He Tangata: Interview with Mayor Meng Foon

Tūranga-nui-a-Kiwa, “the Great standing place of Kiwa,” formerly “the first city to see the sun” (jeez… thanks, Apia), whānau hometown Gisborne on the North Island’s East Coast is a very special place indeed.

Beaches, cicada song, 50c ice-blocks from the dairy, backyard cricket with the cuzzies! Those hot summers up at Por Por’s are seared into my memory, us Chinese kids barefoot biking the streets, bronzed brown and yellow… NB: Outdoor pursuits dwindled as we later adopted mahjong and beer.

For almost fifteen years now, tri-lingual local bro and cultural chameleon Meng Foon has been the Mayor of this predominantely Māori beach town. I’ve seen him confidently korero in Te Reo with Māori figureheads, slay games of mahjong in a single round, and even pose in photos with Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China.

Kiwese caught up with Mayor Meng recently about his goals as the new President of the New Zealand Chinese Association (NZCA), what it was like growing up in Gizzy and why the town could be adding 吉斯伯恩 Jí sī bó ēn to it’s long-list of nicknames in the future.

Portrait by Nathan Foon. Image from Nathan @ Two Pumps.

Portrait by Nathan Foon, Two Pumps. Image supplied by the artist.

KIWESE: Kia Ora Meng. Could you tell us a bit about your whakapapa and settlement on the East Coast? 

MENG FOON: My Dad came to Gisborne, NZ, in 1947. Their family had fled Guangzhou to Hong Kong because of the Japanese War. Dad married Mum in 1959 in HK and came back to Gisborne to continue their market garden business. Dad is Seyip and Mum is Taishan – both speak different dialects of Chinese, so we know both. My kids are all grown up now: Amanda in London, Jessica in Auckland, Nathan in Wellington.

What was your childhood like growing up in Gisborne in the 60s and 70s?

We grew up knowing work and supporting our parents, we loved being kids as we could build fires, play in the drains, make bow and arrows, toys from my uncle… but most of the time if we weren’t at school we worked.

Dad would pick us up from school at lunch time, we would quickly eat our lunch in the truck and do an hour of garden work, then go back to school.

We worked in the shop, standing on a box to reach the till. And we had a horse called Dick who did some of our preparation work for our gardens. I started on tractor work at 8 years of age.

Gisborne's gorgeous Wainui Beach. Image from Wainuibeach.co.nz.

Gisborne’s gorgeous Wainui Beach. Image from Wainuibeach.co.nz by Gray Clapham.

Most Kiwis are monolingual, with a mere 18.6% listed as speaking more than one language in the 2013 census. It’s well known that you are fluent in Te Reo, English and Cantonese. Can you talk about your own experience with language learning, at home and at school growing up, as well as now in the community?

Working in the shop we had all sorts of dialects comes to our place, the many forms of English, from Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English customers fascinated me. Even customers told me that the north of London was different from the south of London!

Māori was also spoken by our customers and I would always copy what they said with their tones, they laughed at us sometimes when what we said was naughty. So gradually I learnt more Māori.

Our Māori customers were great they were very encouraging, I loved the stories of all cultures and Mum used to tell us Chinese stories – we just couldn’t get enough.

“I found out at an early age that my Māori friends didn’t speak Māori, which was odd to me as we spoke Chinese at home and sometimes to other Chinese kids.”

What motivated you to first get involved with local politics in the mid 1990s?

We bought a shopping mall in August 1997, one of the buildings we built was a Community Police Station. I made good friends with a couple of police men, Hemi Hikuwai and Allan Davidson. We would solve all the world problems over tea and biscuits. One day he said that I would make a good councillor. I didn’t even know what that was, after a bit more chatting he said, “lunch is good.”

Anyway, he introduced me to a councillor who presented the Patutahi Taruheru Ward, Crl Owen Pinching. He was a great mentor and showed me all the issues of the area introduced me to a number of people and we became good mates.

I could stand in the city ward or the country ward, I choose the later as it was where our gardens were, our shop and our home, most people knew who we were, most of them were our customers.

We got our voting strategy with Hemi and Allan and I won the seat in 1994. There were 2 positions and I was pleased to top the polls on my first election. In 1998 I stood for Mayor and missed out and was successful in 2001.

You’ve been Mayor of Gisborne since 2001, what is your ethos towards leadership?

Listening to the wants and needs of the community, support them,

It is all about people, people, people.

My own agenda.

Having and plan and executing it is very important.

Say what you do and do it well.

Keep focussed on the important matters.

Meng's campaign for Mayor was successful again in 2013.

Meng’s campaign for Mayor was successful again in 2013.

We are now seeing a gulf between the original old hand Canto Chinese, and the ‘new wave’ of Chinese to NZ. Culturally, socially and linguistically these groups differ greatly from one another. As the President of the NZCA, how do seek to appeal to the various needs of this ever changing ‘Chinese community’ of NZ?

Change is inevitable and it is a journey, there have been many waves of Chinese coming to NZ from gold miners, pre-WWI, WWII, Hong Kong Chinese, Colombo Plan – Malaysian Chinese, Taiwanese Chinese, now Chinese from China, we are all from the same womb.

We need to celebrate and embrace each other’s values. It is great to have such challenges. Meet with the various groups, learning Mandarin is a start.

Gisborne has the largest percentage of Te Reo speakers in the country, truly awesome! How do you see the preservation of Te Reo holding itself alongside the growing urgency for more Asian language education? There appears to be a growing narrative where Te Reo is labelled a ‘dying language,’ while Mandarin and other Asian languages are the ‘languages of the future’…

Māori is the native language and it unique to Māori and NZ, I still believe in Māori being compulsory in schools.

A few schools are now having Mandarin classes, which is great, I know more Kiwis are looking at the future.

Just like at a time when the Japanese economy was booming and Japanese was a key language in schools.

At the Bananas Conference 2014, I heard you speak on a panel with Dr. Pita Sharples about Maori-Chinese relations. As much as I dislike the ‘banana’ analogy, it would seem you are more brown on the inside than white!! How do you balance your support for the interests of various iwi, whilst also being an ambassador for the NZ Chinese community and new economic interests from China?

Always act with integrity and good faith and this will get us a long way in our relationship building.

READ: ‘Chinese and Māori business relationships are the future of NZ’s prosperity,’ by Meng Foon

For many young people outside of Gisborne, the city is now synonymous with Rhythm and Vines. Tens of thousands of party goers descending on Gisborne every year obviously bring pros and cons to the city. How have you seen this festival affect Gisborne over the years?

The festival has been great for our region, but bodes well for the future as this will help our future prosperity as a great place to live play and do business.

Just another day at Bay Watch. End of 2009, RnV campsite.

Just another day at Bay Watch. End of 2009, RnV campsite.

“Yummy yummy in my tummy!” – I know you are a passionate foodie. Could you talk about food culture in Gisborne? I’ve seen some really unique kai on your Facebook, Filipino roast hog, earth coal fired lamb tails…

We have the world food and sea baskets at our doorstep in Gisborne, so fresh so healthy and yummy yes! Food is a great door opener for us and a great ambassador to show our wares. I generally like plain food fresh from the sea with squeeze of lemon on my crayfish, paua, kina, fresh veges.

We have great wines which are made with love, for love.

Can you share your favourite spots in Gisborne?

We have so many special spots in paradise, my one favourite is on the beach with Ying and family sharing food.

The Dark Horse is a film that has brought a lot of international attention to the region. Were you acquainted with Genesis Potini? How has this film been received by the community?

We love this film and I have known Genesis for a number of years, he could speak perfect Mandarin, awesome. We had Whale Rider, Nati, White Lies, they are all great stories of our world view.

Cheeky one – Mum said back in the day she was blamed for stealing several pies at Sunday school and got the strap for it… but she reckons it was you!! Confirm or deny.

I love pies, I think stealing is an adult term, we just loved life.

Hahahaha crack up! Who ate all the pies? Thanks, Meng.

Kiwese and whanau VS. Meng Foon. Summer, 2010.

Kiwese and whanau VS. Meng Foon. Summer, 2010.

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