After the gold rush, Elaine Clark

East by South: China in the Australasian Imagination
ed Charles Ferrall, Paul Millar and Keren Smith
Victoria University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 0864734913

Southeast Asia and New Zealand: A History of Regional and Bilateral Relations
ed Anthony L Smith
New Zealand Institute of International Affairs in association with Victoria University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0864735197  

On 12 February 2000 Prime Minister Helen Clark formally apologised to the Chinese people for the imposition of a poll tax from 1881 to 1944, thereby mystifying many New Zealanders. For some, a stroll along the Queen Street of our largest city can provoke emotions ranging from hostility to guilt – anger with a government that has permitted such an invasion, bewilderment as to why they should feel disenfranchised in their own country yet at the same time plagued by remorse. New Zealanders are generally tolerant and caring – we’re not racist, are we?

Many will pick up East by South: China in the Australasian Imagination in the hope of greater understanding. Its 19 essays examine Australasian sinophobia and sinophilia. When the Chinese began flocking to New Zealand and Australia during the gold rush of the mid-1800s, they faced open aggression from European miners, prompting the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act in 1908 that closed entry to New Zealand for all Chinese. Then, with the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, sinophobia became politically charged as fantasies of a Chinese invasion reawakened. Fear of the sheer size of China’s population turned, during the 1980s, to awe at the size of the potential market for our agricultural produce.

Although resolution of these conflicting interests is not forthcoming, the essays are stimulating and informative, ranging across media such as literature, music, and film and fashion, and examining contemporary and historical Australasian perceptions of China. Discussed in many of the essays are the attitudes of English-born settlers to the Chinese immigrants who started arriving in significant numbers around the 1840s. Their unclassifiable strangeness, their otherness, prompted a perception of them as carriers of disease, such as smallpox and syphilis; at best they were seen as simply “unclean” and “dirty”.

History was planned. In the pursuit of an ideal society, those involved in the colonisation of Australia and New Zealand, wanting to exclude all those they felt might threaten their goal, demanded legislation be drafted to restrict the “threat of the Yellow Peril”. In New Zealand, an anti-Chinese government imposed a Chinese Immigrations Act in 1881, a Chinese Immigration Amendment Act in 1896, and then the Chinese Immigration Act of 1907. Each was intended to deter Chinese migrants, while a poll tax was imposed on those who chose to stay. Amazingly many did stay and have contributed to the history of both countries.

Tony Ballantyne considers the rights – or more accurately, lack of rights – of the descendants of Chinese labourers who stayed on in New Zealand after the gold rush petered out. Ranginui Walker’s position is argued – that Maori and English signed the Treaty, leading Maori to expect the government to consult with them before migrants from other countries were admitted to New Zealand; this was apparently the foundation of Winston Peter’s 2002 election campaign anti-immigration platform. English-born historians preferred to imagine New Zealand as an extension of England, and its history as part of the development of “Greater Britain”. Thus the concept “one people, one nation” permitted historians to write out Chinese input into our national identity and has continued to fuel the anti-Chinese campaign.

Questions of national, cultural and demographic diversity have become more significant over the last 15 years with the reorientation of New Zealand’s economic relationship with China. The Chinese population in New Zealand doubled in the 10 years from 1991 to 2001. And yet several contributors discuss a sense of alienation like that of Lau Siew Mei in Playing Madame Mao, a confusion between ethnicity and national belonging, a sentiment expressed by Kirsten Wong, a woman of Chinese descent, in a Wellington community newspaper: “I identify incredibly strongly with being a New Zealander, but a surprising number of people are in denial. They think a New Zealander can’t be anything but a white or Maori.”

Importantly, Charles Ferrall, in his contribution, urges us to remember that:

The history of Australasia Orientalism needs to be continually re-written. As William Faulkner reminds us, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” National boundaries still exist and the stirring up of dirt, and the search for someone to throw it at, continues.

 

East by South is a highly readable collection of essays that offer compelling arguments and findings on Australasian-Chinese subjects and experiences. While intended as an academic account of the historical relationship between Australia, New Zealand and the Chinese settlers, its avoidance of specialist terms and easy style of writing make the book accessible to the general reader unfamiliar with this largely undocumented period of our history.

Whereas the first book shows how China’s vast population was often perceived as a threat to European settlers’ plans for an “ideal society”, Southeast Asia and New Zealand demonstrates that Asia as a whole appeared to be a large, threatening continent where communism was taking hold. Consequently, in the immediate post-war decades, New Zealand’s foreign policy in Southeast Asia was concerned with regional security. In 1951, New Zealand’s Minister of External Affairs F W Doidge observed that giving aid to the wider region grew out of New Zealand’s desire to “stem the tide of communism”.

Published in association with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore and the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, Southeast Asia and New Zealand is divided into 12 chapters. The first three cover defence, regional organisation, and trade and commerce; the remaining nine each feature the separate bilateral relationships with New Zealand’s principal partners in Southeast Asia. Each affiliation has quite different characteristics, ably demonstrated by the 11 contributors, each responsible for a separate chapter.

The list of contributors reads like a political who’s who. Michael Green, New Zealand’s ambassador to Indonesia from 1997 to 2001, writes of the uneasy partnership between New Zealand and Indonesia, and concludes his chapter by reporting that “sustained improvement in bilateral relations depends ultimately on events in Indonesia but a positive course has been set.” Gerald Hensley, a former New Zealand High Commissioner to Singapore states:

The comfortable relationship which grew up between New Zealand and the Republic of Singapore in the second half of the 20th century played a decisive part in introducing New Zealand to Asia. This though, was one of history’s happiest ironies. For much of the century New Zealand looked to Singapore as its protection from Asia, first from the ambitions of Japan and then from those of Chinese-backed communism.

 

Another chapter discussing New Zealand’s warm relationship with the Philippines is provided by Rhys Richards, who was a diplomat in that country’s first New Zealand Embassy.

Other contributors, like Robert Rabel, author of New Zealand and the Vietnam War: Politics and Diplomacy (2005), have written extensively on regional history and are professors of history or politics in New Zealand universities, giving the book authenticity and credibility. Intended as an academic account of Southeast Asia-New Zealand relations as they emerged from the end of WWII, the book will be more easily read by those interested in the subject. However, although the information may seem rather esoteric, the book is well written, and its numerous acronyms supported by an expansive glossary, make it well worth the consideration of a wider audience.

 

Elaine Clark is completing a Master of New Zealand Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. 

 

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Posted in Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review and Sociology
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