Started from the Bottom Now We’re Here: 14 Years Since the Poll Tax Apology

“Sorry,” “arohamai,” “对不起,” “ma bad.”

Kiwis tend to over apologise for everything – sorry for being late, sorry for moving your bag, sorry for ever so slightly scuffing your foot on the bus. But what about when ‘sorry’ really means something?

The Poll Tax was a tonnage restriction and tax on all Chinese arrivals to New Zealand from 1881 to 1944

Fourteen years ago today, the New Zealand government officially apologised to the descendants of those who paid this racially discriminatory fee.

So, now what? Does anyone even know? Does anyone even care? …is this thing on?!

Let us whisk our minds back to February 2002…

New Zealand has completed Phase 1 of it’s metamorphosis into a Lord of the Rings tourist attraction – the Fellowship of the Ring has just premiered in Wellington, an enormous troll in a loincloth stands on top of The Embassy, and pre-Sir Peter Jackson has taken it upon himself to colonise the suburb of Miramar.

The All Blacks golden era of Lomu, Umaga, Cullen and Merhtens is still in play. Ju Bailz and R-Long are resident anchors on One Network News. Whale Rider is in production – the nation is yet to cry with Keisha. Poet and novelist Alison Wong wins the Robert Burns Fellowship at Otago University.

Popular New Zealand music is transitioning from the power chorded guitar rock of Zed, Tadpole and Fur Patrol to the smooth Pasifika stylings of Salmonella Dub, Nesian Mystik and a Supergroove-less Che Fu.

Whenever, Wherever by Shakira has been top of the charts for four, mind-numbing weeks. January’s Big Day Out served up headliners such as New Order, The Prodigy, Peaches and The White Stripes. In the wake of 9/11, Shihad rename themselves as Pacifier and are shat on by the bogan community at large.

Kiwese was 11 years old and cared for little other than scootering around Lyall Bay with her mates.

The 12th of February 2002 was Chinese New Year and a momentous occasion in New Zealand Chinese history, as the OG (original generation) took a pause from stuffing their faces with delicious BBQ roast meats to humbly accept Prime Minister Helen Clark’s apology for the Poll Tax and other discriminatory pieces of legislation, including:

  • In 1908, Chinese people had to put a thumbprint on their Certificates of Registration before leaving the country.
  • Chinese people were deprived of their right to naturalisation (citizenship) in 1908 and this was not rescinded until 1951.
  • A reading test in English was introduced for Chinese – while other immigrants had only a writing test in their own language.
  • Even in 1935 when entry permits were introduced after a suspension of 15 years for reunification of family and partners of Chinese people, they were severely restricted.


As with the timing of most immigration-related issues, it’s election year. Polls, poll tax, apologies, reconciled Asians…

The Labour government publicised the occasion as a “new beginning,” while Pansy Wong, former National Spokesperson for Ethnic Affairs a.k.a. The Only Asian in Parliament, let it rip by criticising the whole thing as “the indecent haste of election year politics,” due to what some considered a lack of consultation with the wider Chinese community.

As the late great neurologist, Chinese advocate and author of Turning Stone into Jade David Fung wrote in his 2007 essay ‘The Tragi-Comedy of the Chinese Poll Tax Issue, whether the Labour government’s apology was a “political opportunity seized or due to genuine remorse,” we may continue to speculate.


Polynesian explorers navigated the stars from Hawaiki and arrived in Aotearoa no later than 1300 AD. New Zealand was colonised by British settlers during the age of imperial expansion in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. This is key to understanding the creation of the New Zealand state in a global context, instead of isolating it to the bicultural narrative of early British encounters with Māori, or believing New Zealand is a young nation without history.

Around the mid-19th century, Chinese gold miners began to arrive in the South Island. By the late-19th century economic depression, anti-Asiatic groups began to raise their nasty voices, booming particularly loudly around election time, as is still the case with contemporary immigration debates. Chinese labourers were willing to work long hours with low wages, which some believed threatened the working class.

Until legislative independence from Britain in 1947, all New Zealand laws had to receive the royal seal of approval. A flat out ban on Chinese migrants was rejected as Britain was concerned it could affect their dealings with China at the time. As historian Nigel Murphy writes: “the problem was how to both exclude the Chinese from New Zealand and satisfy the imperial government.”

By Henri Meyer - An illustration from supplement to "Le Petit Journal", 16th January 1898. This reproduction from Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public Domain,

China – the cake of Kings and Emperors cartoon showing Britain, Germany, Russia, France and Japan dividing China. By Henri Meyer, 1898. This reproduction from Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public Domain,

A Brief Primer on the Poll Tax (1881-1944)

In line with the Australian states and British colonies in the Pacific, New Zealand passed the Chinese Immigrants Act in 1881 to repel Chinese immigrants and protect the racial purity of the ‘Britain of the South Seas.’

It began at £10 a head, with one Chinese permitted for every 10 tons of cargo. In 1888, the tonnage restriction increased to 200 tons of cargo, and in 1896, the Poll Tax skyrocketed to £100 per person. Only men were allowed – as the government did not want Chinese to reproduce.

And so marked the beginning of a long Kiwi tradition – blaming immigrants for failures in the New Zealand economy.

Some opposed the Poll Tax and increasing severity as racist and unacceptable, while others saw it as electioneering to the working class masses.

Historian and Poll Tax descendant Lynette Shum has written about her search for her grandmother’s immigration records at the National Archives. She eventually found her at the end, crudely lumped into one entry as ‘13 Chinese.’

The following two entries were cattle and sheep.

“There is about as much distinction between an Englishman and a Chinaman as there is between a Chinaman and a monkey,”
– Prime Minister Richard Seddon
“Any integration between Māori and Chinese would bring racial contamination and moral degradation of the Maori people.”
– Sir Apirana Ngata


Abolition of the Poll Tax (1944)

King George VI is head of state. Allegiance to the British Empire is fundamental to New Zealand’s sense of cultural identity, perhaps best exemplified in Empire Day, where Union Jack flags were paraded through the streets on Queen Victoria’s birthday to honour NZ’s place in the imperial British whole.

The Sino-Japanese War has mutated into the Pacific campaigns of World War II. As Japan occupies the British ‘possessions’ of Malaya, Hong Kong and Singapore, New Zealand has been summoned to go forth and retrieve for Mother the playthings that have been rudely extracted from her toy box.

American troops are based in New Zealand to plan further military expansion in the Pacific with the Royal New Zealand Air Force at their disposal, establishing bases which will act as the launchpad for the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Douglas Lilburn is composing, Allen Curnow is writing, Witi Ihimaera, Kiri Te Kanawa and Jack Body are born.

Wives and children of Chinese men in New Zealand are temporarily admitted as refugees of the Sino-Japanese War in 1939, albeit with bonds and payments in place to ensure they would go back to where they came from afterwards.

The Traditional Source Country List (a.k.a. The unofficial white New Zealand policy)

British migrants were granted free passage to New Zealand to fill the population shortage left by the war. Allowances were also made for white people from the ‘traditional source country list,’ resulting in scores of Dutch, German, Italian, Scandinavian and Greek immigrants in the 50s and 60s.

Contemporary Chinese migration to New Zealand can be dated neatly and precisely to 1987, when New Zealand’s new immigration policy removed the special ‘traditional source countries’ preference (i.e., preference for British citizens) and announced a universal criteria favouring ‘quality migrants’ who qualify for entry based on personal factors like youth, education, skills, work experience, and financial capital.”

via Here, There, and Back Again: A New Zealand Case Study of Chinese Circulatory Transmigration | Migration Policy

Glynis Ng became the first person of colour to work at NZ Immigration Service head office in 1978. During the job interview she was quizzed on whether she’d receive pressure from the Chinese community regarding help with immigration matters.

“Back then, traditional source people could get in on occupational grounds if their jobs were on the occupational priority list,” she says, “but applicants from non-traditional countries were declined under the guise of NZ being a signatory to a United Nations agreement not to take skilled applicants from developing countries, where they were needed in their home countries.”

She started working for the Immigration Service shortly after the shameful Dawn Raids – where Police singled out brown people on the streets and in their homes with orders to deport those who had overstayed their temporary work visas back to the Pacific Islands. Again, a policy created in the lead up to the election. Tongans and Samoans were most affected, while lawful Pacific Island citizens and even Māori were questioned at random. (Helen Clark apologised for the Dawn Raids in 2002.)

When the list was abandoned in 1987 and an immigration points system based on skills not race was introduced in the early 90s, many of our friends and their families made the move from Hong Kong and Taiwan to seek better lives in New Zealand.

Unsurprisingly, it was not long before anti-Chinese racism reared it’s ugly head in the political sphere once more…

The Anti-Chinese Resurgence of the Nineties (a.k.a. F.U. Winston Peters)

NZ First campaigned against the so-called ‘Asian Invasion’ ahead of the 1996 election, upsetting many New Zealanders, not least the Poll-Taxed Chinese community who had been working hard at their jobs, and working even harder not to be noticed.

As David Fung put it, the OG Chinese “self-perception of being model citizens was tarnished by the perceived bad behaviour of the newcomers.” Old Yellow Peril stereotypes of opium-smoking gamblers had been updated to 21st century Chinese ills of “flaunting their wealth, driving their BMW’s hazardously, talking in their own language too loudly…”

Floodgates, waves and other terms referring to Asians as fast-flowing, perilous bodies of water began to drift through New Zealand media.

Artist and Poll Tax descendant Kerry Ann Lee was in her early 20s at the time, thriving in the Wellington punk scene and running Red Letter Zine Distro. “All that bad media spin was enough to make the blood curl in an angry teenager’s heart in the late 90s,” she reflects over email.

kal feiyue

Hanging with KAL in Mt Vic

The Apology

Giving an apology can be difficult, as it is usually sparked by some kind of social pressure – like when your Form 1 teacher drags a boy across the classroom and forces him to apologise in front of everyone for making ching-chong eyes at you and making you cry after lunch. Whether he is genuinely remorseful or not, it is worth having him publicly admit he was wrong, to see him hang his head, feel the shame and say the words- “I’m sorry.” 

Likewise, receiving an apology can be awkward, the pregnant pause following the wrongdoer’s admission of guilt, the teacher’s expectant offering of “…so is it okay now?”

“The PM making a formal public apology to the Chinese was a landmark moment to my understanding, as nothing like that had ever come close to happening before,” KAL says, “it evoked a lot of hurt that was still happening at the time on the ground. Confusion too, I think.”

The Poll Tax was a financial burden for so many early Chinese settlers, but it’s not just the money. For the PT generation, decades of aching assimilation was unforgiving towards the heritage culture. As NZCA and CPTHT leader Esther Fung so astutely noted in her speech at the formal apology, “we have been a model minority, compliant and silent. Silence came too with the loss of the mother tongue – Cantonese, the language of our forbearers.”

Beijing-based Charlie Gao, whose family arrived after the Poll Tax era, remembers the Helen Clark apology well. “It was the acknowledgement that it was totally wrong and evil,” he reflects, “I thought that was particularly important, more than just the ‘we’re sorry’ part.”

“There’s power in a genuine apology,” he types over our VPN Facebook connections, “as it allows the healing process to start.”

(NB: only cos it’s about saying sorry, and only cos it’s the Royal Family Dance Crew from AKL. CROWNS UP!)

Professor Paul Spoonley, the long-time go-to guy for facts and figures on contemporary New Zealand immigration graciously got back to me on my ranting email in December.

“My view is that the apology had short-term impact amongst most non-Chinese,” he wrote, “would most be aware that there was an apology – probably not.”

True dat.

This article has been stressing me out, so I gave Mum a call.

“I think all the Chinese wanted was recognition,” she reckons, “we didn’t want to be seen as asking for hand outs, it didn’t go with the hard work ethic of the old restaurant and laundry generation.”

The Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust (est. 2004)

After the formal apology, the government continued to negotiate a settlement fee with various Poll Tax descendants – the exact details of which I’m not too clear. In any case, $5 million was given to the establishment of the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust (CPTHT) as a good will gesture to support projects and research that “strengthen the unique identity of Chinese New Zealanders and their communities in New Zealand in recognition of poll tax payers.”

Kerry Ann Lee is one artist who has benefited from CPTHT funding, going towards major public art productions, chiefly Home Made (2008), AM Park (2010), and the incredibly personal, incredibly epic The Unavailable Memory of Gold Coin Cafe (2014), which documents the existence and demolition of her family’s popular Chinese restaurant in Central Wellington.

Gold Coin Cafe KAL

Taken from The Unavailable Memory of Gold Coin Cafe (2014) by Kerry Ann Lee.

“There was a notable unease with the cold hard cash aspect,” reflects KAL, “especially with working class Chinese families like mine who were so used to being heads down and invisible and definitely definitely never expecting a ‘hand-out,’ which I understand the Poll Tax Fund has been regarded as by some.”

“My parent’s (and their parent’s) generations had their identity reflected back to them by dominant NZ culture – from token representation to outright racism,” she adds, “for me, it’s been a process of recovery in terms of our settlement stories, working through the scars of displacement, outsidering and being a misfit.”

Hard. Pretty sure I hadn’t seen a Kiwi Chinese on TV till Li Mei on Shortland Street in like third form. And she was annoying as. Haha. Thank god for Jane Yee presenting on C4 in the mid 2000s, or I might’ve thought we never existed outside academia, medicine and/or the restaurant industry.

Aotearoa Chinese Artists Network (ACHA) artist and self-described ‘gweipo who doesn’t look very Asian’ Kim Lowe has also been able to create and exhibit with assistance from the CPTHT. “The apology did change something for me, was like a switch that was turned on at the right time,” she says, “it was after the apology that I started contacting NZC (NZ Chinese) artists and designers.”

President of the New Zealand Chinese Association and old hand market gardener Mayor of Gisborne Meng Foon says the CPTHT has funded the book Sons of the Soil, “a great history of our people in the market garden sector.”

“Now the CPTHT is directing more publications on fruit shops, laundries and other sector vocations,” he adds, “which will be interesting for future generations.”

“There is a sense in which the government feels it has done its bit – and to some extent it has – the community has been mandated to do things in its own interest,” concludes Spoonley, “but what constitutes that community – and the context – has changed dramatically in the last 13 years with the arrival of PRC Chinese.”


The Current Qíngkuàng

Today, the Chinese diaspora in Aotearoa is more diverse than ever. Those of us affected by the Poll Tax have been long outnumbered by other Chinese from all over the world. In addition, ‘local born’ is no longer an automatic referent to Poll Tax descendants. Roots run deep from many family trees.

While most recent Chinese migrants do not know what it is like to be an ethnic minority – the pain and pleasure, the cultural confusion, the misrepresentation – the local born know it all too well.

“While the local born acquired their humility and inoffensiveness because they had to exist as a minority under a white mono-culture, the new arrivals grew up in societies where Chinese are dominant and did not need to apologise for their Chineseness,” wrote Manying Ip and David Pang over ten years ago.

The complexity continues when the idea of the ‘ethnic community’ is evoked, and we are all, despite the vast range of different backgrounds, languages and condiment preferences, brought under the all inclusive umbrella of “the Chinese community.”

In online Chinese-language forums, I’ve seen newer migrants express scorn for NZ Chinese who have lost their language and culture, claiming we are not real Chinese. The authenticity debate can be upsetting, as well as inflaming the ‘you don’t know shit’ attitude of the local born.

There’s been a gulf between each generation of migrants since the Gold Rush, each wave blaming the next for making us collectively look bad – the latest outcry regarding statements from Phil Twyford about Chinese sounding names last year. As Ip and Pang put it, Chinese New Zealanders “cannot be expected to behave in a ‘pan-Chinese manner’ simply because they belong to the same ethnic group.”

Upon reading this story back to front, local born Chinese could be considered out of touch with difficulties faced by newer migrants, or even alienate them for not being real Kiwis. What’s up with that? We of all people know that shit hurts! We could try harder to understand the challenges of new migrants. We all could.


Everybody hurts. Everyone wants their stories to be heard, to be represented in this modern day, multicultural New Zealand.

The history of the Poll Tax is there for all to explore, well-documented in the work of academics, historians, artists, playwrights and poets (James Ng, Lynda Chanwai-Earle, Renee Liang, Chris Tse, Alison Wong to name a few). The NZ school curriculum does appear to include modules on Chinese settler history and we can only hope more people become educated on this “blot on our legislation.”

As David Fung put it, “we can now raise our heads high to take our rightful place in New Zealand.”

A fifth of the New Zealand population lives overseas. Those based in the U.S. aren’t necessarily American, those in Australia don’t need to become Aussies. Likewise, those who come to live in the beautiful land of Aotearoa don’t need to sacrifice their original sense of identity to become New Zealanders. We can be different, together.

I’d like to close with one of my favourite quotes from ‘Our Sea of Islands’ by Professor Epeli Hau’ofa, shared with me by the Michael Powles of the New Zealand China Friendship Society (NZCFS) a few years back.

Social scientists may write of Oceania as a Spanish Lake, a British Lake, an American Lake, and even a Japanese Lake. But we all know that only those who make the ocean their home and love it, can really claim it theirs. Conquerors come, conquerors go, the ocean remains, mother only to her children. This mother has a big heart; she adopts anyone who loves her.





This article is made possible with the resources available at Steven Young’s ‘Chinese in New Zealand‘ website, NZ Chinese Proboards and Migration Policy which includes writings from David Fung, Esther Fung, Manying Ip, Lynette Shum, Nigel Murphy and Pansy Wong.

Header image from ‘Home Made’ (2008) by Kerry Ann Lee, picturing ‘Chang-O, the Chinese Moon Goddess and her pet rabbit (an image of a Chinatown performer from Picturing Chinatown – Art and Orientalism in San Francisco by Anthony Lee, University of California Press, 2001), watch over paper ships made of hell money (bought at Asian grocery stores and traditionall burnt at Chinese funerals) as they sail across the waters of anonymous New Zealand seascape.’

Other resources include:

  • White Ghosts, Yellow Peril – China and New Zealand 1790 – 1950 by Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Zeng Dazheng

  • New Zealand Identities: Departures and Destinations edited by Teresia Teaiwa

  • Immigrants and Citizens: New Zealanders and Asian Immigration in Historical Context by Malcolm McKinnon

  • ‘Our Sea of Islands’ by Professor Epeli Hau’ofa

  • East by South: China in the Australasian Imagination by Charles Ferrall, Paul Millar, Keren Smith

Special thanks to Kerry Ann Lee, Meng Foon, Paul Spoonley, Manying Ip, Stevan Eldred-Grigg, Kim Lowe, Charlie Gao, Tze Ming Mok, Michael Powles, Richard Leung, Helen Wong, Aunty Glynis, Mum and my late grandparents for sticking it out and giving us life in New Zealand. And you, for reading all that.

Are you a Poll Tax descendant? Find out how you can apply for CPTHT funding here. [edit: you do not need to be a PT descendant to apply, just need to be interested in Chinese issues! Go for it!]