Pure brightness

EACH April at Pure Brightness Festival (Ching Ming) Chinese families sweep the graves and perform traditional rites to honour their ancestors. On 4–5 April 2013, a hundred people gathered in the remote far north of New Zealand to commemorate those lost when the SS Ventnor sank off the coast of the Hokianga on 28 October 1902.

The Ventnor was carrying the exhumed bones of 499 Chinese for reburial in their villages in China as well as impoverished elderly Chinese men whose fares home had been paid by fellow Chinese New Zealanders. Some crew and most of the Chinese and bones were lost at sea. Some bones washed up along the coast and were recovered and cared for by Te Roroa and Te Rarawa.

The trip was soon after the death of artist Hone Papita Raukura (Ralph) Hotere, who is buried amongst his Te Rarawa whānau at Mitimiti.

Day 1 Trans-TasmanOn the plane auē I break bread the colour of old bone. Bubbles break the surface. I cross time borders, move from emergency number 000 to 111[i].

Day 2 Te Roroa – Waipoua, KaweruaOur old people told us, Don’t forget to look after the Chinese – they are buried there also. This rain, it is the tears of our ancestors. The fog is filled with aroha, with wairua. Your ancestors are probably saying, It’s about time you fellas came.

We open striped golf umbrellas and sing:


E hara i te mea
Nō nāianei te aroha
Nō nga tūpuna
I tuku iho i tuku iho
Jie but si sun dik si
Jie jau si chun chit dik ching yi
Loi ji ngo moon dik jou sen
Lik doy dik cheun sau
Lik doy dik cheun sau[ii]


Our oldest and youngest unveil the plaque. A new grove of kauri planted in remembrance. Tāne Mahuta – kauri born before Christ. When He returns, how many will remain?

At Chinaman’s Hill, bones lie buried. We set up the altar overlooking the water where the ship went down. Three sticks of incense. We bow three times before apples, mandarins, almond biscuits, roast pork, baak jaam gai with feet and legs and head, red paper folded in the beak. We scatter rice tea wine; burn paper money gold; eat pork and baak jaam gai, an unwrapped sweet on the tongue. Electric fire crackers bang bang bang over the sand.

Day 3 Te Rarawa Rawene, Mitimiti, Kohukohu: A blue day. We cross blue water. Everywhere drooping plumes of toetoe. The bus slips and slips on the metal road.

You’re late – we must be related. What is Chinese time? Somewhere close to 111 years. Uncle Mingo heard from the signal station master’s lips about the ship that went down. Uncle Mingo, we must be related – my name’s Meng[iii], my wife is Ying and this is Charlie Ding.

A red gate wrapped in white calico stands high on the hill over the breakers, over the beach where bones washed up wrapped in white calico. A red and gold gate stands unwrapped amidst the urupā HOTERE HOTERE HOTERE. A white wooden cross, yellow roses, brightly painted stones – your grave still fresh, Hone Papita Raukura.

We find a worn headstone without its Chinese name, an empty red jar. Once outside the urupā; now inside the urupā.

Down on the beach where bones washed ashore, our quattro sinks in the sand; our Māori whānau give us a tow. Kia ora Toyota. Kia ora bro.

We set up the altar. Three six nine sticks of incense. Together we bow three times before apples, mandarins, almond biscuits, roast pork, baak jaam gai… Electric fire crackers bang bang bang over the sand.

At Blackspace Gallery we gather before porcelain bones, photographs and paintings of journeys, headlands surrounded by water[iv]…our own stations of the cross… places where we wait as we move from one world to another. We wear black these days, Hone Papita, not the white of our ancestors. I know whānau in my bones, but not the word in Cantonese… Sing the dark chapel of water. Look up, the stars they are calling us home.

Day 4 Arai-te-uru, Opononi, North Head: We cannot go back to where the ship went down. We cannot cross the bar. At Arai-te-uru we look out like the signal station master over where she lies in deep water, over the bar and the white-edged breakers, over the coast where lifeboats came ashore, over the coastline north and south where bones washed ashore.

We cross water, walk past dunes, over sand, over stones, around the head. On a smooth round boulder we set up the altar…






   One bird

  Has settled on the sand bank

   It has settled over there

   It has settled over there

   They have settled here[iv]

Āmene A mun Amen

WE ARE ONE hundred from the Hokianga, Auckland, Hamilton, Gisborne, Wellington, Dunedin; from Sydney, Melbourne, Geelong; from Hong Kong and Singapore. We are Chinese, Māori, Pākehā.

We come with home baking. We make mango pudding, (gluten-free) soba seaweed salad and kūmera noodle salad, more salad. We eat roast pork and baak jaam gai. We raffle roast pork and baak jaam gai. We eat marae food, barbecue food, hāngī. We eat leftover sausages from Liu Shueng’s own organic beef for breakfast, lunch and breakfast. We make sandwiches together and tell each other off because we don’t know how to make sandwiches. Why is the bus driving away? Isn’t the bus taking us to the beach? We walk through the little stream or help our elders up and around and along the narrow track. We walk to the closest beach. But look – isn’t that the bus back again? We walk back through the little stream or help our elders along and around and down the narrow track. We ride to a spot further away. We massage each other when we have a headache. We give each other headaches.

Who are your mother and father? Doris Hing and Henry Wong? From Napier, Wairoa. Your grandfather was True Light. Oh, your mother grew up in Ohakune, in Auckland. Your grandfather was Yoi Hing. I played basketball with your uncle. My daughter married your cousin. Your uncle who married your mother’s younger sister, he is my brother. Your grandmother was the cousin of my grandfather. My mother was the sister of your grandmother. I am friends with your niece. I looked after your nephew – the Wong boys, they all competed against each other in Dunedin you know…

Thanks for letting me tag along, says Glenn,a white boy from South Auckland[vii].Some of you, your ancestors were on the ship; some of you, your ancestors recovered the bones; ahmmm… my ancestors only sank the ship. And so he sings a sea shanty…


DISINTERRED FROM FORTY cemeteries, you were cleaned and wrapped in calico, arranged in wooden boxes marked with your names and villages. You were placed onboard in Dunedin, Greymouth, twenty-six other ports. Ten of my Jung Seng county kinsmen joined you in Wellington.

Now we do not know who you are. Only one – Choie Sew Hoy, whose grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren came. Were your families all left in China? Waiting.

You were lost on the spirit highway[viii], lost in deep blue water. You believed to be lost in water was to die a second death, to wander forever a hungry ghost. What is time? Are you now beyond time like God? Even in our long absence we honoured you. We lived and worked; we did not die out. We came that you might find rest in the land we now call home.

Did you know my family? Wong Sik She – my mother’s mother’s uncle? He arrived in Wellington in 1879 from the village of Melon Ridge. The Evening Post in 1889 describes an incident at one of his shops. A European man mocked then assaulted the Chinese shop attendant while his companion ‘amused himself by throwing the stores about the place.’[ix] Were you there? Were you the one assaulted? One of those who ran to help?

In 1892 Sik She brought out two younger brothers, including my great-grandfather Wong Sik Hum. The newly arrived brothers managed a shop in Greymouth. The town’s finest ladies bought groceries, fancy goods, a wide variety of fruit – ‘some never before seen in Greymouth.’ Chinese shops enabled even the poor to buy fruit. In 1893 the Grey River Argus reported: ‘One of the most dangerous places…in the town is in the vicinity of the Chinese store’ because of ‘those careless members of the public who scatter banana peels and orange rinds promiscuously about the pavements’. I see the silent movie. It provides light relief from the usual stories – YELLOW PERIL, public denouncements that we are the most debased people on the face of the earth in our ‘immoral, wretched…and diabolical habits’, warnings that children wandering down Haining Street are kidnapped, boiled in a copper and turned into preserved ginger[x].

WE HAVE SO many names, so many ways of writing our names. Wong Sik Hum changed his name to Wong Kwok Min – Citizen of the Republic – to express his support for Sun Yat Sen and the first Republic of China. Authorities did not understand that our surname came first and then our two character given name, and so my mother’s father, Ng Yoi Hing, ended up with the surname Hing instead of Ng. Police documents, newspapers spell my father’s father’s father’s name as Wong Way Ching. Sometimes a character escapes and he becomes Wong Ching. In poll tax records he is Wong Wai Tsun; in family histories, Wong Wei Jung. Names were anglicised. Wong (surname) Ah Poo (infant name) Hoc Ting (adult name) became Appo Hocton; his descendents are Hoctons. But how did Chinese become Thackerays?

Wong Way Ching arrived in Wellington from Melon Ridge in 1896 just before the poll tax was raised to £100. This tax – a full life’s savings – on every foreign-born, non-naturalised Chinese entering New Zealand applied even to those born in Australia or the UK. He arrived just before the required cargo per Chinese was doubled from 100 to 200 tons. Were any of you on the ship turned away after tonnage requirements changed en route?

Way Ching did not earn enough to visit his family or return to China. He paid for his only child, True Light or James, to have a Chinese scholar’s education. In 1908, twenty-two years after he had left home, he had at last saved enough for True Light to join him in Wellington.

A police file describes Wong Way Ching as quiet and harmless. On 12 September 1914 he was murdered in his fruit shop, 100 Adelaide Road, Wellington. It looked like robbery, but he didn’t have the money to pay the lease. There was probably less than a pound’s worth of silver in the till. The robber used a heavy iron bar to smash his head seven times until his skull completely collapsed. One blow was enough to kill him. The case was never solved. In 1930 True Light exhumed, cleaned and shipped his father’s bones back to China for reburial. The skull disintegrated in his hands. But great-granddad’s bones did make it home.

True Light helped new arrivals in Wellington. His father’s police file records him as secretary of a New Zealand Chinese association. He attended the Chinese Anglican Mission. A European woman chased him – he tripped over his basket of vegetables and broke his arm.

You were lonely without your families. Many of my generation had great-grandfathers, grandfathers who spent much of their lives in New Zealand, yet their parents were born in China because wives were left behind.


NINE YEARS AFTER Wong Kwok Min’s arrival he sent for his wife, Ah Loo, with her half-bound feet. My grandma, Lily, her sister and brother were all born in Greymouth on the west coast of the South Island. The family moved back to China where two more sisters were born. Lily remained in Melon Ridge while her father and brother returned to New Zealand. At twenty-two she came back to marry Ng Yoi Hing. He came from Tile Kiln, the neighbouring Ng village. His sister and brother-in-law had brought him out to New Zealand when he was seventeen. Lily spent her earliest years, almost all of her life, in New Zealand, yet she spoke little English.

I grew up speaking English. Whenever our parents spoke to us in Chinese, the Pākehā lady who worked in their fruit shop thought they were talking about her. She shut our Cantonese mouths. New Zealand refused our Chinese teachers entry permits to make us bananas – white on the inside. My grandma and I tried to speak with each other. It was mime, it was art house cinema without the subtitles, it was drinking sips of water from a sieve.

True Light married Dorcas (Ng Yuen Tai) before he left for New Zealand. My grandmother was named after a New Testament woman who was always doing good, a woman who was raised from the dead. Dorcas moved from Tile Kiln (the same village as Yoi Hing’s) to her husband’s village, Melon Ridge. She was lonely. She would ask my other grandma, Lily, to keep her company. Sometimes they’d have a tiff and Lily would grab her quilt to go back home. Dorcas would grab the quilt back. She’d beg her to stay. Twelve years after he left, True Light had at last saved enough for Dorcas to join him. It was late 1919, just before New Zealand implemented a permit system to control immigration from everywhere except Britain and Ireland.

Because True Light was Christian, my family did not follow all the old Chinese traditions. The females of our family were treated more fairly. When True Light died, the inheritance was divided equally between his six children, including his two daughters. We did not have a family altar, and although we tended the graves, we did not make offerings to ancestors… Yet I lit incense for you, offered pork and baak jam gai

My father, Henry, was four when True Light took the family back to Canton for a Chinese education. They visited Melon Ridge often. At school they were teased for being gweilo, foreign devils. Perhaps they should have lived in the village where money from New Zealand had developed amenities, including a very good school. New Zealand was the main destination for those leaving Melon Ridge – a father was followed by a son, a brother, a nephew, a brother-in-law, a cousin. Now there are more descendants in New Zealand than in the village itself.

The family could not afford all the fares to return to New Zealand – a youngest brother was born in China and they would have had to pay his poll tax – and so the three oldest boys including my father were left behind at Church of England boarding school. My father was seven when the brothers came back third class, eating only rice, noodles and rice porridge during the three-week journey. An elderly Chinese man looked after them and when he left the ship at Sydney my father cried. He wanted to go with this kindly old man. My father could not remember his parents, just as True Light would not have remembered his own father when he eventually arrived in Wellington.

True Light chose the small Hawke’s Bay town of Wairoa because of its large Māori population. Māori also had limited English and suffered racism. They were the main purchasers of mutton-birds, dried shrimp and roasted peanuts; elders would sit chatting for long hours outside the shop. True Light was popularly known as the mayor of Wairoa. At the end of World War II, a big dance was organised to celebrate. The first dance was taken by True Light with the mayoress, my grandmother Dorcas with the mayor.


DID SOME OF you meet Thomas Bracken in Dunedin? He wrote Chinee Johnny ridiculing us; he wrote the lyrics of God Defend New Zealand. What did he mean by ‘God of Nations’ and ‘Men of every creed and race’? Where were his ‘bonds of love’? It’s the Māori version that makes me tearful, and Tīmoti Karetu’s back-translation, ‘O Lord, God, of all people, Listen to us, Cherish us, May good flourish, May your blessings flow…’ Does not all people include every ethnicity, faith, political persuasion, immigration or refugee status, socio-economic group, gender, sexuality, ability, disability… 

In 1905 Englishman Lionel Terry, who had not been in the country long, murdered Joe Kum Yung, an elderly and penniless Chinese who had lived in New Zealand much of his life. Joe had been injured in a mining accident and walked with a limp. Perhaps some of you knew him. Terry shot Joe in the head to protest Chinese immigration. Terry’s defence was: Chinese are not human, therefore he could not be tried for murder. Is this how all prejudice works? To see the other as not like us, as not fully human? Terry dined with Members of Parliament. He was six foot five; he wrote (appalling) poetry. He was the perfect British gentleman. After the murder he became a folk hero, helped by the public on his many escapes from asylums.

In 1904 Terry had published a pamphlet, The Shadow, where he described the Chinese as ‘drug-besotten, sin-begotten fiends of filth’.

Yet it was Britain that had forced opium on China. We tried to stop and destroy it, but were met by gunboats and military occupation. New Zealand mothers sedated their crying babies with laudanum (opium), but for the few of us who smoked, it was illegal. Horse-racing was and remains celebrated, poker and two-up were openly played, but from 1881 to 1974 all Chinese games of chance were illegal. Our pakapoo (white pigeon lottery)[xi] was hugely popular with people of all ethnicities and walks of life because everyone knew it was run honestly. Lotto and Keno are not dissimilar, except that the chances of winning pakapoo were much better, but whereas the modern-day lotteries are government-sanctioned and nationally televised, ours were raided and resulted in fines. You would be surprised at the proliferation, the glamorisation of gambling now – casinos, sports betting, pokies…

The 1920 census showed 2,349 males born in China and only twenty-seven females, yet from 1925 all Chinese females were denied permanent entry. Then for twenty-five years, adult Chinese males were denied permanent entry. From 1935, ten New Zealand-born Chinese men a year were allowed to bring over a Chinese wife. Five naturalised Chinese a year were allowed to bring over their wives and unmarried minor children, though given we were denied naturalisation from 1908 few are likely to have come. Until 1939, females were never more than 21 per cent of the Chinese New Zealand population. Why assume lonely men were immoral? Do we judge according to the character of our own hearts?

Is hell knowing the suffering of loved ones left behind? We were photographed and thumb-printed; we had to pass the English reading test. Even those of us born or naturalised in New Zealand could not receive the old age or widow’s pension or family allowances. There were so few Chinese women yet for many years if we married a New Zealander, she automatically lost her citizenship. We could not be naturalised for her sake.

In 1939 China and New Zealand were allies and Canton Province, where almost all Chinese New Zealanders came from, had been invaded by Japan. A one-off concession allowed 249 wives and 244 minor children to enter New Zealand. The men had to pay a £200 deposit and £500 bond to guarantee that after two years their wives and children, including any subsequently born in New Zealand, would be sent back. The War and continued civil war prevented repatriation. Eventually they were given permanent residence.

But sixteen hundred Chinese men still remained separated from their wives in civil war-torn China. From 1948 fifty permits a year were given for the wives and minor children of men who had lived in New Zealand for at least twenty years and who were deemed of suitable character for naturalisation – even though naturalisation rights were not re-established until 1951. (I grew up knowing the first Chinese to be naturalised that year.) At this rate it would have taken another thirty years for the men to be reunited with their families. The idea was to only allow entry to wives who would be past child-bearing age. Naturalised or local-born Chinese women were refused permits for their Chinese fiancés.

True Light’s cousin’s wife died in 2012 aged 107. I am uncertain when she came out from China. Many of our elders did not speak of the past. (No one told me of great-granddad’s murder until 1995 when we were preparing for the centenary of his arrival in New Zealand.) Our families were too busy working. Was it too painful? Were they worried the bad luck would spread? This great-aunt may not have arrived until 1948 under this permit system. Children were born, in 1950 and 1952, to replace two who died in China. Can you hear me cheering? She was good-natured, dutiful, born into a wealthy family, highly educated. Yet she ended up married to a New Gold Mountain man[xii], separated from him for many years, living in modest circumstances, having to work grindingly hard. I interviewed her as research for my novel, As the Earth Turns Silver. Some of her story was fictionalised for the good wife left behind in China. She told her daughter it was better not to be born than to be born a woman. True Light and his father cared for the family. Where True Light went they followed.

My mother, Doris, was born in Wellington where her mother’s extended family worked in fruit shops. She was a toddler when her father decided to take the family back to China for a visit. On the way they went to see his sister in the small saw-milling town of Horopito. Back then Chinese were allowed to use the cleared land to grow vegetables, as long as they removed the tree stumps. Yoi Hing’s brother-in-law persuaded him to stay to grow vegetables in nearby Ohakune. Yoi Hing never made the expected quick money. He was never able to return to China. And so my mother grew up in a cold, isolated central North Island town. At age twelve she left school to run the new family grocery store with her thirteen-year-old sister. The two girls managed the shop completely on their own as well as working in the market garden and looking after their nine younger siblings.

My parents had the same loyalty to family, to community, as those before them. This is how the Chinese gold miners made a living from claims abandoned by European miners, why in 1865 the Otago Chamber of Commerce first invited Chinese miners from Victoria. When others gave up, we persisted. We worked hard. Together. This is how many of us survived.


MY PARENTS WERE the first generation to choose their own spouse. Yet even before they met at a wedding, my mother had already heard about my father from her grandmother Ah Loo, who had returned to New Zealand in 1939 because of the Japanese invasion. Until the 1970s very few Chinese arrived except on the grounds of family reunification. We were a small interconnected Cantonese community. Then Britain joined the European Union. New Zealand had to diversify its trading partners. Some Chinese with professional qualifications were finally allowed permanent entry.

My parents opened the first supermarket in Hawke’s Bay. Beforehand we moved to Auckland for a year so my father could learn the trade from my mother’s brothers. Dad was president of his Rotary club and the Hawke’s Bay Chinese Association. My parents had friends of all ethnicities. And yet my father told me there were people who did not like his achievements because he was Chinese. Even in the 1960s, some customers would be pleasant in the fruit shop but ignore my mother in the street. One neighbour castigated another for giving us a lift into town – after all, we were Chinese.

When I was born in 1960, there were about 8,500 Chinese – 0.3 per cent of the population. More than half were born in New Zealand, yet there were still more males than females.

My parents worked hard to give us the education they never had. We grew up with unspoken expectation. Just about every Chinese of my generation who could manage Bs at school surely ended up at university. We were meant to make our parents proud by becoming successful professionals, academics, business people. We had no artistic or literary role models – art was too precarious, too irresponsible. Our families had suffered enough poverty.

My parents wanted me to marry another Chinese New Zealander. We would be culturally similar. I would not suffer racism from my husband or his family and friends. But I liked reading, scribbling poems. I wasn’t interested in money or playing basketball. I didn’t feel Chinese. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I started learning Mandarin, then spent a couple of years first on a scholarship at Xiamen University, and a decade later, a year in Shanghai.

My parents came to Xiamen to visit me. It was the first time my mother had visited China, the first time my father had been back since he was a boy. They visited the villages, now a common experience for Chinese New Zealanders of all ages, including young people who go on organised trips to study Chinese together and visit the ancestral homes. My nephew and his future wife met as fellow students, much to the delight of my sister.

On that first trip to China, my mother met her mother’s sister. She had been born after the family returned to China and had never come back to New Zealand like her own mother or her older New Zealand-born siblings. My mother cried. She looked so much like my grandmother. Years later when my parents went back, they couldn’t find her. In recognition of her father, Wong Kwok Min, who is regarded as a patriot by both mainland China and Taiwan, the government had moved her to improved housing.

When I was a child my mother would sing: Danny Boy, Loch Lomond, A World of Our Own. She sang a few Cantonese songs. I never knew what she was singing, apart from the first two words of one which she sang with particular gusto – a tiny, twinkly-eyed Chinese woman with the pluck of a dozen fighting fit men. In Xiamen I heard this song again and again, sung in Mandarin. When I told my mother, her eyes opened wide in surprise. It was now the Chinese national anthem.


COMEDIAN RAYBON KAN wrote in the Dominion Post, ‘The absence of Asians in media meant my first Asian role model was Mr Spock.’[xiii] We were always alien. The other. In the stories of Katherine Mansfield we were either the exotic celestials of chinoiserie and dreams of adventures along the rivers of China, or we were Chinamen, Chinks, John. In Ole Underwood, our faces were ‘yellow as lemons’. Only once, in Prelude, were we named and then only because our paintings were ‘awful hideous’.

People always remember the luminous Audrey Hepburn in her little black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). They do not notice Mickey Rooney – heavily made-up, bucktoothed, myopic – as the sleazy Mr Yunioshi.

In the 1970s the TV series Kung Fu aired and every Chinese family in New Zealand gathered round the box. But I kept wondering why the lead character was played by a half-asleep white guy. We went to every Bruce Lee movie. When Chuck Norris appeared – Chuck, who looked like a lumbering hairy elephant compared to our Bruce – we all booed.

In 1986 there were 26,541 Chinese in New Zealand – 0.8 per cent of the population. By 2006 there were 147,567 – 3.6 per cent of the population. Asians have the lowest fertility rates. What happened?

In 1987 for the first time in more than a century New Zealand introduced an immigration policy based on merit. The unexpected influx of wealthy and/or professional or business immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea, especially to certain suburbs of Auckland, resulted in a backlash against Asians.The suburb of Howick became Chowick. Some immigrants found the unfamiliar business environment difficult and returned to their home countries to work, leaving their wives and children in New Zealand. Some moved to Australia. Now the largest number of immigrants come from China, closely followed by the UK and India. China provides our greatest number of fee-paying students, a number that has been decreasing, but which New Zealand desperately wants to increase. China is New Zealand’s largest trading partner followed by Australia, the US and Japan. Korea is our fifth largest export destination.

It wasn’t until 1991 that finally there were as many Chinese females as males.Now there are more Asian women than men. More overseas-born Asian women than men immigrate to New Zealand. The gender imbalance is especially noticeable with Thais, Filipinos, Japanese and Koreans, but also with the Chinese. Within these ethnicities females are much more likely to form inter-ethnic partnerships or marriages than their male counterparts. A number of years ago a friend told me that at social events people often assumed she was a ‘mail-order bride’. She is also descended from the original Chinese families and is married to a Pākehā. She is at the top of a highly respected profession. Not long afterward, walking in downtown Wellington on a Friday night, a man lurched towards my Pākehā boyfriend and asked, ‘Where do you get one of those?’

We lived quietly for generations – the model minority. Newer immigrants came with a confidence we never had. They often came from countries where they were the dominant ethnic group. Most spoke a different dialect: Mandarin. We are no longer a homogeneous people. Yet our newer brothers and sisters have revitalised Chinese food, festivals, language and culture. They have given us courage to find our voice. We have many voices.


SOME NEW ZEALANDERS are afraid again. Asian Invasion, they say. We had never thought of ourselves as Asian. The Statistics New Zealand categorisation is so diverse as to seem almost meaningless – Chinese, Indian, Korean, Indonesian, Filipino, Afghani… New Zealand for New Zealanders, people say. But who decides who is a New Zealander? A few years ago I was driving out of my own street when a man yelled at me to go fucking home. I don’t think he was asking me to turn around and go back into my driveway.

One hundred years ago, anti-Chinese organisations counted among their members chief justices and prime ministers; racism was institutionalised, a societal norm. In 2006, North & South published a highly misleading article linking Asian immigration and crime[xiv]. The Press Council slammed the article for discrimination and breaching standards of accuracy. New Zealand First leader, Winston Peters, continues to shamelessly scapegoat the Chinese. His allegations of Chinese transforming Auckland into a ‘supercity of sin’[xv] are almost as sensationalist as the New Zealand Times reporters of 1896 who after accompanying an Inspector of Nuisances in Taranaki Street, Wellington, and expressing disappointment at the cleanliness of Chinese bachelor accommodation, then fabricated a story of ‘Plague Spots of Asiatic Vice in Our Midst’ and ‘Dirt, Opium Smoke and Vegetables’[xvi].

Surveys indicate Asians are perceived to be the most discriminated against group in New Zealand, yet racism is no longer socially acceptable. Just as Edward Gibbon Wakefield, architect of the planned colonisation of New Zealand, considered Chinese ideal immigrants, so too 160 years later the National Business Review refuted Peters’ claims, quoting Statistics New Zealand figures of low Asian crime rates, expounding the virtues of Asians[xvii].

In 2002 prime minister Helen Clark apologised for the poll tax and the way our families were separated. About 4,500 of us paid the poll tax, over £300,000 (in 2001 terms: $28 million). The Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust was set up with $5 million seed money to help fund publication of Chinese New Zealand histories, staging of performances and festivals, continuation of Cantonese language schools, upkeep of historic graves…

In 2010, I was introduced at a New Zealand literary festival as someone who didn’t look like a New Zealander. People might ask where I’m from. But in Australia I am not Chinese. Aussies recognise my accent. They’re friendly. Either that or they haven’t a clue what I’m saying. At a petrol station a young Aussie-born Māori heard my accent and asked if I was Māori. Everywhere I go Kiwis come out of the brickwork and unreinforced masonry. They tell me they’re from Wainuiomata, Invercargill, Christchurch or Auckland. At the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlisting, David Malouf said to me, ‘Ah, so you’re the New Zealander.’ He did not say, ‘Ah, so you’re the Chinese,’ or, ‘Ah, so you’re the Chinese New Zealander.’

My son does not have a Chinese name. He has brown hair. In New Zealand, people might wonder whether he has Māori or Polynesian blood; in Australia, anything. He does not see himself as Chinese or Pākehā.

We never forget the land where we were raised; it is deep within our bones. The Hokianga is not the resting place you longed for. Yet Māori whānau have cared for you. Our red memorial gate stands high on the cliffs overlooking water. May our kauri live ten thousand years[xviii].

Grandfathers, great-grandfathers, great-great-grandfathers – we bow before you. Peace be with you.



The author acknowledges the work of Nigel Murphy’s Guide to laws and policies relating to the Chinese in New Zealand 18711997 commissioned and published by the New Zealand Chinese Association Inc, and Lynette Shum’s Remembering Chinatown: Haining Street of Wellington, which forms a chapter in Unfolding History, Evolving Identity: The Chinese in New Zealand, edited by Manying Yip and published by Auckland University Press (2003).


[i]In Australia the emergency phone number is 000; in New Zealand it is 111.

[ii]We sang the Maori then Cantonese lyrics, which translate as: This is not a new thing this love comes from the ancestors handed down through the passages of time.

[iii]Meng Foon is the mayor of Gisborne on the east coast of the North Island. He is fluent in English, Cantonese and Maori.

[iv]A gallery at Kohukohu which exhibits on an ad hoc basis. Local artists welcomed us to an exhibition of their work inspired by the sinking of the Ventnor.

[v]Words from the Muriwhenua chant Ruia ruia, opea opea, tahia tahia which Ralph Hotere’s father taught him. These form part of his mural, The Flight of the Godwit (Godwit/Kuaka), which once welcomed visitors and those returning home at Auckland international airport.

[vi]English translation by Te Whanaupani Thompson.

[vii]Poet/doctor Glenn Colquhoun, who often describes himself as ‘a white boy from South Auckland.’

[viii]Maori believe the Hokianga is on the highway to Hawaiki, their birthplace, where souls go after death.

[ix]Evening Post 1889, Volume XXXVIII, Issue 62,10 September 1889, Page 3, accessed from

[x]Lawlor, Pat 1959, Old Wellington Days, Whitcombe and Tombs, Wellington. Extracted from his early 1900s childhood diary.

[xi]Tickets had the first 80 characters/words (all of which were unique) of an ancient Chinese prose poem. The buyer marked characters on their ticket, a copy was made & kept by the agent, and then at the draw this was compared with the master ticket. Winnings were proportional to the number of characters which corresponded to the master ticket.  

[xii]The USA was the Gold Mountain; Australia and New Zealand, the New Gold Mountain.

[xiii]Kan, Raybon, 2011, Dominion Post, May.

[xiv]Coddington, Deborah 2006, ‘Asian Angst: Is it time to send some back?’, North & South, December 2006.

[xv]Winston Peters, New Zealand First leader, Auckland’s Future – SuperCity or Sin City? Speech to North Shore Grey Power Public Meeting, 24 May 2013.

[xvi]New Zealand Times, 30 June 1896, p.2.

[xvii]Hartwich, Oliver 2013,In praise of Asian migrants – how crime rates compare’, The National Business Review, Saturday June 01, 2013.

[xviii]In Chinese, 10,000 represents a great or infinite number.

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