Surviving immigration, Coral Atkinson

The Smell of an Oily Rag
Cherry Simmonds
Random House, $27.99,
ISBN 1869418492

Purple Heart
Ta’afuli Andrew Fiu
Random House, $27.99,
ISBN 1869418042

A New Zealand joke, current in the 1970s, entailed asking how one knew when a 747 carrying English immigrants had landed, and the answer was that the plane kept on whining after the engines were shut off. Leaving aside the unpleasant xenophobic overtones of the gag, and whether or not the British were more inclined to complain than other migrant groups, one is left with the unanswered question: what was it really like here for immigrants, 30-plus years ago?

Cherry Simmonds’ The Smell of an Oily Rag and Ta’afuli Andrew Fiu’s Purple Heart are two widely different autobiographical accounts of people who came to New Zealand at this time. Oily Rag deals with an English couple and their young son who leave Britain in 1972 for a new life in Auckland, while Purple Heart concerns Fiu, who arrived in this country from Samoa two years earlier.

Oily Rag is the second volume in Simmonds’ autobiography. The first, Nobody in Particular, which documented her growing up in the grim poverty of post-WWII Merseyside, reached number six on the UK non-fiction bestseller list and was popular when serialised here on Radio New Zealand. This account picks up where the previous one finished and sees Simmonds, her husband and their young son embarking for New Zealand. Covering the next 20-odd years of their life, her account is told with refreshing gusto, and one quickly discovers that the author is no “whingeing Pom”.

It has many features of the archetypal migrant story. Disillusioned by the weather, lack of opportunity, unremitting hard work and the poverty of their life in Liverpool, the Simmondses decide to emigrate, and select New Zealand in a somewhat casual fashion – based on a single book Simmonds had won as a school prize, and stories told by a returning immigrant couple. Hoping for cruise-type travel, they are quickly disappointed by the seedy Russian vessel they embark on.  However, in classic immigrant fashion the journey takes on something of a symbolic dimension; it is a time of liminality, a period divorced from ordinary life, with the ship like some mythic waka linking the old world and the new. As is the case with many new settlers, their closest friends in New Zealand are another migrant couple, whom they met on the ship.

Once in New Zealand, Simmonds experiences the soul-destroying jobs, struggles to make ends meet and homesickness so common with new immigrants; difficulties that are exacerbated by health problems with their young family (the couple adopt a child in Auckland and have another son of their own). Things gradually improve, but, as the years go by, the family is confronted with other setbacks, including a major house fire, the closing of their hospitality business for operating without an appropriate licence, financial disaster and serious illness.

As with many immigrants, particularly those of the time when travel was relatively more expensive, Simmonds is heartbroken when both her parents die before she can afford the fare for a return trip home. This tragic situation temporarily tips the author into depression:

[H]ow could they die on me before I got a chance to go back and say “I’m sorry” or “I love you”? Just to let them know how much I missed them? Now I would never get to show them their two youngest grandsons.


Told with frankness and a humour which at times seems a little forced, the autobiography never loses the author’s own authentic voice. Simmonds is the ultimate survivor, who moves on from each failure and setback without diminished enthusiasm, although at a chunky 432 pages, the book lacks the depth to sustain its considerable length. A woman of action more than reflection, apparently, she seldom seems to fully engage with New Zealand or see this country for more than its beaches, blue skies and opportunity. Jobs, crises and new initiatives come and go with breathless speed and often scant explanation.

As a reader, one is sometimes left asking: why? Why would a mother, even one short on sleep, allow her asthmatic young son to go alone, armed with an axe, to a protected wildlife sanctuary to bury a dead cat? Why would someone as smart as Simmonds not realise that a liquor licence was needed to sell alcohol? For the most part, however, one is carried along by the pace of the narrative and the easy style. When the Simmondses finally achieve modest affluence and are able to leave for their much anticipated trip home, one cannot fail to wish them well and give a cheer that they eventually made it.

Ta’afuli Andrew Fiu is another immigrant survivor, though his struggles take place in a very different context. Purple Heart is an extraordinary story, which tells of the author’s survival of multiple open-heart surgeries, along with his irrepressible optimism in the face of daunting odds. The book, Fiu says, is an ode to his own heart, which has remained his ally and friend throughout all the vicissitudes: “Five times, my chest has been opened up; five times she has been cut open to be repaired; five times it could so easily have been the end. And five times I wanted to live.”

A substantial influx of Pacific Island migrants came to New Zealand in the 1970s, and five-year-old Fiu, his parents and younger brother were among them. The family, which later included other children, settled in Ponsonby before moving to Mangere.  It was a time of long hours of manual labour for the adults, as cleaners and assembly workers; widespread racism; dawn raids by police in pursuit of overstayers; and the difficulties for migrants of all ages in adjusting to a strange culture and a new land. At school there was a policy of assimilation, with Fiu and other new arrivals at the local convent given anglicised names to make it “easier for her (Sister Mary) to remember everyone”. Ta’afuli became Andrew as a result.

Despite the hardships, Fiu found South Auckland of the mid-70s “a beautiful place to bring up children”. There were “granddaddy” eels to catch in the creek, horses and paddocks around the corner, friends to be made, and an extended family and community offering love and support. Fiu recreates these years with affection and charm, making one hope that he will write further about this period of his life.

At 14 Fiu contracted rheumatic fever, which seriously damaged his heart valves and led to the  open-heart surgeries of the next 26 years. Purple Heart focuses on these years and the medical miracles performed on his heart. On two occasions he was thought to have died and was revived.

Forced to spend much of his adolescence in hospital, Fiu charts his growing up in cardiac wards. There were no translators in New Zealand hospitals at the time, so, at a young age, he not only had to confront serious surgery and a life-threatening condition but act as an interpreter between medical staff and his distressed parents. Faced with appalling racism, along with friendship and kindness, the young Fiu made the most of the contacts he had with other patients, cobbling together a personal philosophy of survival from his own insights and that of the people he met:

I spent three and a half years in hospital, most of it lying flat on my back. I was the only brown kid in a ward where the average age was 50. It was interesting because I was learning from their stories.


Becoming a father while still a teenager, Fiu worked in the hospital as an orderly before moving into sales and promotion. Today, in his 40s, he has four children and is co-founder and director of the media design company Pacific Mango. He is active in the community and holds three matai titles.

Purple Heart, the author’s first book, is a warm, funny, touching chronicle of growing up Samoan in New Zealand in extraordinary circumstances. It is an account of an astonishingly brave man, who has faced seemingly insuperable odds and not only survived but come through smiling. Told with endearing candour and not a trace of self-pity, the memoir is a celebration of the importance of family and friends, and the power of a positive spirit. In a world of hate, fear, and cruelty, it is a welcome affirmation of the traditional virtues of faith, hope and love.


Coral Atkinson is an immigrant writer whose historical novel The Paua Tower is reviewed on


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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Review
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