Canberra Citizen of the Year


Giuseppe Gian Piero (Joe) Giugni (1939-2017)

Joe Giugni owner of Wiffens at Fyshwick Markets, 1989

Joe Giugni, owner of Wiffens at the Fyshwick Markets, 2 May 1987

SOURCE: ACT Heritage Library image 001141, Canberra Times Collection. Photographer Michael Porter

The Giugni family originate in the mountain village of Colda in northern Italy, about 50km from St Moritz in Switzerland. Joe was born there in May 1939, to Arturo Giugni, a soldier in the Alpini, and Caterina nee de Pedro. Arturo was seldom home during the war, fighting first in Libya, then Greece, then dying on the Russian Front in 1942. The war came to Sondrio, the nearest town, in the form of air raids; when the sirens went off the family took cover under Joe’s grandfather’s chestnut trees beyond the vineyard.

Grandfather Giacinto Giugni was a small farmer, with a few cows and chickens for food and some sheep for wool, which the women of the family turned into socks and jumpers. With a relative, Nino, he had come to Australia in the 1920s, grown tobacco in Queensland and then worked on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Giacinto returned to Italy but Nino stayed on to be joined in 1932 by Joe’s uncle Dino. After the war Dino persuaded Caterina to emigrate with Joe and his younger brother. He married Caterina the day the ship berthed in Sydney, 31 January 1950. Joe is grateful for her bravery in agreeing to marry a man she had never met and live in a foreign country so far from home. “Australia has given me everything”, he says.

In Sydney the Giugnis rented a terraced house and sub-let the spare bedroom to the Zubanis, a father and son who ran a fruit shop in Darlinghurst. From the age of 12 Joe worked in the shop on weekends, then also before and after school. At first he had no English, but his arithmetic was good and he liked the work. School was frightening, with no special assistance for migrant children to learn English and constant antagonism towards ‘enemy’ Italians in the immediate post-war period. Still with poor English skills Joe went to Darlinghurst High until he fought back against vindictive teachers and was expelled. Paddington Junior Tech was better. Joe enjoyed the manual arts classes, but left at 15 to work full time at the fruit shop.

Joe’s tolerance of the long hours waned after a while and he tried shoe repairing, butchery and welding, then a year as a clerk with the railways. None suited him, and he returned to fruit marketing but in a shop in Canterbury. He spent three years there, learning the trade properly, but lost his job during a slump and returned to the Zubani shop. At the age of 18 Joe was offered a job running a small fruit and vegetable shop, and soon afterwards he bought the shop with his mother and brother. It was tiny but well located near Strathfield railway station, and they stayed there for ten years.

At 23 Joe met and married Maruta, a refugee from Latvia. They had three children and, although they bought a bigger house, they continued to live with Maruta’s mother. During this time Joe joined Apia Soccer Club as a member of the committee, and was also a member of the Sydney Fruit and Vegetable Retailers Association. In 1965 he leased another shop with a friend, and they began driving to Crookwell and Batlow for potatoes and apples and trucking them back to Sydney during the night. The hours were cruelly long, so when Lismore banana growers wanted to open a shop in Canberra with Joe as the buyer, Joe considered it very seriously and in 1969 made the move.

This first shop in Civic soon expanded to eight, but it was hard work for little gain, and the partnership was dissolved with Joe taking over the smallest, called Wiffens, at the new Fyshwick Markets. The markets had been established after a government enquiry into the high price of fruit and vegetables in Canberra, and were designed to be growers’ outlets, thereby lowering the price to consumers. Kevin Wiffen, a Riverina citrus grower, kept the licence but Joe managed the stall. It opened four days a week, and Joe drove to Sydney wholesale markets for supplies.

Joe enjoyed these weekly market trips, maintaining earlier friendships and being persuaded to take up golf. Although he does not care much if he wins or loses, and admits to being a pretty average golfer, he relishes the competitiveness.

Joe’s years of experience made him a leader in the Fyshwick markets. He introduced self-service, relying on the quality of his produce to minimise the amount rejected by his customers. While other stallholders were selling cheaply by the bucket, Joe sold by the kilo and prospered.

His marriage did not. Maruta left early in 1980 and Joe’s mother, recently widowed, moved in to help with the children. Joe had made friends with some Thai embassy staff and through them met Chun Chai, a trade counsellor; they married in 1981 and had a son in 1984. Chun Chai kept her diplomatic job, taking an overseas posting to Rome in 1988, chosen because Joe spoke the language and wanted the opportunity to revisit his homeland. Joe visited every couple of months, leaving his eldest son in charge of the shop. Chun Chai’s next posting was Thailand, then Sydney, making the visits progressively easier. She became an Australian citizen in 2007.

In that year also, Wiffens was sold, although the Giugni family continued their long association with the markets. From the beginning Joe took an active role. As president of the Canberra Retail Markets Association, and later as director of the consortium of market traders, he has steered up to 40 stallholders through several reorganisations. In 1988, after years of on-off negotiations, Fyshwick Market Traders bought the facility from the government and a board of six shareholders and an independent chairman was established to run the markets. In January 2016 the complex was bought by the Irvine family, to whom Joe had sold Wiffens in 2007.

A five-year multi-million dollar revamp of the markets ended in 2012. Joe oversaw it all. From makeshift buildings erected in the 1970s with an expected life of about ten years, he nursed and nurtured the markets into an award-winning structure that recreates the traditional market square but offers 21st century facilities. One building, named for Joe, has murals representing his home village of Colda.

Joe ensured that the markets contribute to the community. They donate more than $110,000 annually in cash or products to events from the Australia Day breakfast to The Canberra Times fun run, and also donate food for a Christmas Day dinner for the homeless in Canberra.

He contributed personally as well. In the mid 1990s he was on a committee to establish the International Fruit and Vegetable Dealers’ Convention. As a Rotarian, he was was involved in their successful promotion of reusable canvas shopping bags. He supported the Australian National Eisteddfod and several charities including the Heart Foundation.

Joe handed Wiffens over to his children and youngest brother in 1999. This was a big year for Joe. Besides being named Canberra Citizen of the Year, he almost died. A heart operation saved him, and then a proposed leg amputation was averted by having a steel rod inserted, allowing Joe to keep playing golf.

Joe passed away peacefully on 6 January 2017 survived by his wife Chun Chai and his children Michael, David, Katrina and Paul.

Joe has been compared with a pineapple: “rough on the outside but sweet on the inside''. When asked to describe himself, he says he is “just a normal, down-to-earth, big-mouth, shit-stirrer”. By any name, he is a Canberra institution.

Awards and Distinctions

  • 1999 Canberra Citizen of the Year for his contribution in providing donations of fruit and vegetables and financial contributions to charities and soup kitchens
  • 2009 Fyshwick Markets won the small business category at the Ethnic Business Awards
  • 2013 Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for service to the community through multicultural and charitable organisations.


1999 Guigni, Giuseppe, The story of Giuseppe Gianpiero Giugni and his family, Canberra

Select Bibliography

1999 Guigni, Giuseppe, The story of Giuseppe Gianpiero Giugni and his family, Canberra

2009 Fruits of labour for a migrant spirit, Canberra Times, 27 December.

See other Canberra Citizens of the Year.