Finding a place in the sun, Anna Rogers

Unfolding History, Evolving Identity: The Chinese in New Zealand
ed Manying Ip
Auckland University Press, $44.99,
ISBN 1869402898

Keeping a Low Profile: An Oral History of German Immigration to New Zealand
Brigitte Bönisch-Brednich
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0864734395

The Heather and the Fern: Scottish Migration and New Zealand Settlement
ed Tom Brooking & Jennie Coleman
University of Otago Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1877276332

The Irish in New Zealand: Historical Contexts & Perspectives
ed Brad Patterson
Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies, $29.95,
ISBN 0473089688

On my childhood bookshelves sat a slim 1956 publication written by A W Reed and illustrated by Russell Clark. It featured James Cook on the cover and was called How the White Men Came to New Zealand. On 11 June this year the following headline appeared in the Press: “Asian Kiwis will double by 2021”. By that date, said the accompanying story, there would be more than 600,000 Asians in New Zealand. Predictably, Winston Peters was quoted, saying that the Government was “turning New Zealand into the last Asian colony”, and labelling the trend “a form of social madness”.

The gap between the Reed book and the Press article is more than temporal; it marks an enormous change in the cultural and racial make-up of this country, though not necessarily in attitudes to newer, non-British immigrants.

In terms of New Zealand immigration, the four books under review look both backward and forward. The two collections of essays on the Scottish and Irish in this country are largely historical, offering fresh perspectives on two traditional sources of immigrants. Unfolding History, Evolving Identity focuses on the Chinese in New Zealand, both in historical and contemporary times. Brigitte Bönisch-Brednich’s study of German migration to this country examines a more recent immigration experience, that of Germans who have arrived in New Zealand since the mid-1930s.

In her preface to Unfolding History, Evolving Identity, editor Manying Ip, who has done so much to advance scholarship in this area, describes this as a special book whose time has come. She is unapologetic about her goal of “demystifying the Chinese in New Zealand and (to) push(ing) the study of this topic into the mainstream”, and her intelligent, thoughtful and original selection of contributors does much to achieve this aim.

The 12 essays are grouped in four parts. “First Encounters, 1860s–1920s” deals with the pioneer Chinese who came here to mine gold and the state-sanctioned discrimination they suffered, particularly in the appalling form of the poll tax. (There is, unhappily, nothing new about much of Winston Peters’ strident anti-Asian rhetoric.) James Ng’s quiet, understated essay on the sojourner Cantonese on the goldfields is particularly telling and its occasional lyricism touching. Of the strength of these marginalised men, he writes: “like pebbles in a tray, some would always survive the blow of a powerful force”. In “Home is Where the Heart Is, 1920s–1980s” three young New Zealand-born Chinese authors (one woman is of Chinese-Maori heritage) present this crucial settlement period through the lenses of their own family background, making impressive and affecting use of oral history.

The third part, “New Faces, 1987–2003”, focuses on the more recent Chinese migrants who have come to New Zealand since the introduction of an immigration policy that emphasises educational, business and professional credentials. This is a more solidly academic section, rich in statistical detail, and a sobering antidote to some of the wilder claims about recent Asian migration. The final section, “Standing Up”, is all about survival tactics – the way in which Chinese have defined their identity in New Zealand and the price they have often paid for their much-praised “high achievement and low profile”. As Manying Ip writes in her introduction to these last essays, “It took the Chinese over 130 years to move from being a diffident and marginalised group, traumatised and circumscribed by discriminatory legislation and a hostile social climate, to progress into a minority eager to take its rightful place in the sun.”

This is a brave, important and necessary book, especially at this time in New Zealand’s history. It is commendable for its diverse and compelling treatment of a misunderstood and often neglected area of our national culture. If only, though, the lovely Chinese translation of the book’s title – “Where my heart is at ease, this is home” – had been used instead of the unmemorable English version.

If the Chinese have frequently been forced to keep a low profile so, for other reasons, have the German men and women who have made New Zealand their home over six decades. Brigitte Bönisch-Brednich’s detailed and scholarly study, based on some 100 life history interviews and extensive primary and secondary research, is also the first oral history of this significant immigrant group.

She uses the first part of the book, “Arrivals”, to outline the various waves of migration: the refugees of the late 1930s, the post-war immigrants leaving a ruined Germany, the young people who came here to work in the 1950s and 60s, the “individualists” of the 1970s, those who sought peace and paradise in the 1980s, and the more recent 1990s arrivals who came for a variety of lifestyle reasons. The second part, “Themes”, focuses on the experience of foreignness, on the contrasts between Germany and New Zealand, on cultural differences (particularly in terms of food and the celebration of Christmas) and on the way gender influences both the decision to migrate and the emotional reaction to life in a new country.

A revised version of a work originally published in Berlin in 2002, this book is solid and impeccably researched, and the impressive breadth of the study, covering so many different types of German migrants over a period of six decades, gives it an obvious scholarly significance. What makes it live, though, for the lay reader, are the words of the interviewees, their nervousness and exhilaration (“I lived with anxiety, fear and the devil knows what – but I lived!”); their bewilderment (the puzzle of “Ladies – a plate”; the social trespass of crossing the room to join the opposite gender group at a party), and excoriating homesickness; their good humour and love of their adopted country. There is, of course, prejudice as well: “In 1953 in Lower Hutt I joined a Philately Society and the second time, when I came in, they all greeted me with a raised hand.”

Keeping a Low Profile is a serious academic work, but a more sympathetic translation and/or stronger editing could have improved the accessibility of the style. There is a good deal of the leaden passive – “In many of the statements, a wish can be heard to be permitted to forget this topic and not to have to be concerned with it any longer” – and a tendency to unnecessary wordiness that could have been eliminated.

Both The Heather and the Fern and The Irish in New Zealand grew out of conferences – the 1998 Bamforth conference on Scottish migration to New Zealand held at the University of Otago and the 2000 conference on the Irish in New Zealand held after the Stout Lecture given that year in Wellington. The first book contains nine essays on many aspects of Scottish settlement in New Zealand, a topic which, as co-editor Tom Brooking points out in his introduction, has been somewhat overshadowed by the popular concentration on things Irish: “This familiarity with the emerald green compared with little sense of the sky blue is symptomatic of the country’s amnesia concerning things Scottish.” (Interestingly, however, two contributors, Angela McCarthy and Terry Hearn, appear in both The Heather and the Fern and The Irish in New Zealand.)

This collection seeks to redress that balance in essays on the Scottish diaspora (John M MacKenzie), Highland emigrants (Eric Richards), the special Scottish contribution to New Zealand history (Tom Brooking), Scots miners on the goldfields (Terry Hearn – it is refreshing to read of Scotsmen rather than Irishmen in this context), the considerable Scottish contribution to the colonial economy (Jim McAloon), Scottish women migrants (Rosalind McClean), personal accounts of Scottish migration to New Zealand from 1921 to 1961 (Angela McCarthy),  Scottish music (Jennie Coleman – this is perhaps a little too technical at times) and “the Burns effect in New Zealand verse” (Alan Riach).

There is some lively writing here and some important refocusing of the accepted view of New Zealand’s migration past. The well-chosen illustrations add an attractive and important dimension to the book, which successfully continues the Otago History Series that began with A Distant Shore: Irish Migration and New Zealand Settlement, edited by Lyndon Fraser and published in 2000. A small cavil, however: the copy-editing is not good enough for a university press.

In some ways, the contributors to The Irish in New Zealand are the “usual suspects” for such a topic – names such as Patrick O’ Farrell, Seán Brosnahan, Rory Sweetman and the iconic Canadian Irish scholar Donald Harman Akenson – but that familiarity does not in the least breed contempt. The 12 essays in this book, brought together with intelligence and commitment by Stout Centre research fellow Dr Brad Patterson, offer a variety of perspectives on Irish settlement in New Zealand.

It is perhaps richer and more various than its Scottish counterpart, and more satisfyingly structured, ranging from general discussion of Irish migration to this country (Terry Hearn and Angela McCarthy) through politics (Edmund Bohan on Stafford, FitzGerald and Grey, and Seán Brosnahan on Wellington’s IRA during the 1920s) to the church (Rory Sweetman on Catholic leadership in colonial New Zealand and Hugh Laracy on the extraordinary but unsung evangelist priest Patrick Henneberry).

Alasdair Galbraith focuses on the forgotten 19th century Irish plantation of Pukekohe, and Cathy O’Shea-Miles uses oral history to vivid effect in her examination of Hamilton East’s Irishtown. Kevin Molloy places the New Zealand Tablet in its Victorian context, and Vincent O’Sullivan offers a fascinating insight into John Mulgan’s Irish connections. Donald Harman Akenson completes the collection by turning the usual migration equation on its head and asking, “What did New Zealand do to Scotland and Ireland?”

There is some attractive writing in this lively and approachable collection – Edmund Bohan, for example, is his usual articulate self; Hugh Laracy deserves a special mention for likening Catholic indulgences to a “modern retail ‘loyalty scheme’, a spiritual form of ‘Fly-Buy points’ or ‘air points’ ”; and, as one would expect, Vincent O’Sullivan writes memorably about Mulgan. The Irish in New Zealand is a most welcome addition to the study of this aspect of migration and settlement.

As someone who grew up in Christchurch seeing few faces of any other colour, who understood immigration to be purely a European phenomenon (my ancestors were English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish, with a little bit of Dutch thrown in), who knew nothing about the Treaty of Waitangi, except that it was neatly and completely signed on 6 February and “made us one people”, I am glad to live in a New Zealand where books like this are being published. They can illuminate the hidden or forgotten parts of our history; dedicated research, driven by a passion for truth, can add to our knowledge of ourselves and provide ammunition for the fight against ignorance and prejudice.


Anna Rogers is a Christchurch book editor and author.


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