South by east, Duncan Campbell

The Origins of China’s Awareness of New Zealand, 1674-1911
William Tai Yuen
New Zealand Asia Institute, The University of Auckland, $25.00,
ISBN 0473104245

Unreal City: A Chinese Poet in Auckland
Yang Lian (ed Jacob Edmond and Hilary Chung)
Auckland University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 1869403541

It’s an interesting idea: to attempt to reverse the usual order of things and, as in this case, look not at China from a New Zealand perspective but rather to observe New Zealand from a Chinese point of view. Sadly, however, a moment’s further reflection should have dissuaded the author from the essential silliness of his task – looking through the wrong end of a telescope lends itself only to lack of focus and the imprecision of distance. Like it or not (but entirely unsurprisingly given the asymmetries of size and history involved), there is very little that can usefully be said about a Chinese awareness of New Zealand.

Notwithstanding this handicap, William Tai strives valiantly to generate something of a topic. If the initial conception of the book is flawed, however, so is its execution. Too often he seems unaware of the secondary literature on the topics he alights upon, in respect to both the New Zealand and the Chinese sides of the equation, ever too susceptible to those most powerful of Orientalist stereotypes about China as an “Immobile Empire”: “China became inward-looking, oriented to its past, mentally closed to Western influence” and so on. The percentage of new material to be found here, or new insights into old material, decreases as one proceeds through the six substantive chapters and two-page conclusion of his book, to the extent that, by the sixth (“New Zealanders in China”), in order to include in his book discussion of people such as Kathleen Hall, Kathleen Pih, James Bertram and (of course) Rewi Alley, all of whom only arrived in China in the 1920s, Tai has to stretch the second of the dates of his title (1911) so far that it becomes all but meaningless.

The first date of his title (1674), on the other hand, is more arresting and, indeed, Tai’s first chapter, dealing with the first appearance of New Zealand on a “Chinese” map, proves to be the most interesting in his book. This map, in eight large scrolls and entitled Kunyu quantu, a beautiful reproduction of one version of which is included, was presented to the Chinese court in that year by the Flemish Jesuit missionary to China Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-88), then serving as Director of the Bureau of Astronomy. It is, perhaps, the first cartographical depiction of New Zealand (Xin Selandiya in Verbiest’s transliterated Chinese) as an island. Chinese cartography (and cartography in China) has occasioned much extraordinary work in recent years – as well as some rather silly debates – but Tai appears to have referred to none of this work. In consequence, his discussion of the conditions of Verbiest’s geographical knowledge lacks the necessary context that would have been lent it by reference to the writings of scholars such as Cordell Yee, Laura Hostetler and Anita Chung, among others.

Appropriately, perhaps, the longest of Tai’s chapters (“Feedback from Chinese Immigrants”) examines the experiences of the earliest generations of Chinese settlers in New Zealand. Here, however, Tai seems dependent largely on the Herculean labours of previous workers in the field, James Ng in particular. “The odyssey of the Chinese to [sic] New Zealand in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is a very sad story,” Tai concludes, and indeed, so it is. One only wishes that he had extended our understanding of this story somewhat more than he does here, particularly by engaging with some of the interesting historiogaphical work recently done on the topic by, on the one hand, New Zealand historians such as Brian Moloughney, Tony Ballantyne and Miles Fairburn, and, on the other, by those involved in the burgeoning field of diasporic studies. Tai’s method too fails him in this chapter and elsewhere. Given the variety of Cantonese languages spoken by the vast majority of the early Chinese settlers in this land (Poonyu, Seyip, and Tungjung, for instance, in Wellington’s Haining Street alone), it is surely inappropriate to romanise into Mandarin the names of both the individuals that made up these communities, and institutions such as the banks and mail delivery companies that serviced them.

The last third of the book consists of appendices of one sort or another, two of which may be of some interest to New Zealand historians. These provide translations of both the 1888 petition presented by a group of Chinese businessmen to the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) authorities begging them to take action against the ever more restrictive measures enacted against them in the “New Gold Mountain”, and of the 1905 petition to the Governor of Canton and Guangxi by Shack Horne and Louis Kitt, two Cantonese tea merchants then resident in New Zealand, again asking for the protection of the Chinese authorities.

In contrast to Tai’s diffuse lens, Yang Lian (1955-) puts Auckland under a microscope, defamiliarising this city in a surreal and remarkable way.

Arriving in the country early in 1989 with his writer-artist wife Liu Youhong at the invitation of John Minford, the distinguished translator who was then professor of Chinese at the University of Auckland, Yang Lian was quickly forced into exile by the Tiananmen Massacre of June of that year. If images of death had always been a marked feature of Yang Lian’s poetry since he began to write in 1976, a year in which both his mother and Chairman Mao died, now they were charged with a new and, occasionally, political intensity:

who says the dead are dead and gone the dead
wandering locked in doomsday are the masters of eternity
on the four walls hang four of their own faces
massacre once again blood
is still the only famous view
to sleep into a tomb is fortunate but to reawaken in
a tomorrow the birds fear even more
this is just a very ordinary year


The couple took up residence in a “dilapidated old house” at 137 Grafton Road, almost equidistant in one direction from the Wintergarden and in the other from the university, where both worked. Be warned – a reading of Yang Lian’s poems on these familiar landmarks will serve to change them forever:

when you cross the bridge he graveyard below loses in
the pine trees look up faces wary
the surface of the sea of the dead like iron smells of
rays of rusty sunlight pass by
like a old dog sniffing you
a dog is staring the view from the bridge is especially
(“Grafton Bridge”)


Yang Lian’s poetic voice is a dense, often private and occasionally difficult one – the term “Misty” that was applied to him and the other Today poets intended no praise – and is best understood only when reading his poems together with his occasional essays. In the light particularly of Yang Lian’s usual resistance to the autobiographical exegesis of his poetry, Jacob Edmond and Hilary Chung, the editors/translators of this collection, have done a splendid job in bringing Yang Lian’s Auckland writings together in this manner. This book, with its fine translations and re-translations, its informative and intelligent introductory essay, helpful but unobtrusive notes, and evocative photographs makes an important contribution to our understanding both of the developing poetics of an important contemporary Chinese poet and of poetry in New Zealand.

Unreal City is a luminous book to hold and handle, and although one rather regrets the absence of the Chinese originals, Auckland University Press is to be congratulated on a book that also serves to commemorate a wonderful if often tragic moment in the university’s history.


Duncan Campbell teaches Chinese at Victoria University of Wellington; in the 1980s he worked with Yang Lian in Auckland.


Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
Posted in History, Memoir, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
Search the archive
Search by category