Being Maori-Chinese: Mixed Identities
Auckland University Press, $45.00,
Many of the nearly 5,000 people who claim Maori-Chinese ancestry in Aotearoa New Zealand have a similar genealogy or whakapapa. During the 1920s and 1930s a Chinese man would have been sent from his village to New Zealand to earn money. In many cases he would have had a wife and family in China but since the taking of concubines was acceptable in that country his relationship with a Maori woman would not have been considered polygamous. The Chinese man would have established himself as a market gardener, sent remittances back to his Chinese family and established another family with a Maori woman who saw him as providing financial security. The children of these relationships would have identified more with Chinese values, but during and after the Maori renaissance of the 1980s their grandchildren would have rediscovered their Maori culture. Since the 1990s many Maori-Chinese would feel little affinity with and in some cases hostility towards the “new Chinese”. Across these generations certain stereotypes would persist: Chinese are hard-working, formal and strongly invested in education, Maori easy-going, warm and more interested in sport. Yet for all these differences both sides would be strongly family oriented and many would be devout Christians of various denominations.
Nevertheless what impresses are the exceptions to and the complications and contradictions within this narrative and its accompanying stereotypes. Of the seven family histories told in Being Maori-Chinese: Mixed Identities, one begins not with the marriage of a Maori woman but a Maori man from a dairy farming family to a Chinese woman born in New Zealand. Another begins with the marriage of a Maori man raised in the Far North during the 1960s in a house without running water or electricity to a Chinese Singaporean woman pampered as a child by servants. Another commences with the marriage of a Chinese Malaysian graduate of Auckland University to a woman originally fluent in Maori who, after more than a decade of living in Kuala Lumpur with her husband and learning some Chinese and Malay, is no longer confident speaking Maori. There are no stories of any marriages or relationships between new Chinese and Maori but presumably they will emerge.
As a consequence of these complications there is also a range of views on cultural and ethnic issues. Both of the partners of one of the married couples are “half and half”, and yet while one thinks “there are too many Asians, too many Chinese”, the other thinks that Asian immigration is positive socially and economically. Ip finds that the attitudes of Maori-Chinese towards the new Chinese are remarkably similar to those of mainstream New Zealanders, and yet most seem proud of their Chinese ancestry. One young Maori-Chinese woman tells of returning to the village of her Chinese grandfather and bursting into tears when she discovers that his Chinese wife and family have family photos of the New Zealand side of the family on the wall. Some of the subjects give themselves labels such as “Ngati Peking”. Many confess to the anger and hurt they experience when in the last decade or more someone in the street has told them to “go home”.
Not surprisingly, the relationship between biculturalism and multiculturalism looms large. Most don’t see any contradiction between the two. Ip believes that “the two principles should not be taken to be binary opposites, but rather biculturalism can be conceived as the framework within which multiculturalism may be realised”, but she does not explain how this is logically possible. Nevertheless at the level of lived reality most Maori-Chinese seem to manage extremely well. Although it is hard to tell how representative these families are, their histories are largely happy and their individuals, particularly those from the most recent generation, noticeably successful.
Most of Being Maori-Chinese consists of interviews but there is also a lengthy introduction, long descriptive and analytical sections surrounding the interviews, and a short conclusion. There is quite a bit of repetition between all these parts. We are told on several occasions, for example, that Chinese family names have been lost because immigration officials mistook last names as family names. The cultural analysis sometimes lacks philosophical precision and rigour. Nevertheless this is an engrossing book and the first ever on such a subject. There may not be many Maori-Chinese in New Zealand but Ip convincingly shows how these “seven families mirror the story of New Zealand as a nation.”
Charles Ferrall teaches English at Victoria University of Wellington and is one of the editors of East by South: China in the Australasian Imagination.