Friday, December 19, 2003

On reading histories of the Chinese in New Zealand

Being a first generation Chinese New Zealander, I can’t claim to share the history of those Chinese whose ancestors came to New Zealand in the late 1800s to search for gold. But I can try to appreciate the hardships they went through. I found out a little of the Chinese history of Seattle and San Francisco when I was holidaying in those cities, and it seems to me that the experiences of Chinese all over the Western world must have been similar.

‘Unfolding History, Evolving Identity: The Chinese in New Zealand’ (Edited by Manying Ip) is the first book I’ve read on the subject of the Chinese in New Zealand, though there have been several books published in the last few decades.

The first section of the book describes the conditions of the Chinese gold-diggers, and the negative responses of white New Zealand. For example, white workers often complained of being over-run by Chinese, though the Chinese were vastly out-numbered, and fearful of their foreign, opium-smoking ways. Hell, the government even banned Chinese women from entering the country for a couple of decades in the early 1900s, in the hope of minimising Chinese population growth. Sound familiar?

Other essays focus on the experiences of the next generation of Chinese New Zealanders. By this time, the one-hundred-pound poll tax (which was, of course, applied only to Chinese immigrants) was abolished and local-born Chinese were expected to have assimilated into the majority British-based culture. Mind you, right up until the Seventies, New Zealand imposed a limit on the number of Asians allowed permanent residence in the country - the only ethnic group treated this way.

And lastly, several writers have contributed work on the most recent wave of Asian immigration to New Zealand in the 1990s - which coincides with the latest wave of anti-Asian immigration feeling…..

Here's the next book I read on the subject -
Thomas Tsu-wee Tan’s ‘Your Chinese Roots - the overseas Chinese Story’ is more focused on the Chinese in Singapore, which is where the author lives. This book is quite a bit older than Ip's. It is a more personal view, probably due to the fact that it is the work of one person. But it is very interesting for his explanations of aspects of Chinese culture, such as Taoism, Confucious, and (importantly), why the Chinese who went to places like the United States, Australia and New Zealand to search for gold, never intended to settle.

He also includes a section in which he gives meanings of Chinese surnames, which might be useful for genealogical purposes. I just have to find out what my surname looks like in Chinese….

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