Sleeping with a panda, Mary Roberts

New Zealand’s China Experience: Its Genesis, Triumphs, and Occasional Moments of Less than Complete Success
Chris Elder (ed)
Victoria University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9780864738470

In 1972 New Zealand recognised China: how quaint this now sounds. The echoes of those far-off battles about whether or not China should be accorded diplomatic recognition resound through this book, which was published to mark the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and New Zealand. New Zealand’s China Experience is an anthology of writing and images edited by Chris Elder who, as a junior official at the New Zealand Embassy in Beijing, was a first-hand observer of initial developments of those relations. He was to return, as ambassador, in 1993, leaving that post in 1997. All in all, he seems the perfect choice of editor for a book of this kind.

The book is framed by its formal, commemorative purpose, opening with the remarks of the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joe Walding, on the occasion of the first ministerial-level contact with China in 1973, and closing with John Key’s remarks at a symposium held last year to mark the 40-year anniversary. In between are pieces by some 65 contributors: novelists, memoirists, journalists, visual artists, poets, government officials, academics, graphic novelists, photographers, script-writers and interviewees. The many formats emphasise the nature and range of New Zealand’s China experience.

Most of the contributors are non-Chinese New Zealanders, so the collection offers very much a Pakeha New Zealander view of China and the Chinese people. There are, however, some significant contributions from Chinese New Zealanders, including poems by Alison Wong and Chris Tze, an excerpt from Wong’s novel As the Earth Turns Silver, and Lam-Lau Yuet-Sin’s story from Manying Ip’s book Home away from Home: Life Stories of Chinese Women in New Zealand. As well as these, Kerry Ann Lee’s image Courtney Place [sic] and James Ng’s account of his uncle’s life all give the reader some idea of what the New Zealand experience was like for the earlier generations of Chinese immigrants to New Zealand, and Jenny Bol Jun Lee’s poem “Jade Taniwha” gives us a view of growing up Maori-Chinese in New Zealand. Tze Ming Mok’s poem and Kerry Ann Lee’s Lilliput are perhaps less focused on giving an account of being Chinese in New Zealand and are presumably included, along with “Writer Liu”, an extract from Mo Zhi Hong’s novel The Year of the Shanghai Shark, because of the creators’ New Zealand connections.

Generally the pieces are well chosen to give an overview of a New Zealand-centric narrative of the history of the connection between the two countries. Apart from a couple of apparent anomalies, they are arranged more or less in chronological order of the key person or incident, not necessarily in order of writing or publication. The narrative has four parts: the first, apart from some minor references to trading, is all about Chinese people coming to New Zealand and New Zealanders trying to stop or limit this flow: gold miners, racism in New Zealand, poll tax, restricted immigration, the occasional story of Chinese success in New Zealand. In this first part of the story there are very few accounts of New Zealanders going to China: James Huston Edgar, a missionary in China at the end of the 19th century, is the only example in this collection.

In the second section of the narrative, however, the focus switches to New Zealanders in China. Rewi Alley is perhaps the prime figure here. Not only is an extract from one of his best books Yo Banfa! [There is a Way!] included, but he is mentioned in at least six other pieces, most notably by Joseph Needham, the British sinologist. In the 1940s Alley and Needham were, because of a broken-down truck, stuck in a desert oasis in China’s northwest. As Elder says, “the two clearly hit it off”. In his account of that time, Needham writes:

The longer we stayed at Chienfotung, the more our reputation as physicians spread … Rewi demonstrated … what a wonderful natural physician he would have made, uniting warm human sympathy with strong intellect and apparently no aversion from the body in its diseased states.


I can testify that this episode, stranded in a desert oasis with congenial company, and with the marvellously painted and sculpted Buddhist Mogao caves to visit, remained in Rewi’s memory some 30 years later as one of those time out of time experiences one sometimes has – a period of enforced, yet pleasant, comparative relaxation in what was, at that time, a stupefyingly busy and engaged life.

However, while Rewi Alley is undoubtedly the best known of the New Zealanders to have engaged with China in this period, he is not the only one. Missionaries, humanitarian aid workers and two distinguished writers working as journalists, Robin Hyde and James Bertram, have all left accounts of their time in China that are included here. Some of these, particularly the excerpts from Bertram’s two books – Crisis in China: The Story of the Sian Mutiny and Capes of China Slide Away: A Memoir of Peace and War 1910-1980 – should encourage the reader to go to the source from which the excerpts are taken. This section of the narrative is also enriched by New Zealand artists’ engagement with an exhibition of Chinese art that toured New Zealand in 1937 (drawn from local, English and European collections, not from China). A delicate work by T A McCormack and the well-known Goddess of Mercy by Rita Angus are included, as colour plates, as examples of this response.

The third section of the narrative, understandably somewhat under-documented, is the period from 1949 and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, to the establishing of diplomatic relations in 1972. In this period of the New Zealand narrative, there is relatively little contact between the two countries, and what there is is coloured by an awareness that all contact is taking place in a politically charged situation. This feeling is caught by Margaret Garland’s account of her 1952 visit, as part of a group of politically interested New Zealanders, to a Chinese village:

Often as I came back like this from some such expedition I was rather amused to think that I was forming exactly the opinions or impressions that it was undoubtedly hoped I should form. This did not worry me because I felt quite satisfied that I was not being misled. When the headman in the village told us that their troubles were past and that the people were working towards greater and greater prosperity with great happiness and excitement, I could see no reason whatever to doubt it.


The fourth phase of the New Zealand narrative about New Zealand and China starts with the establishment of diplomatic contact in 1972, and the steady increase since that time in all forms of interactions between New Zealanders and Chinese people, with New Zealanders travelling to live, study, work and trade in China and Chinese travelling to New Zealand for the same reasons. The early trade and political aspects of this period are reflected in the final report to the New Zealand government written in 1975 by New Zealand’s first ambassador to China, Bryce Harland. His final paragraph sums up the attitude of all subsequent New Zealand officialdom:

New Zealand is a Pacific country. Our future security and prosperity depend on our ability to come to terms with the other countries in the region … China is one of those countries … We have begun to learn to sleep … with a Panda. And we have found that it is not so dangerous after all.


This last phase also tends to focus on New Zealanders’ experiences in China; as students in the 1970s (Paul Clark, now Professor of Chinese at Auckland University), “polishers” of Chinese publications in English in the 1980s (Mervyn Cull who left hurriedly at the time of the Tienanmen demonstrations) and travellers in the 2000s (Nathan Hoturoa Gray, walking the length of the Great Wall). Paula Morris’s short story “The City God” shows New Zealanders living and working in Shanghai as part of the international diaspora of global business. This part of the anthology also contains James Ng’s piece about his uncle’s life in New Zealand, but it feels slightly out of place here: it would be more at home in the earlier part of the book (although the uncle died in 1983) where the stories of Chinese lives in New Zealand are concentrated. Perhaps it is included here because otherwise there would be no non-fictional account of a Chinese experience in this section. It seems that the story of the second wave of Chinese migration to New Zealand is yet to be told.


Mary Roberts studied in Beijing in the 1970s and has researched Chinese immigration to New Zealand and how it has affected language practices in New Zealand Chinese families.


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