An enhancing option, David Pearson

New Zealand – By the Way
Jenner Zimmerman and contributors
Jenner Zimmerman, $49.95,
ISBN 0 473 03631 2

Immigrants and Citizens: New Zealanders and Asian Immigration in Historical Context
Malcolm McKinnon
Institute of Policy Studies, $18.00,
ISBN 0 908935 0408

New Zealanders of Asian Origin
Raj Vasil and Hong-key Yoon
Institute of Policy Studies, $18.00,
ISBN 0 908935 05 6

Dragons on the Long White Cloud
Manying Ip
Tandem Press, $34.95,
ISBN 0 908884 64 8

On the cover of New Zealand — By the Way there is a stylised Chinese takeaway. A sign advertises fish and chips. A mural on one wall depicts a group of school children lined up against a rural backdrop. The faces of the students are uniformly pale, presumably pakeha.

Flick through the pages of Manying Ip’s book and you come across another school photo, from Dunedin in 1947. One boy stands out. He’s the only one wearing a tie. But his face is another signifier of difference. He appears to be of Asian origins. The caption tells us he’s Chinese.

Inside Jenner Zimmerman’s arresting collection of images, which juxtaposes immigrant photographers’ impressions of New Zealand with New Zealand-born photographers’ pictures of immigrants, there is another photo of school students (taken by Gil Hanley). All the faces are Asian. They’re in the Mangere refugee resettlement centre. Are these kids Chinese? Ethnically, perhaps but they come from Cambodia, maybe Vietnam. A long way in time, distance, and culture, from the Dunedin boy.

In New Zealand — By The Way we also get glimpses of a Black Power convention, a rodeo, Celtic dancing, shopping malls, as well as scenes containing no faces. The pictures, and the brief text (Haruhiko Sameshima’s words are particularly noteworthy), remind us that New Zealand has a human landscape that is becoming as varied as its physical forms — most notably in Auckland where the majority of arrivals settle. But the new faces in Mangere or Howick betray as much as they reveal.

For most people, perception of difference is initially, a question of outward appearance. All of us live in what George Lamming, the Caribbean writer, called the “castle of my skin”. His phrase beautifully captures the fact that in most societies physical features are a marker of status and difference. That marker, like the fortress, is both imprisoning and protective, depending on how freely one can move within and beyond its walls of stigma or superiority.

Movement in and out of New Zealand has never been greater and recent immigration legislation has freed up many restrictions on entry. Have the castle gates been flung open to liberate new experiences and opportunities or has the fortress been breached by unwanted invaders? Both of these metaphors are pertinent to recent debate about immigration. But why all the fuss when in comparative terms Auckland and New Zealand hardly figure on maps of population explosion. And why, in particular, is the word “Asian” so provocative in the 1990s? These four books, in very different ways, and with varying levels of success, all provide useful answers.

Malcolm McKinnon’s slim volume, Immigrants and Citizens, should be required reading for all those seeking to understand the historical context out of which current debates and tensions about so-called “Asian” immigration have arisen. In a stimulating study, he argues that New Zealand is a country of “kin migration”. Elites in settler societies sought to establish new states and subsequently nations by suppressing and/or seeking a rapprochement with the aboriginal populations they colonised. Thereafter they endeavoured to ensure that future migrants were physically and socially similar to themselves in order to minimise problems of assimilation and social control. Ideally, all immigrants would be kin. This policy did not assure harmony. Kin frequently quarrel. But if you are “family” there is an affinity that stems from a common history, shared social and political institutions, and a sense of belonging.

From 1840 until the 1970s little legal distinction was made between New Zealanders and British immigrants. In the mid-nineteenth century discriminatory lines were drawn between British subjects (which included Maori) and foreigners and subsequently defended by de jure prescription and de facto administrative discrimination. The social distinctions between earlier and later British arrivals often provoked tensions when economic times were hard. Religious and regional divisions at “Home” were also partly mirrored in the Antipodes. But the New Zealand state basically succeeded for generations in solving problems of “ethnic management’”of immigrants by excluding or filtering kith and favouring kin.

Foreigners were aliens in the legal and often social sense, particularly if they were “race aliens”. This tag was attached to “Asians”. Cantonese labourers were recruited in the 1860s but became easy scapegoats when the economy slumped and gold and gum became scarce. The entry gates were slammed and those already within became pariahs. New Zealand citizenship was denied (until 1952!). The control of Indians, who were part of the British Empire, posed greater diplomatic problems, but the immigration ramparts were more than adequately defended by language and other administrative restrictions. The phrase “ministerial discretion” became a licence for racist gatekeeping.

The success of “keeping it within the family” is revealed statistically. New Zealand’s post-World War II demand for labour, combined with its post-imperial legacy in the South Pacific, drew increasing numbers of workers. By 1966, however, still only 4% of the population was not born in New Zealand or Britain. Unlike in Australia and Canada, for example, policymakers had little interest in population-building for long-term economic or defence reasons. Successive governments applied ad hoc measures to meet fluctuating labour demand, fulfil international diplomatic obligations (with very conservative refugee quotas) or defuse occasional electoral unrest. Prospective ministers hardly scrabbled for the immigration portfolio but it was often seen as a useful political football when a diversionary tactic was needed to deflect the masses from more serious matters of state or economy.


However, in the mid-1980s, in keeping with the tenor of wide-ranging economic reform, immigration policy started to be viewed in a more expansive fashion. The then Labour government sought to devise legislation that would remove the last vestiges of racial discrimination and bring policy in line with a skills-based, global-market-driven model. The message to be relayed to prospective migrants was that race and culture were immaterial and what we were interested in were skills and the colour of migrants’ money.

Meanwhile, the links between former old chums, Brits and Kiwis, became further attenuated as the once mother country grew, albeit ambivalently, closer to Europe. And more and more New Zealanders looked to the Pacific as the focus for their national identity.

Other post-colonial ex-dominions had already widened their gateways to accept millions of immigrants from origins unacceptable before World War II. Multiculturalism was in vogue. But the New Zealand state adopted a bicultural Maori/pakeha model of nationhood to deal with the more pressing unfinished business of decolonisation within its boundaries. Asia, particularly its eastern and southern regions, came into the picture because of perceived material benefits. Asian/New Zealand affinities were duly trumpeted. Malaysian capital and Taiwanese business migrants were seen as integral to a brave, new economic world.

Such sentiments, however, hardly captured the public imagination, given the history McKinnon recounts. The rapid increase and residential concentration of new Asian migrants post-1986 was unsettling. A delicate threshold of tolerance was breached again, a threshold made more brittle by the many other unpopular economic and social changes. For some New Zealanders, their country was being irrevocably transformed. “Asians” epitomised the shock of the new.


The lines drawn between old residents and newcomers are not neatly drawn nor are they necessarily embattled but they are all too frequently stereotypical. Raj Vasil and Hong-key Yoon’s thinkpiece is unevenly researched but demonstrates effectively that the labels “Asia” and “Asians” are at best a lazy convenience and at worst a marker of ignorance and stigma. There is no such thing as an “Asian community” nor is there likely to be in the foreseeable future. Persons of Asian origin are divided by nationality and region, language and religion and much else. A rich array of distinctions and commonalties promotes differing levels of social exclusivity. Immigrant minorities are no different from the majorities (once immigrants themselves) in wanting to reproduce familiar social mores. Selective memory, however, easily intervenes and degrees of chosen insularity and forced exclusion combine to cement or promote ethnic boundaries.

Intermarriage is the litmus paper of ethnic interaction along a continuum of assimilatory and exclusionary possibilities. The analysis presented in New Zealanders of Asian Origin shows that the propensity to “marry out”  differs between “Asian” ethnic groups and, within them, between men and women. Some groups, Gujuratis, for example, are less inclined to intermarry than others, seeking to arrange marriage partners by using long standing conventions of acceptability. But convention is always at the mercy of change and this accelerates apace when immigration is involved. Acceptable partners may not be found within the small migrant populations in New Zealand and new patterns of education and association, as Manying Ip’s book confirms, promote generational shifts in values and levels of endogamy. Despite the limited timespans of settlement of many groups  of Asian origin in New Zealand, Vasil and Hong-key Yoon’s figures reveal that intermarriage is increasingly common, with partners more likely to be non-Asian than not. The author’s own reflections, plus an ill-defined sample of interview material, reinforce the earlier statistical pictures presented of diversity and differing degrees of intermingling.

The arrival of thousands of new migrants of Asian origin has provoked questions about national identity, sovereignty and economic gains and losses for all New Zealanders. But the position of New Zealand-born people of Asian origin has a particular poignancy in the current milieu. The combined impact on Chinese New Zealanders of the racial climate which McKinnon’s portrait of the past and Vasil and Hong-key Yoon’s picture of the present convey is vividly portrayed by Manying Ip. Dragons on the Long White Cloud evocatively describes in words and pictures what it was and is like to be Chinese in New Zealand through the eyes of five families who span four generations. The book relates impressions of living in at least two different ethnic worlds from the 1920s to the present day. Family, home, community and work are the benchmarks that Manying Ip uses to trace the changes within Chinese communities and their relationships with so-called “mainstream New Zealanders’” Familial bonds were “at once nurturing and limiting”, providing security but also demanding loyalty, discipline and obedience. Kin ties offered a safety net, a springboard to new opportunities. But they were also, at least for some, a source of frustration and ambivalence.  Combine family and business obligations and the protection and tensions are accentuated.

Ironically, developing a self-employment niche designed to avoid competitive hostility magnifies social marginality and stereotypes of insularity. Such stereotypes, in turn, retrench conformity — to the hierarchical ethics of one’s community and to a political survival strategy of “not rocking the boat”. Education and marriage were two pathways to mobility and change. In the 1940s the idea of intermarriage was still frowned upon by Chinese and non-Chinese alike but the degree of disapproval and sanction of actual intermarriages varied enormously. There was also a shortage of female Chinese marriage partners, so  mixed relationships (a distasteful phrase) were relatively common. By the 1960s the thresholds of acceptance had shifted upwards and even the entry of larger numbers of Chinese female migrants did not forestall western conceptions of romantic love making inroads into traditional arranged patterns of partnership.


Educationally and vocationally, Manying Ip’s families are prominent models of achievement. Her selective sample contains few examples of sons and daughters forced  to continue in small family businesses and there is little mention of the many Chinese, if the statistics are our guide, who moved into more humdrum employment. Those interviewed recall with modest pride events that illustrate the post-1950s  spectacular upwards occupational mobility’ of disproportionate numbers of Chinese New Zealanders into big business and the professions.

Why the success? Traditional values about learning and social status and the practical pursuit of worldly success were reinforced by a desire to escape the menial, labour intensive work of earlier generations. These ingredients were laced with the hope that in a society that reflected new levels of tolerance, moving out of the enclave would assist greater equality and respect. The Catch 22 was seeking to excel without seeming to compete. New Zealand egalitarianism insisted that all tall poppies bowed their heads, Chinese flowers doubly so, given their problematic stock.

By the early 1980s, Manying Ip recounts, the Chinese had become the model minority, a quiet, law-abiding and non-contesting group that gauged success largely by how the mainstream rated it. The new Asian influx post-1986 was little anticipated, and largely unplanned and affected the local-born Chinese in ways beyond the comprehension or interest of policymakers overly-concerned with economic salvation from the new immigration policy. “All my life I have always regarded myself as Chinese. Suddenly these last few years I have become ‘Asian’.” (p9) Such words sadly epitomise a new construction of otherness. At face value Hong Kong business migrants and the fourth generation descendants of a Chinese labourer may occupy a similar castle of skin. How does one tell “them” apart on fleeting acquaintance? There lies the rub.

A fresh set of uncertainties is introduced for “old” Chinese New Zealanders. On the one hand, Manying Ip suggests, the arrival of new migrants with Chinese ancestry has provoked or fortified a reawakening of cultural awareness. The greater availability of Chinese goods and experiences is a source of enjoyment. There is even a trace of pride, mixed with envy, in the assertiveness and confidence exuded by brash “Asian” migrants schooled in the rough and tumble of “tigerish” economies and metropolises. And, paradoxically, the increase in Chinese faces in the crowd provides a new sense of freedom. As one interviewee relates: “I’ve gained a new anonymity, although the Chinese as a whole have become highly visible as a stereotype.” (p138)

How does one dispel the fears of “old” ethnic minorities that new arrivals will undermine the fragile rapport they have established with the majority? How can you address the rights of immigrant minorities without increasing the anxieties and anger of tangata whenua about their own special claims to recognition and resources? All these authors agree, and I concur, that New Zealand cannot and should not seek to retrace its steps down well-trodden paths of exclusion. Given the forces of international capital and labour and the technological leaps in global communication and transport, the national boundaries that seemingly enclose us become ever more illusory. The message of New Zealanders of Asian Origin is that:”New Zealanders have to prepare themselves to be willing to accept increasing immigration, whether Asian or otherwise”. (p59)

Vasil and Hong-key Yoon are sanguine about the future, stressing that migrants of Asian origin are not asking for much and there is little sign as yet of them organising to demand more. Recent arrivals, they assert, do not expect to have the same rights as the indigenes — Maori and pakeha — so multiculturalism shouldn’t necessarily detract from biculturalism. Above all, they say, there are enough signs of tolerance, intermingling and pragmatism, at least compared with many other countries, to inspire some confidence of a balance between the perceived needs of an increasing variety of ethnic groups.

I’m not so sure. The argument of comparative advantage is dangerous, often leading to the faulty logic that because  race relations here are better they must, ipso facto, be good. I also wasn’t impressed with Vasil and Hong-key Yoon’s frequent homilies parading Singapore as a model of state ethnic management worthy of emulation. Singapore doesn’t have the same history or ethnic mix and its brand of multiculturalism seems an implausible template.

More persuasive, and here McKinnon agrees, is a plea for constitutional reform that seeks to address the rights and obligations of different minorities and a greater concern for the legal and symbolic recognition of the place of new citizens. There needs, McKinnon argues, to be a more sophisticated, and certainly less populist, understanding of the linkages between the macropolitical economic imperatives of the relationship with “Asia” and the micro problems of “Asian” immigration. A too simple stress on the economic profit and loss of immigration, without taking account of complex sociological and demographic trends and effects, merely heightens the possibility of ethnic conflict.


The New Zealand state has taken positive steps towards freeing itself from past policies of racial exclusion. A move away from ad hoc policies also deserves applause. Demographers and social planners have argued for years that New Zealand needs a longterm immigration policy that views arrivals and departures as merely one facet of a wide-ranging, coordinated population strategy.

It is about time we changed the mindset that says we are doing migrants a favour to let them in. In terms of cost-effectiveness, how much sense does it make to expect migrants to pay for their English-language training if you want to attract the best and maximise their input into the economy? The Australians consider it money well spent to provide free training. How useful and just is it to expect refugees to repay their airfares? Why can’t we have a more effective and fairer system of assessing the equivalence of diverse migrant skills and qualifications? There are signs that these sorts of questions are being addressed and maybe the Coalition population conference in October will come up with some answers. But the all-too-familiar role that “foreign” immigration played in the last election, media hype about “Asian” conspicuous consumption and crime and the recent introduction of draconian post-arrival English-language tests suggest xenophobic habits die hard.

What requires urgent attention is the social and constitutional infrastructure that has to be in place if innovative directions in immigration policy are to succeed and old and new ethnic minorities, immigrant and indigenous, are not to be played off against one another.  As Manying Ip rightly concludes — and her sentiments can embrace all the richer diversity of peoples who will come to these shores — the perception of the contribution of the Chinese to New Zealand should extend beyond trade links, investment, business know-how and technological transfer. “When the Chinese, like all other New Zealanders, can function free from prejudice and stereotyping, they will do much to enhance the nation as a truly robust multi-ethnic modern society.” (p162) On balance, these books, despite some limitations, make an important contribution to that enhancement.

David Pearson teaches sociology at Victoria University. 

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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