Walking in more than one world, Paula Morris

Being Chinese
Helene Wong
Bridget Williams Books, $40.00,
ISBN 9780947492380

Going Places: Migration, Economics and the Future of New Zealand
Julie Fry and Hayden Glass
BWB Texts, $15.00, ISBN 9780947492694

The First Migration: Maori Origins 3000BC – AD1450
Atholl Anderson
BWB Texts, $15.00, ISBN 9780947492793

Home: Here to Stay
Mere Kēpa, Marilyn McPherson and Linitā Manu’atu (eds)
Huia, $45.00, ISBN 9781775502081

Helene Wong’s engrossing memoir, Being Chinese, begins in 1980, when she travels to China with her parents to visit her father’s ancestral village in the southern province of Guangdong. There, the girl from Taihape, the grocer’s daughter who grew up taking ballet and elocution lessons, reading Enid Blyton, eating dry meat and lumpy mashed potatoes at weddings, and starring in sweary capping revues at Victoria University with Roger Hall and John Clarke, finds something surprising in the muddy and “primitive” village: a profound sense of connection.

The “little shocks of recognition and familiarity” Wong experiences in this otherwise alien place, where she doesn’t speak the language or buy the Communist message, make her realise her connection “not just to the village but to something very much bigger. To being Chinese.”

Wong was born in 1949 into a family for whom “China was almost a closed book”, conscious that “had I been born in China instead of Taihape, I might have become a Little Red Book-brandishing Red Guard, smashing artefacts and denouncing my teachers.”  Instead, her childhood was English-speaking and placid, revolving around the dairy, Four Square and the fish-and-chip shop. She had a part-time job in her parents’ fruit shop, chafing at the work ethic expected of Chinese kids – though sometimes she was allowed to wear her roller-skates at work. (Later, when she was a young actor, Wong was unsurprised to be typecast as a fruit-shop girl in a commercial for New Zealand apples.)

Wong saw that her community was “wary around Europeans, knowing we could never take acceptance for granted and that at any time we could be ambushed by abuse.” For her, the abuse came at school; for her father, who’d arrived in New Zealand in 1916 as a child, and older relatives already established there, it was institutional: government policy imposed a £100 poll tax on many Chinese arrivals and blocked their naturalisation as New Zealanders. But her experience as a university student, actor, public servant – including a stint as social policy advisor to Rob Muldoon in the late 1970s – and consultant at the New Zealand Film Commission, had lulled Wong into thinking of herself as an assimilation success story in a largely colour-blind nation.

But then the 1990s happened, bringing with them a new wave of immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan, political and media hysteria about the “Asian Invasion”, and what Wong calls “a cold gust of déjà vu, spreading from the street into virulent debate at all levels of society.” Still trying to explore and understand her Chinese identity, Wong found herself labelled “ ‘Asian’ – the new word for ‘Oriental’, but no less pejorative”.

This is a straight-talking, unsentimental memoir, and Wong’s not afraid to call out politicians like John Key, Don Brash and Winston Peters for Sinophobic rhetoric, or the writer Anthony McCarten for trading in Chinese stereotypes in his play F.I.L.T.H., or hypocritical New Zealanders who complain about the Chinese “occupation” of suburbs while forgetting their own ex-pat clusters elsewhere, not least in Earl’s Court.

She’s also clear about the tensions between “some Chinese New Zealanders” and the new immigrants: they

talked too loud, they flashed their wealth; they looked down on us for our peasant ancestry and for not being able to speak the language. They were the cause of this new wave of prejudice, upsetting the cosy assimilation equilibrium we had worked so hard for over forty years to achieve.

Wong came to think of herself as a “second-hand Chinese” rather than the real thing. The food in Auckland, where Wong had moved, was better now; the abuse was worse. “Roast duck and racism,” she says, “reminded me that I still had unfinished business about who I really was.”

Wong writes touchingly about her parents and of the family tragedy that ended what they called the “golden time” of the late 1940s. Three of the memoir’s chapters explore her family history, telling the stories of her parents, Willie (Wai Yin) and Dolly (Yuet Wun), and tracing the ancient roots of both families in China, back to the origins of the family names, Wong and Chan, through Mongol invasions and southward migration, to new lives in the gold-fields and market gardens of New Zealand. These are denser chapters, inevitably less personal and therefore less enlivened by the detail that makes Wong’s own recollections so vivid. But the history they recall is absorbing. As Wong points out, the “plethora of legislation designed to keep Chinese out of New Zealand from 1881 until the end of the Second World War resulted, ironically, in a rich resource of information about us once we did set foot here.”

This is a thoughtful book, provocative in the best sense, as Wong explores “what it is like to walk in more than one world”, an experience for so many New Zealanders. “Is there anything a Chinese New Zealander can bring to the conversation about what it is to be a New Zealander?” she asks. On the basis of this memoir alone, the answer is yes. The only complaint I have is the small type.

The authors of Going Places, economist Julie Fry and research consultant Hayden Glass, would agree that the definition of a New Zealander is increasingly fluid. In their accessible, no-nonsense policy discussion, they, too, seek to inform and provoke debate on the effects of migration to and from New Zealand. Their focus is economic migration since the 1990s and the authors, supporting their argument with charts, statistics and examples from other countries, declare that “migration is both inevitable and fundamentally a good thing, a physical expression of the natural human tendency to search further afield for what cannot be found near at hand.”

Migration is clearly a fact of life in contemporary New Zealand, which (in 2011) had the third-largest foreign-born population share in the OECD, after Australia and Israel. In the last census, 37 per cent of Aucklanders declared themselves born overseas. In the 1950s, unsurprisingly, the bulk of our foreign-born population were from the United Kingdom, Europe and Australia. Now, the majority are from the Pacific or Asia. Meanwhile, almost half a million New Zealanders live in Australia: we have the second-largest diaspora per capita in the developed world, after Ireland.

In clear prose, the authors discuss and critique our current immigration policy and proffer various suggestions, including courting of “transformational migrants” who come here not to seek a job but to transform or create an industry, encouraging a more diverse diaspora (beyond Australia and the United Kingdom), and developing a bilateral business visa to facilitate the flow in – and out – of entrepreneurs. We need, they argue, to cultivate the connections overseas offered by both our foreign-born citizens and by New Zealanders who choose to live elsewhere.

Atholl Anderson is a co-author of the acclaimed Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History, and his BWB Text, a hefty little book called The First Migration, is a sampler for that larger work: it is “drawn from” the first two chapters of Tangata Whenua. In it, he takes on the subjects of many an ignorant squabble, including Kupe, the Great Migration, and the Moriori, as well as addressing the often unhappy European encounters with whakapapa and oral history. (In 1848, Walter Mantell spent eight hours attempting to take a census of 86 people in a South Canterbury pa, each occupant cautiously deliberating on their whakapapa and hapu affiliations, Mantell reported, “in a manner tedious even to themselves”.)

Anderson cites Hugh Trevor-Roper, a former professor of modern history at Oxford University, as declaring history impossible to determine in the “unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe”. In admirably incisive prose, Anderson considers a broad range of evidence and arguments from this particular “irrelevant corner”, drawing on archaeology and tradition, and research from science as well as the humanities, to investigate the ways in which “tangata whenua come into historical sight long before European observation”.

There are lengthy discussions here of the craft used by Polynesian explorers and the relationships between Polynesian languages, insights into the physiques, diets and lives of the first settlers, statistical analyses of whakapapa, and an exploration of the “actual, geographic places” known as Hawaiki along the migration routes of East Polynesia. Polynesian migration, “the first human inhabitants of New Zealand”, he fixes at around 800 years ago, though the book delves into creation myths and the “deep history” of Māori and Moriori into “the last Ice Age, when the first modern humans reached the Pacific coasts of Asia”. The depth and scope of these two excerpted chapters, with their plethora of footnotes – almost a third of the BWB Text – is astonishing, and this book is essential reading for those hesitating at the larger financial commitment of Tangata Whenua, as well as anyone foggy about our pre-European history.

Home: Here to Stay is a gathering of academic essays, the third book in Huia’s series Nga Pae o te Maramatanga Edited Collections, and its intended audience is other academics and their students. Much of the content – topics ranging from tobacco or IT use in Māori homes to the Māori experience of the Christchurch earthquakes to the disproportionate rates of Māori homeless – feels repetitive and leaden-footed, lacking the elegance and clarity of expression that characterises Anderson’s work, not to mention its intellectual rigour.

Cherryl Smith’s “When Trauma Takes You Away from Home: Experiences of Māori Vietnam Veterans” is one of the more compelling essays. Of the New Zealand troops in action in Vietnam between 1964 and 1972, almost 67 per cent were Māori; few received treatment for PTSD, though the ramifications of that unpopular war – physical and psychic – and their experiences in Vietnam took a severe toll on the men, their whanau, communities and successive generations.

Lynette Carter of the University of Otago presents a persuasive case for a contemporary re-visioning of the concepts of ahi ka (warm fires) and ahi matao (cold fires), arguing that we don’t need to stay put – or to be born in the ancestral home – to experience and live the “connections, participation and responsibilities”. For a people whose history and “cultural practice” includes so much travel, an allowance must be made for “absence and travelling and dwelling away”. The book’s title, from this point of view, is misleading, given how many displaced and relocated Māori its essays explore, and how movement – across oceans, between kainga, and from country to city – has been central to Māori history and experience.

Paula Morris (Ngati Wai) is a fiction writer and essayist. She teaches creative writing at the University of Auckland and is the founder of the Academy of New Zealand Literature.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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