Where’s Rewi? Mary Roberts 

White Ghosts, Yellow Peril: China and New Zealand 1790–1959
Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Zeng Dazheng
Otago University Press, $55.00,
ISBN 9781877578656

Stevan Eldred-Grigg and Zeng Dazheng have, in some respects, written the book that I’ve been waiting for. This is a thorough, readable and comprehensive survey of relations between China and New Zealand in the 19th and first half of the 20th century. It also provides a balanced and enlightening account of the growth of the “traditional” Chinese community in New Zealand: that is, the largely Cantonese community that New Zealanders of my generation (born in the 1950s) and older knew as the New Zealand Chinese. The New Zealand Chinese community is now made up of people whose origins are from all over the Sinophone world, but for many decades its members were largely from three small areas of Guangdong (Canton) province.

Eldred-Grigg and Zeng, however, have set themselves a bigger challenge than simply telling the story of the traditional Cantonese community in New Zealand. They not only “summarise and synthesise all work done by the rather few writers who have looked at Chinese New Zealand”, but they also seek to set that story alongside accounts of Chinese and New Zealand history. These accounts, necessarily brief but clear and vividly written, provide a context which helps us to understand the forces that prompted Chinese migration to New Zealand and the opposition to this migration – opposition which led to some shameful, racist legislation that attempted to minimise the numbers of people arriving from China. The book covers relations between Pākehā and Chinese and Māori and Chinese, and traces the slow reorientation of the Chinese community in New Zealand from a largely sojourner community of men who expected to return to their homeland to a community of men, women and children – a community whose members, by 1950, increasingly saw themselves as committed to a new homeland in New Zealand.

The discussion of Chinese migrants in Samoa and Nauru was, to me, particularly interesting, as I knew little about this passage in the histories of the countries involved. The account of the indentured labour system under which Chinese men came to dig out the phosphates on which New Zealand’s agriculture thrived is particularly depressing. And Prime Minister Peter Fraser’s determination to keep the indentured labour system going, despite opposition from London and the United Nations, is a sad part of that tale.

Besides telling the story of Chinese in New Zealand and its Pacific territories, the authors also outline the stories of New Zealanders in China. New Zealanders in business are mentioned, and the work of the journalist and academic James Bertram is well used, but the focus is mainly on those (the bulk of the few New Zealanders living in China at that time) who went with a mission to convert, teach or heal.

In addition to the virtues of the written text, the authors provide a wide variety of visual material to add depth and shade to their picture. These extend our understanding of the world in which the subjects of this book moved and had their being. Images such as the prosperous Taranaki fruiter’s shopfront of 1910, the Greymouth family posing for their photograph in a wonderful mixture of Chinese and European “best” dress, the labourers digging for phosphate on Nauru, and the promotional poster for the Chinese universities’ association football tour of New Zealand in 1924 – all contribute to the reader’s understanding of the events under discussion.

This book makes a considerable contribution to the literature available to the non-specialist reader. However, there are three points at which it could serve that reader somewhat better than it does. I should have liked to see a note and an explanation about the decisions taken about romanistion of Chinese characters. Several different romanisation systems appear to be in use, and characters are romanised using standard Putonghua (Mandarin) pinyin and also romanised using various methods of spelling out Cantonese. The oddest decision, perhaps, is to use standard Putonghua pinyin for the counties of Zengcheng and Panyu and a Cantonese romanisation for Toi Saan (these are the three areas from which most “traditional” Cantonese Chinese immigration to New Zealand originated). This leads to a lack of clarity when, for instance, Ng Fong is quoted talking about “a Tsang-sheng girl” and the reader can nowhere check to find out that (as far as I can tell) Tsang-sheng and Zengcheng are the same place. Romanisation of Chinese can be tricky, and even trickier when many different sources are cited and with decisions to be made about Cantonese versus Putonghua romanisation, but, at the least, the reader should receive some explanation of the basis on which the decisions were taken; even better would be a glossary listing the various equivalent romanisations and providing the Chinese characters.

Another problematic area of nomenclature is the use of the terms “Cantonese” and “Chinese”. As the book progresses, the authors increasingly, but not exclusively, use the term “Cantonese”. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to a confusing jumble of terminology. To take one example, where the authors are speaking about Chinese in Niue and the Cook Islands: in the space of two paragraphs, they talk about “The door … firmly closed to Chinese by white officials”, “protecting Polynesians from the Cantonese”, “shipping indentured Chinese workers”, “ban on Cantonese immigration”, “Aged survivors, often Hakka”, “a blend of Chinese and Cook Island Māori. Hakka ways were blending with those of the Cook Islands”. I appreciate that the authors are making the point that most Chinese in New Zealand, during their period, were Cantonese (plus, initially, a few Hakka), but that purpose would be better served by sticking to “Chinese” and simply noting the near equivalence then of “Chinese” and “Cantonese”.

A more serious reservation is the treatment of Rewi Alley. Introduced as a “clever and flaxen-haired young socialist from Canterbury” – although what the colour of his hair has to do with his life in China is anyone’s guess – he is quoted twice and briefly mentioned once again. I give the last mention in full: “Rewi Alley the organizer of an industrial cooperative for the Guomindang, published poetry about the Chinese”. This seems an oddly inaccurate and incomplete summary of Alley’s work in China at that time. He did publish poetry about China and the Chinese; he also published several books, at least one of which, Yo Banfa, the authors have, by this point in their narrative, already twice quoted as part of their portrait of China’s desperate straits in the 1930s and 1940s. Alley was not really “the organizer of an industrial cooperative for the Guomindang”. Rather, he, with Edgar Snow and Helen Snow, was one of the prime founders and organizers of “The Chinese Industrial Cooperatives” (CIC), set up, as a non-governmental initiative, to provide work, and thus a livelihood, for refugees, “crippled soldiers” and the poor in China, while contributing to the “united front” war effort (united with the Communists) against the Japanese. At its height, according to Douglas Reynolds, there were over 1,857 of these small cooperatives.

In order to operate effectively in areas controlled by the Guomindang, the CIC had to work under the aegis of the Guomindang and eventually, according to Reynolds, became a kind of joint government-private venture – but it is inaccurate to imply that there was one industrial cooperative, established by the Guomindang and organized for them by Alley. There is also no mention of the school he established in China (which still exists) and which Barbara Spencer was or had been working at when she witnessed the Communist Party soldiers’ entry into Shandan (described in White Ghosts, Yellow Peril). Given the detail with which the courageous contribution of nurse Kathleen Hall is given and the information provided about the activities of other brave and resourceful New Zealanders, such as the teacher Frances Olgivie, it seems strange that so little attention is paid to the equally brave (and in many ways groundbreaking) work Alley did in China.

Despite these concerns, I read this book with much interest and enjoyment. This is not primarily a book for the historian whose work focuses on the history of Chinese New Zealand; it takes the work of such historians and integrates them into a thoroughly readable account that will be invaluable to anyone who needs to come up to speed quickly in this area, or who has a deep, general interest in this aspect of New Zealand history.

Mary Roberts teaches communication at the University of Macau.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Sociology
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