road. But in 1903, he was reported to the Health Department as having leprosy. He had red lesions on his face and dull sensation in his legs. At the time leprosy was hugely feared, almost to the point of hysteria. It was highly contagious with little known treatment. It was often brought to the attention of the Inspector of Nuisances (who we have previously written about) with members of the Chinese community often accused. Racism against Chinese was rampant, complete with editorials in newspapers and finger pointing. Along with the frequent accusations of disease was anger that the Chinese were undercutting the prices of other fruit and vegetable sellers. It was so bad that the then Director-General of Health often had to comment that it was not true. Kim Lee tried to hide but once caught he was sent into quarantine on Matiu/Somes Island, able to see Wellington but unable to return. Matiu/Somes was often used as a quarantine station and during wars as an interment camp. Even then, the few other quarantined residents complained and Kim Lee was sent into a further exile - to Mokopuna - called Leper - Island about 50 metres offshore. He lived in a cave on the eastern side and was given wooden packing crates to make shelter and furniture. On good days the lighthouse keeper would row out with supplies and on bad days a flying fox was used to send him rice and fruit. The Evening Post reported "Since his confinement on the island the man has been well fed and exercised, and made to take daily baths in the sea, with the result that the leprous symptoms are gradually leaving him, and he is likely to be discharged cured.” Instead, after nine months in quarantine and six months exile, Kim Lee died. He was 56. It’s unlikely Kim Lee even had leprosy - his death certificate lists his death due to heart failure, an enlarged liver and acute renal failure. It seems more likely he had tuberculosis or an auto-immune disease or even malnutrition. Indeed, newspaper reports at the time said he was nearly cured but died of internal complications.
It is not even certain that his name was Kim Lee or if that was just what he was called once he came to New Zealand. Like many Chinese immigrants he likely had family in China. He is buried on the island but has no headstone.
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