The 75th Anniversary of Chinese War Refugees in New Zealand

Seventy five years ago, 239 women and 244 children fled the brutal Japanese invasion of Canton and made their way to New Zealand; marking the beginning Chinese family settlement in Aotearoa. Kiwese spoke with Helen Wong from the New Zealand Chinese Association to find out more.

Searching for bodies after a a Japanese airstrike. Canton, 1938. Image from
Searching for bodies after a Japanese airstrike. Canton, 1938. Image from Getty Images.

Hi Helen! What’s your family’s story in New Zealand?

My family are from Jung Seng (now Zengcheng 增城). My grandfather came in 1880, when he was just eleven. He came to help his sister, who had a fruit shop with her husband in Stratford. He returned to China when he was 21 to buy land and houses and eventually took over the fruit shop when his sister and her husband wanted to return to China. He was in Manaia, Taranaki all that time.

How did this 75th anniversary of Cantonese war refugees arriving in New Zealand come about?

It is being run by the New Zealand Chinese Association Auckland branch. Earlier this year, we had a 75 year celebration of the Chan clan, my mother-in-law’s people. NZCA heard about it and decided we should do a big one to celebrate all the refugees who came at that time. My mother-in-law’s family walked from Guangzhou to Hong Kong [approx 120km] to escape the Japanese military, including little kids of 3 or 4. It took about 10 days to get from the villages, walking down the railway lines to Hong Kong. Once in Hong Kong, they had to wait for the boats to Sydney, then onto New Zealand.

CANTON, CHINA - OCTOBER 21: Japanese soldiers celebrate their victory on October 21,1938 in Canton in front of the entrance of the seat of the Chinese Nationalist government after Japanese column of 3,000 men, led by tanks, stormed into Canton. Image from Getty Images.
Japanese soldiers celebrate their victory on October 21,1938 in Canton in front of the entrance of the seat of the Chinese Nationalist government. Image from Getty Images.

Did the arrival of these war refugees mark a new acceptance of Chinese in New Zealand?

Well, the New Zealand Government did allow the Chinese to come here – mostly men, but there was a Poll Tax. Women were not allowed because they didn’t want the Chinese population to grow.

What were the logistics of getting several hundred refugees out of Canton and over to New Zealand?

The men went back to escort the women and children out of the villages of the Pearl River Delta region. In my mother-in-law’s case, her father went back and escorted the whole group of about 30 out on the same boat. In Hong Kong, there was a place that did business with businesses like Wah Lees back in New Zealand – you’ve just interviewed Barry! There was a big organisation of Jung Seng people who organised the tickets and shipping fares and made arrangements for people to come to Sydney then to New Zealand.

Helen's mother-in-law arrived on the same boat as these refugees in 1939. Image from New Zealand Herald.
Helen’s mother-in-law arrived on the same boat as these refugees in 1939. Image from New Zealand Herald.

What is the significance of Chinese women and children being allowed to come in New Zealand?

Once the women and children came here, it was the start of Chinese families in New Zealand. Before that sojourners were just going back and forth – they didn’t really want to be living in New Zealand, they wanted to go back to China to die. That was okay until the Sino-Japanese War, then after that the Communists came – so a lot of people had no way to go back.

“It was more of a humanitarian thing to allow women and children to come to New Zealand, but they still had to pay £100 each in Poll Tax.

On top of that, they had to pay another £500 bond and ensure any children born here would to go back to China as well.”

Do you think this history will eventually be included in the national curriculum?

Richard Leung, Chair of the NZCA Auckland branch is really hot on trying to get this out there. A lot of the new migrants think we just got off the boat in 1970. They don’t know about the history of the ‘old Chinese.’ They don’t know about the gold miners, the Poll Tax, the hardships, and how we had to put up with a lot.

What was your experience growing up in Hawera?

When I was going through school, I got teased a lot. We were the only foreigners in town. Everybody else was either Maori or European. The relationships between Maori and Chinese were better than the relationship with the Europeans. We did Kiwi things and tried to fit in as best we could, by playing rugby and netball. The difference being we spoke Chinese at home, and for birthday parties my mum would do Chinese food – the kids would gasp because they’d never had it before!

Little Helen and her sister Barbara with some friends at home in Hawera, 1960. Image courtesy of Helen.
Helen and her older sister Barbara with friends in Hawera, 1960. Image courtesy of Helen.

“We got stuck in a time warp.”

The idea of what it even is to be Chinese. Before coming to China, my understanding of Chinese culture was limited to the few traditions we retained in my family, yum cha, films… the idea of Chinese culture and what being Chinese means is different for many people.

Yeah, but I think you will find us old Chinese are more Chinese than the Chinese. We’ve stuck to traditions. We got stuck in a time warp. My mother came from China in 1948 and I do what she did and my husband follows what his mother did. But when the Communists came over, a lot of that stuff was chucked out the window. Family histories, gone. A lot of the traditional celebration areas in the villages were just destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

“The Chinese are under a one child policy. Whereas we Chinese in New Zealand tend to have big families with lots of aunties and uncles.”

New migrants are changing the face of Auckland. Do you see this affecting perceptions of the original Cantonese community?

Yes. We’ve tended not to be taken notice of. One of the reasons we are holding this event is to say “hey, the Cantonese have been in New Zealand for a long time and we’re still here.” Our forbearers first came as gold miners, then became market gardeners and so on. Whereas the new migrants that come now are more educated and either come for university or a professional job.

How do you see the ‘old hand’ Cantonese legacy being handed on to the younger generation? Seen as there is a general lack of Cantonese-speaking young people who are interested.

I still see it being handed on. The old committee members are going on 80 now, but we have a lot of members in the Women’s Group in their 40s-60s. Then the Future Dragons are 18-30s. For the kids we have sports clubs and there is always Easter Tournament. We get a lot of support in organising the Chinese New Year at Greenlane every year, where a lot of new migrants come and interact with the more established community.

As a nation, if we are wanting to redefine ‘Kiwi’ as a concept for all, not just another word for Pakeha, do you think if the Chinese are always referred to as an ‘ethnic community’ it keeps us as a fringe group, as opposed to acknowledgement that we helped build this place? I’m referring to the attendance of the Minister of Ethnic Communities to the event.

They need to have it in a way, because otherwise we get disenfranchised. In the lead up to the election, I’m not sure how many politicians spoke to Indian groups or Korean groups. A lot of the people here now actually don’t speak English. So if you try to make everybody the same, everybody Kiwi, its not gonna work. Look at the community now, we have Chinese newspapers, radio, TV. I can’t read Chinese, so I have no idea if they have an underground thing going on. When you get the media split into different languages like that, you are never going to get a ‘Kiwi’ society.

Do you think there is adequate Chinese representation in our MMP system?

What I can say is, the Chinese who are in Parliament do not represent us. They don’t even pretend to, they just don’t. I’ve never seen them turn up at our Cantonese functions. They are looking after the newbies and we just have to put up with the run of the mill politicians. I guess we Kiwis just have to go with the flow and be Kiwis.

Thanks for sharing, Helen!

Helen is the Treasurer of the NZCA Auckland branch Women’s Group and is the author of ‘In the Mountain’s Shadow: A Century of Chinese in Taranaki 1870-1970.’ roots The ‘To Grow Roots Where They Land‘ Anniversary is this Sunday 12 October at Alexandra Park, Auckland. For tickets, email 75thnzca@gmail.com. Were your ancestors one of the refugees to flee to New Zealand? Check out the shipping list from 1940.

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