Two heads of the dragon
By Gilbert Wong
To borrow a phrase from a perceptive friend, I belong to the last generation to be brought up in a tomato box.
She was referring to the long-settled New Zealand Chinese community. As children we built forts out of apple boxes in the back of greengrocer’s shops or learned to drive a tractor under the big sky above the tilled fields of market gardens in places like Pukekohe and Ohakune.
Our parents and grandparents gave their working lives, not always happily, to the aspiration that their children would become educated. Within a generation a community swapped manual labour for white collar toil.
At weddings and funerals, doctors, dentists, lawyers and accountants have almost replaced the greengrocers and market gardeners. When the old people happily natter and compare the achievements of their grandchildren at these gatherings, there are many reasons to be thankful. The elders arrived in a foreign place and built a life with little except unrelenting labour.
They had the best of motivations. They never wanted their children to know the grinding ruin of poverty, insecurity and war.
The first Chinese arrived in New Zealand in the 19th century searching for gold and found instead a new home. Later more Chinese came as refugees fleeing the three-way war between the Japanese, the nascent Community party and the teetering Nationalist Government of 1940s China.
The early mining population numbered at its peak no more than 5000. By the time David Lange was prime minister, in 1986, the population had grown to about 17,000, bolstered by women and children war refugees – barely half of 1 per cent of the country’s population. The Chinese community was deliberately stunted by an immigration policy that favoured those with the right skin colour over the reality of geography.
Today a white New Zealand immigration policy seems like the kind of racist artefact an apartheid South Africa might spawn, rather than the country that prides itself as the downunder laboratory of social progress and land of the fair go.
New Zealand has been good to the Chinese and the community would say the reverse was true as well.
The long-settled New Zealand Chinese worked hard, abided by the laws and endured the xenophobia encapsulated in the 19th and early 20th century poll tax and hysteric anti-Chinese rhetoric by some politicians and media. They did their best to conform and readily accepted the tag model minority when it was offered.
So it came as an unpleasant surprise to many in my community to be re-categorised as Asian, sometime in the early years of the 1990s.
As a descriptor “Asian” is about as useful as “European.” Yet the way mainstream New Zealanders commonly categorise race, little distinction is made between a Korean New Zealander and a Chinese New Zealander.
The term “Asian” can be applied to more than 60 per cent of the world’s 6.9 billion people. When used this way “Asian” only serves as shorthand for the amorphous insecurity felt by Western nations as Asian economies prosper.
While “Asian” is undeniably true – check out my eyes, hair and skin colour – it hardly seemed fair to be suddenly lumped in with the broad target for the odium cast by the kind of dopey headlines from the mid-90s “Asian Invasion”, spawned by classic Winston Peters rhetoric to a North and South magazine cover story “Asian Angst: Time to send some back?” in 2006.
If for many generations your home was here, the cover line was a stiletto in the ribs. Chinese New Zealanders had fought and died in this country’s wars, we were largely absent from the prisons and rarely signed up for social welfare.
In its defense, the media’s job is to reflect society and it is hard to ignore the negative connotation the descriptor “Asian” has come to have: Asian driver, Asian money, Asian crime, Asian triad.
At community gatherings a prominent crime story involving recent migrants is discussed, heads are shaken, and a pall descends. Everyone around the table knows that each horrendous crime committed by an individual from a minority finds the whole community judged.
So it is not uncommon for the long settled New Zealand Chinese to view more recent arrivals from China with wariness. We have become a minority within a minority that has become too significant to be ignored as we were. The fear is that our voice will be lost.
The recent arrivals come from a different time, China as economic super-power rather than failed state. They arrive with contemporary culture and language intact and in numbers great enough to preserve both.
By contrast the long-settled New Zealand Chinese are a marooned colony, our dialects, if spoken with any fluency, a flashback to rural villages in southern China. Most of us are unable to read Chinese with any confidence.
So the long-settled New Zealand Chinese are sometimes viewed as objects of pity or amusement to a person recently arrived from China, a country where growing economic clout has led to a resurgent chauvinism.
There is no reason why a recent Chinese immigrant should be aware that each of us is a mixture of culture and ethnicity with culture constantly kneaded and moulded by place.
The long-settled New Zealand Chinese know what turangawaewae means. The hope must be that we will no longer need to remind others that this is our place to stand and that each person, whatever the colour of their skin, who chooses to call this wonderful country home is accepted as a New Zealander.