Yesterday a friend of Kiwese sent through this opinion piece: ‘Why focus on other cultures and not our own?’ by NZ Herald columnist Brian Rudman. I eyeballed it somewhat carefully – any article that opens with possessive pronouns around culture and a cartoon dragon engulfing a white, flag-waving, Fred Dagg figure in a wife beater warrants several deep breaths through the nose and a hot cup of tea before commencing.
Bring on the insecure white man searching for national identity.
Brian, so sorry to hear you’re upset about the growth of the Lantern Festival. Does it make you feel under represented? Were there no people of your colour performing? Did the stories not resonate with your own personal upbringing? Welcome to being an ethnic group in New Zealand, it’s so lovely of you to join us.
There seems to be an awful lot of soul searching in the way of national identity recently. That’ll be the flag referendum doing its job, appealing us to identify and belong to the state, soon to be controlled by our Jonkey Wall Street overlords.
Members of the dominant group in society tend to have weaker ethnic identities than members of minority groups. Pakeha New Zealanders have a tendency to conflate ethnicity with nationality, “I’m just a Kiwi.” Not English, half-Finnish, Scottish, just Kiwi.
Upon reading Rudman’s article, it’s clear New Zealand’s “just a kiwi” cultural black hole is gaping wide open. You can fill it with as much pav and rugby as you want, but it just doesn’t taste quite as good as deep fried wontons with sweet and sour sauce.
Brian’s ‘heart sank’ upon hearing the Auckland City Council’s suggestion of extending Chinese New Year celebrations in Auckland. It’s not like Chinese culture was silenced, ridiculed and caricatured for like, the first 150 years of settlement in Aotearoa. How dare Auckland even think of further representing a large and diverse ethnic group by sharing and celebrating their collective traditions over a festival period! Outrageous!
Here’s a play by play of Brian’s argument.
“Quality celebration of all our cultures more sorely needed than a parade each.”
Right? It’s would be so much better to condense our cultural celebrations into one rather than taking the time to appreciate and understand them individually. More bang for that tax payer buck, too. Who needs Matariki, Chinese New Year, Diwali, Holi, Paniyiri, Pasifika, Songkran, Mid-Autumn Festival…
Someone call the Minister of Ethnic Communities, he’ll sort us out a trestle table and kitchen and we’ll do the whole lot on one day, to lessen the impact on your fledgling, national ego.
“Instead of attempting what will always be a poor man’s imitation of a foreign festival…”
Complains about Council spending on Chinese New Year – calls the festival ‘poor man.’ My family put up our time-honoured, plastic tree from the Warehouse each Christmas. Are we a poor man’s imitation of a foreign festival? From 16th century Germany perhaps?
Auckland is Auckland, not Beijing, Jakarta or Taipei, meaning the annual Lantern Festival draws on our Cantonese, Hong Kong, Taiwanese, Singaporean, Malaysian, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Thai, Mainland Chinese, Korean, Filipino and NA (non-Asian) roots to celebrate Chinese New Year together.
Where else can you get a nasi goreng chased with L&P, Peking duck pancakes, steamed pork buns and sticky rice followed by hokey pokey ice-cream? Worth celebrating, I reckon.
“Our teams haka their way around the world, strutting our unique brand wherever they compete.”
Brian, Tikanga Maori is not a brand. It does not exist to make you feel like a big man in your All Blacks jersey at the pub.
Who would believe it; 176 years old and we still can’t even organise a decent national birthday party for ourselves.
Or: 176 years since the British forged a treaty in Maori and English with different meanings in each then confiscated land for white settlers with the backing of the Crown. Woop, birthday party!
“Now, if we’re not careful, our major population centre is about to lose that date to foreign dragon puppets.”
Wow. Foreign dragon puppets, really? Never mind that over 20% of people living in this major population centre are of Asian descent, or that 80% of Aucklanders are up for a $5 pad thai, the Lantern Festival exists for foreign dragon puppets. Gotcha.
“Talk about dumb Kiwis. We haven’t rid ourselves of our previous colonial masters, and now we’re flirting with a new one.”
Hold on Brian, are you really comparing Chinese New Year celebrations in Auckland with the colonisation of New Zealand and subjugation of its native inhabitants?
For Chinese people to do what Pākehā did to Māori in Aotearoa, we would have to impose a Chinese legal system and government, make a treaty in Chinese and English which has different meanings and then not honour either of them anyway by stealing and confiscating land, ban English and assault children who speak it at school, make practicing western biomedicine illegal, wipe out most of the population with SARS or something, and make sure criminal justice system disproportionately incarcerates Pākehā and that Pākehā have the lowest life expectancy and health outcomes. Just for kicks, any Pākehā seen as dissenting against Chinese rule will be chucked into prison under a law like Suppression of Rebellion or Terrorism Act.
That’s okay though because we would reserve four seats for you in parliament.
“We should be saying sorry, early February is taken. If you want to party, bring your dragons and your fireworks to our show. The embarrassing thing is, we don’t really have one.”
Possessive pronouns like ‘we’ and ‘our’ are kinda scary, like, who is Brian talking to? I think he is appealing to ‘New Zealanders’ – but keeping in mind earlier usage of the phrase ‘foreign dragon puppets,’ those of dragon descent can consider themselves left out of Brian’s mighty, nationalist utopia.
As for the rest of you, you should be out there telling that loving Auckland aunty to put away her wok and dumpling steamer in February cos bitch that date is TAKEN. Oppressing and silencing Asian cultures – the true blue Kiwi way.
Let us reflect on the reasons Pakeha New Zealanders don’t have a special cultural festival of their own. They used to last century – Empire Day! Where everyone would parade the streets with Union Jack flags to celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday. What happened? I guess imperialism lost its shine, Britain became less of a mate after joining the European Economic Community in 1973 and the old parades were replaced by silver ferned assurances that ‘we are NOT Britain!’
Chinese New Year is great and everyone is invited. White people dominate the mainstream cultural narrative for the rest of the year. When I was a kid, I asked mum why there’s a Mothers Day and Father’s Day, but no Children’s Day.
‘Everyday is Children’s Day!’ she beamed, hoeing into her annual Mother’s Day box of Scorched Almonds. This applies here too, everyday is (Pakeha) New Zealand Day!
“…lift Waitangi Day celebrations out of dysfunctional Waitangi, and create a new-style national birthday.”
Yes, let’s just forget all the historical injustices which have led to the social inequality, economic hardship and disrespected mana of the tangatawhenua and forge a NEW national BIRTHDAY where we can all get drunk and not feel bad about it, like Australia!
“A parade that represents all the groups that make up present-day Auckland, swirling pipes bands, throbbing Island drums, bobbing dragons, the lot.”
Yeah!! Then we can all hold hands and be happy and stand in a semi-circle around a rainbow and…
Brian’s suggested alternative to Auckland’s ’embarrassing’ lack of a national holiday display that stacks up against a Lunar New Year celebration observed by a fifth of the world’s population is essentially a ‘Waitangi National Day multicultural parade.’
Let me put it this way. Imagine if the Rugby World Cup, Cricket World Cup, Fifa World Cup, Netball World Cup, Wimbledon, NBA, PGA, Super 15, AFL and the Olympics were all condensed into one period. We’d have an overpacked event where we acknowledge the existence of sport, each code would get a fraction of the limelight to be appreciated and understood, and the whole thing would fly by in a piecemeal recognition of the already bleedingly obvious fact that there are a lot of different sports. No depth. No play by play analysis. No repeats. Just onto the next.
Don’t worry Brian, being an ethnic group in New Zealand isn’t so bad. You could have a Morris Dancing stage and serve meat with two veg at your ethnic food stall. But if and when you get bored, we’ll be happy to share our HK-style barbecue roast duck, Taiwanese pancakes, steamed pork buns, beef rendang, hot and spicy tofu, barely legal fireworks and dragons. There’s plenty to go round.
Sincerely, The Rest of Us.
Header image an Australian anti-Chinese cartoon from 1886, which the illustration from the NZ Herald piece in question has a frightening resemblance to.
For Chunjie 春节, Chinese New Year, Kiwesefelt it was time to ship on down to Guangzhou and get on a bus to see her Great Uncle Kan Bong; who has remained in the village where my Por Por was born and raised.
These thoughts from January preclude the following impressions of family, immigration and the pursuit of happiness.
‘Immigrant Song’ – Led Zeppelin (1970)
“Taishan is a little Hong Kong!” “台山是一个小香港！” a local man declared to me on the bus; a sweeping statement met with incredulous head turning and raised eyebrows of disbelief from other passengers. Our use of Mandarin in the Cantonese heartlands rang out sharply like an American accent aboard the Strathmore 44.
I was returning to a place I’d never been before — some think it’s Hong Kong, some think it’s a hole.
The parking attendant sat wide legged on a plastic stool, smoking a tall bamboo bong with a tin can clamped onto the side.
“Xiao Mei! Xiao Mei!” a voice called.
Holy shit. I was being addressed with my given Chinese name for the first time.
Out of instinct, I go in for the hug. Argh — I always forget that hugs are not the done thing here. Already committed, I proceed to give the three awkwardest hugs of all time. Smile, smile, keep smiling. So many different titles for addressing family members. Heard once and promptly forgotten. Thankfully, I had the main ones down – Kan Bong was my Kiew Gong 舅公 and his wife was my Jiu Por 舅婆.
Kan Bong, a stoic, stony-faced former-water buffalo herder of 77-years-old. Characterised by navy blue worker jacket and daily packet of 12mg cigarettes. Jiu Por, a lovely little lady, recorded in my journal as “fuggin’ cute.” Suffers from chronic foot pain, particularly at night time. She went into details with me one evening, pointing at her heel while we were boiling water for bathing, quietly stoking the flames of the wood burner, “aiya, ayo…” I prodded her heel and frowned. Neither speak Mandarin (Pùtónghuà 普通话).
Wan Lin is the eldest daughter, the one who takes on the greatest sense of duty in family matters. We’d spoken to a few times on the phone, following my first fail call to the village (Jiu Por picked up, couldn’t understand, hung up). She has the best Putonghua out of all the adults. Her husband, referred to here as Mr. WL, is a smiley, balding chap. Good banter, despite his mish-mash Mandarin rambles that his daughters’ would giggle at under their breath. They work seven days a week selling sports and kids shoes at the downtown market, selecting them through a dealer on QQ and making the 5am bus journey to Guangzhou. It’s tough work against online shopping, Mr. WL says. They couldn’t get away for the family feast on chuxi 除夕 (New Year’s Eve).
Kan Bong’s only son, referred to here as Uncle, a tanned, quiet man, who works part-time in a local factory. Enjoys cigarettes and cellphone games. His wife, Aunty, has an absolute cracker of a laugh. Primary family cook, forever embattled with her son’s difficult behaviour, chief chicken slayer. There is another daughter, but she has immigrated to Boston and rarely makes the journey back.
The Mei Meis, or 妹妹们, who I will call Lil Mei (12yo) and Elder Mei (15yo). Enjoy cellphone games and Cantonese soap dramas. So young, so screened. I pressed hard for their other hobbies, saying ‘cellphone’ was not a hobby. Both are under an immense load of school work. Lil Mei showed me a primer of 75 ancient Chinese poems which need to be committed to memory by the end of the holidays. Of course, there is an enormous fine for having a second child. Wan Lin says Elder Mei takes on a lot of responsibility because of their tough working hours. The sisters keep each other in great company, whacking each other and laughing.
Last and least, Biao Di (16yo), a total zháinán 宅男, stays inside on the computer all day, talks back to elders. Gets away with murder as a boy. Dragged him out on an excursion to buy new clothes and shoes for the New Year. It was a tough day. Aunty howled.
The two families live about one minute walk away from each other in typical apartment blocks with stone stairs and no elevators, while Kiew Gong and Jiu Por had caught the bus in from the village.
(Click images to enlarge)
The old TV set hummed away, screening soap operas in a dialect everyone understood but me. “Sorry, I can’t speak Cantonese,” I blushed in Putonghua, the language of the classroom, my few basic phrases from childhood steamrolled flat by the New Zealand accent. “We speak Taishanhua 台山话 (hoi san wah), it’s different from Cantonese,” Wan Lin said, “but it’s good we are able to communicate!”
WHAT. Massive revelation, I thought my family spoke Cantonese this whole time… In some ways, it felt like my years of language study had come down to this. Other cousins and aunties that have visited in the past have done so through tour groups or translators, they said. I was the second to come alone. The first was my Mum, thirty five years ago, when it took a whole day and three boat trips to get from Taishan to Guangzhou.
I brought out some photos as an icebreaker and validator of our relationship. Kan Bong could identify all my aunties and uncles by their Chinese names, remarking somewhat wistfully at the number of children and grandchildren. Translations from Taishanhua to Putonghua ping-ponged around the room, to the English names in my head. Aunties I’ve known my whole life as ‘Gee’ and ‘Beatle,’ suddenly had these alter egos as ‘珠莲’ and ‘月莲,’ existing in another language, another form. Everything felt closer.
Kan Bong via Mei: "You look a lot like Qiu Lian."
Me: "Oh, who is Qiu Lian?"
Taishan. Meat being hacked up in the back of a truck. Paper money burns in a brazier. Steaming dim sum. A family ripping out goose feathers in a pool of blood on the street. Mahjong blocks clatter away from an apartment block. “You should’ve seen this place eight years ago!” Mr. WL exclaims, waving a cigarette about, embarking on a barely intelligible Mandarin-Taishanhua monologue about the town’s development. Elder Mei sits glued to her cellphone, QQing her friends about her infinite boredom.
Within an hour of arriving in Pang Jeel, I saw a chicken have its throat slit open and its head yanked backwards. Blood blurted into the stone gutter by the back door, accompanied by one final squawk. Moments like these remind me how much of a city kid I am. Selecting pre-plucked, pre-cut, pre-packaged poultry from the supermarket and tossing them into my trolley, detached from the life and death of the animal. Upon later discussion, the aunties said chicken needs to be purchased either live or whole, otherwise people will think there’s something wrong with it.
I ate at least one chicken leg and one goose leg at each meal while in the village, they rained down upon me from all corners of the table. I was the guest, and they are the most coveted pieces. My second-cousin scowls with an acidic hiss of Taishanhua, to which no one translates or pays attention to. I have been stealing his chicken legs. Jiu Por chuckles, chopsticking another drum of poultry into my rice bowl, her white teeth gleaming upon her round, wrinkled face.
We set out early to Wan Lin’s house for tāngyuán 汤圆, glutinous rice balls in a sugary sweet soup. She smiles, extending a bowl towards me, we eat them in order to bring “tāng tāng yuán yuán,” she says.Chá 茶 (tea)islovingly prepared by Mr. WL in a tea set atop the living room table; dousing each implement with boiling hot water before commencing. Wan Lin presented bowls of hot water to the traditional Chinese deities around the home, of which there are many. The apartment is sparsely decorated, the statues are the primary form of ornamentation. Mr. WL loves tea and speaks about it at length. And in the evening, he loves báijǐu 白酒. I, however, am not offered any báijǐu. Blessing or a curse?
“Ah, those three old guys are familiar,” I thought, recognising the long beards and pastel-coloured porcelain robes. Wan Lin says they are Fú Lù Shòu 福禄寿; figures of prosperity, status and longevity. She later mentioned Por Por came to get a set of her own during her visit to Taishan in the early ’90s. These conversations with Wan Lin were wonderful. These memories of family, our ability to share and communicate in Mandarin – each anecdote, no matter how big or small, building a richer, warmer picture of this heritage in my mind.
The bus ride to Pang Jeel was in two parts. The first of which had an extremely ill, emaciated person with thighs about the width of my forearm and a face so sunken you could see the bones protruding from his skull. He was wearing some scraggily old rags and his skin was caked in permanent dirt. After sitting down, he lost a sandal amidst what appeared to be an epileptic fit. Of course, no one blinked an eye. It was truly horrible, frightful scene to witness.
A villager lit up a cigarette aboard the old, grunty vehicle with torn up seats and plastic stools in the aisle. Deftly stumbling along the dusty roads out of Taishan, a ticket lady with a baby strapped to her front asked where we were going and took our fare money. A 20-something-year-old punk kid in a leather jacket with chains pierced into his ear dragged himself off the bus with a sigh, standing motionless at the archway to his village. Chunjie, the biggest chore for the unmarried youth of China.
Lil Mei says she threw up on the last bus trip to the village. Wonderful. Sitting side by side listening to her Canto-pop with an earphone each, my thoughts whisked back to the dreaded ‘windy bit’ from Wairoa to Gisborne, where the three of us would turn green in the back of the Previa while Mum flipped her Jimmy Cliff cassette tape for the umpteenth time. There was a non-genealogical connection between our two lives, engrained in the vomit-inducing routes to our grandparents’ houses.
Pang Jeel village is about 30 minutes out of Taishan. Stone brick houses, separated by narrow alleyways and chicken hutches, where people have their doors open at all times. Stone gutters run down the sides of the alleys, emanating the stagnant smell of washing up, chicken blood and refuse.
Kan Bong’s quaint, two-story abode is located in the thicket of these alleyways. A wooden flap door opens into the front room, where eating, sitting and other living is done. The next room has two sinks; one for food preparation and washing, the other for brushing teeth. Two bamboo ladders stretch up to an internal balcony with two small doors veiled by curtain fabric. Food offerings are presented on a wooden table beneath the mounted cabinet of lamplit statuettes. A plastic door houses the showering area. The wood burner crackles away in the back room which opens out onto the back alley, where Kan Bong’s geese (already slaughtered, eaten) bob around in a stone walled garden. Public squat toilets sit near the archway. The kids and I sleep upstairs in two bedrooms.
There is one xiǎomàibù 小卖部 (dairy) in the village. Kan Bong took us for a walk; hands clasped behind his back, cigarettes in his breast pocket. It charmed me to see the Mei Meis talking with their grandfather, something I wasn’t able to do with mine. The village opera stage sits unused with stone seating set into the ground. I could picture what the venue would be like during an event. Lil Mei showed me the fields with veggie patches that the locals look after collectively.
Jiu Por brings round hot hóngshǔ 红薯, sweet potatoes, in a plastic bag. We roasted them in the earth in the cabbage patch at the back of the village, along with eggs coated in mud from the stream that assaulted the nostrils with the distinct smell of shit. The somewhat unpalatable truth is that the mud from the stream was in fact, shit.
The feast was similar every meal. Tofu skin soup, cabbage, sweet potatoes, stir fried vegetables, Kan Bong’s favourite: Toishan sweet and sour pork, with a freshly slaughtered chicken and sometimes an é 鹅 (goose) added for each sitting. “Southerners eat é, Northerners eat yā 鸭 (duck),” they say, “é is much tastier than yā!” they say. I nod. “Màn man chī 慢慢吃!” (“eat slowly,”) Jiu Por would repeat, one of her only Putonghua phrases. Eating till you are full is so important to the older generation, who have lived through famine, food rations, crop failures and hardships that I will never know. The elongated aaa’s and laa’s, aunties’ infectious laughter cracking the air sharp as a whip.
In May 1940, my Ye Ye, paternal grandfather, Ng Carr Yam immigrated to New Zealand aboard the ship “Awatea” to Wellington, reuniting with my great-grandfather, who had been Poll Taxed upon arrival almost two decades prior.
Boluotang village is my Ye Ye’s ancestral home – a mere five minute walk from Pang Jeel. The name got endless lols from the Mei Meis for it sounds remarkably similar to bōluótāng 菠萝汤 (pineapple soup). Kan Bong led the pack on this treasure hunt for my lǎojiā 老家, family home, the only clues lay within the scrawled names of my zúpǔ 族谱, family tree, our map for navigating the remaining, elderly residents of Boluotang. Kan Bong’s deep voice, tall stature and free flowing cigarettes commanded a sense of purpose.
Dialect game was strong. Toothless grannies yaaaing and waaaing at me in some form of Cantonese. Elder Mei would translate when I asked, but some of it was incomprehensible as the dialect is different in every village. A dude in Guangzhou later claimed the reason there are so many variations in Taishan is because each village changed their tones during the Japanese occupation, afraid that the soldiers would be able to understand them.
Led by a tiny, alfalfa-haired old man, we were led to the home of the oldest person in the village and found a chubby smiley woman inside. Success, the lǎojiā of Ye Ye’s brother was just next door — abandoned and crumbling. The roof had fallen in, ferns were growing out of the floor. No one had lived there for years. The convoy had grown remarkably since our quest began, everyone clattered over broken roof tiles and piled into the back room – waalaayaa! Very surreal feelings, being in that space.
Across the alley was another house of some significance, the skeleton of a home full of rubble. From what I could gage, it was my Ye Ye’s old home. A man and his sister who knew Ye Ye’s brother guided me into the rubble of the front room and told me about how they all used to play together when they were kids, that they were such happy times. Their Putonghua was rough, but I was glad we had something to grasp onto. I nodded and smiled. The Mei Meis had floated off to play with a puppy, their translation hours over.
Aunty took me for a spin on the motorbike to see some “gǔlǎo fángzi古老房子,” “ancient houses,” at Méi Jiā Dà Yuàn 梅家大院, the set of blockbuster film Let the Bullets Fly 让子弹飞. Whizzed past abandoned factories and towns with dwindling populations. With workers moving to Guangzhou and Shenzhen, areas like these are have become almost ghostlike.
A table of mahjong ladies unsuccessfully shooed away a lion dancer, reluctantly pausing their game while it made a enormous racket in front of their home. At night, we clambered on the roof to watch fireworks from nearby villages light up the black sky. Jiu Por cracked up at my red dragon nightie.
The fireworks started going off really early. It must’ve been 4 or 5am. And they are bloody loud when you live in a draughty stone house with wooden doors. Lil Mei sprung out of bed with Christmas Morning enthusiasm, begging me to “kuài qílǎi, kuài qílǎi!快起来, 快起来!” “get up, get up!!” Bleary-eyed and firecrackered into consciousness, I scuffed my way downstairs to find all the adults waiting in the front room with red packets (hóngbāo 红包). Remembering the rules from childhood: take it with two hands, say Goong Hey Fat Choy, smile and thank. Haven’t got one since I was a kid, it was awesome.
Drums and gongs could be heard all over the village, as the lion dance (wǔshī 舞狮) criss-crossed through the alleys to bàinián 拜年 at every door; flailing about and bowing three times. Jiu Por prepared the offerings atop a red plastic stool: a hóngbāo, a hóngbāoshaped firecracker, a bowl of raw rice,a little cake and a mandarin. The lion was performed by two men; one with the head and one holding the tail. Another would collect the rice in a basket hooked on the end of a bamboo pole slung over his shoulder. The toughest job appeared to be that of the fetcher, who had to run ahead and grab the hóngbāo, light the firecrackers, throw them in the path of the lion and scram. Deafening. A drummer, a drum dragger, a cymbal clanger and some substitutes who followed along with plenty of durries. The whole affair takes well over two hours. I followed the troupe for a long time and ended up with a splitting headache. Perhaps that’s why everyone in the village talks so loud, tinnitus after decades of Chinese New Year.
The TV was always switched on and is easily the most widely digested media here. And it is utter crap. In one show, two white guys were trying to imitate exemplary aspects of Chinese culture, then failing in a slapstick way. So cringe. Presented CCTV agenda: 1) Haha! White people are stoopid! 2) We Chinese are inimitable! 3) THIS IS CHINESE CULTURE. Ridiculously cheesy ads on repeat, targeting the millions of old people sitting at home. A faint but piercing, high-pitched noise hummed out beneath the soap operas. Firecrackers were sporadically exploding at the door. My offers to help in the kitchen were rebutted with a “no, no, just sit and watch television!” Short of Mr. Wormwood forcing Matilda to watch TV with the family, after several days it became a rather insufferable activity.
People flitted between each other’s homes to bestow New Year’s greetings. Plastic bags of fruit and sweets were shipped around in a Pass the Parcel type ritual; the persistent ‘take it, take it!’ followed by long, obligatory refusals. The same bag of oranges moving from home to home around the village. This social dance, all executed in urgent yelps of Taishanhua.A jolly old man from the next village hops into our unmarked taxi, yarning about how he had prepared all the ancestral offerings at the shrine, but had to go back because he forgot the chopsticks!
Some migrants return to Taishan and bear stories of their new lives abroad, spreading the gospel of the Promised Land.
And everyone is a believer.
The topic of living abroad came up frequently.Wan Lin laughed that a friend who started a restaurant in the U.S. said she could do egg fried rice or “suíbiàn chāo 随便抄” “random frying” and the laowai would lap it up for outrageous prices. It was enriching to hear these perspectives. Moving abroad would mean better wages and fúlì 福利 (welfare), better housing, a clean environment, less pressure. As I listened, I kept wanting to emphasise that it’s not that easy to just slip into a new life abroad, but found the words curdling in my mouth; the words of a third-generation beneficiary of immigration that has been able to reap the rewards of hardship.
My Por Por’s father was shot dead for being a land owner. She and my great-grandmother had to collect his body from the scene, take it home and bury him. For decades, my grandparents worked themselves to the bone in pursuit of a better life. Isolation, culture shock, language barriers; all in an effort to plant roots in a New Zealand that doesn’t want your kind. I think about the things I’ve been able to enjoy in life and feel conflicted with a headful of appreciation and guilt. They work for low wages in markets and factories and want their kids to have a better life. Who am I to say “it’s not easy”?
I see them, my Taishan family, the one’s who never left, sitting on plastic stools in a humble lounge around an old TV set; three generations of their family are all together; chatting, healthy, alive. My grandparents have all passed away. Kan Bong is 77-years-old and looking after rabbits in his back garden. What’s the basis of a better life? Longevity? Quality? What even are those things? I take a self-timer of all of us together, they pack me some snacks for the bus and we say goodbye. Lovely, generous people.
From the roaming chickens of Pang Jeel village to the enormous skyscrapers of Guangzhou, the bright lights and sounds of the big city confront me. Accompanying me back to the bus station, Wan Lin said they would like to buy a small car of their own one day, but it will take a lot of saving; a lot of shoe sales. In Guangzhou, a glossy luxury car billboard with a sleek new vehicle model parked in front encourages consumers to Make the Change. ♦
I pissed all over the floor. Argh, squat toilets. Two Chinese girls who went in afterwards burst out laughing.
There has got to be nothing more private and subsequently humiliating than what goes on in the bathroom. This was my first day in Beijing two years ago.
Kiwese offers some thoughts about traversing the seas between cultural difference and racial assimilation in China, as a cell cultivated as an ethnic minority transplants itself to the heart of the ethnic majority.
After several minutes of trying to clamber over the language barrier at a shop in Chengdu:
Original conversation in Chinese:
Me: “ummm… 大陆什么意思?”
English translation:Lady: “Are you not from the Mainland?"
Me (not knowing the word Mainland): "What does Mainland mean?"
Lady: "Are you not from the Mainland??"
Me: “ummm… what does that mean?”
“ARE YOU NOT CHINESE??” “你不是中国人吗？？” she finally blurted in desperation, exasperated from the repetition; flecks of spit flying from her mouth, brows furrowed, flames dancing from her lips like a dragon. Exhale.
Being a Kiwi Chinese in China has often created confusing situations where language difficulties and cultural differences result in people thinking I am either deaf, dumb or just plain stupid. While at times, it has brought me an unexpected sense of kinship and belonging. In China, am I Chinese? Yes, and no.
I must’ve been about eight when I realised. Our homework was to create a festival poster, so naturally, I chose Chinese New Year. Another girl did, too.
Ernie Wan’s Chinese New Year was a soft cover picture book in our collection – its bright red and gold cover softly crinkled around the edges. We were Chinese, the book was Chinese – thus, in my mind, it was a definitive, authentic source of information. I carefully copied the Chinese dragon in the centre of my poster. No one in the class could know more about Chinese New Year than me, I thought, for I had eaten the roast duck and oxtail soup at Por Por and Gong Gong’s house, I had received a red packet with a $20 note in it.
I had intimate experience. The culture was mine, I wore it in my skin. And so it was, smug and self assured that my poster would be the most legit, because how could a white girl know more about this shit than me?
Oh, snap. The other chick’s poster.
Her: “Did you have this *massive detail into the workings of Chinese New Year that I did not/had never thought about existing* on your poster?”
Me: “Oh… na…”
The moment I saw it next to mine; the memory flinches, winces and recoils. Full of facts, details, images, now blurred by the years. She sidled up next to me as I looked on in horror. My dragon was alone in a sea of blank, white space.
That’s when I started to realise. China was this whole other thing. ‘Chinese’ went beyond my own personal experience.
I used to take pride in being the Token Asian as a kid, drawing upwards lines for eyes instead of dots. Subconsciously listening out for the Asian references that washed up like flotsam on the shores of the Pakeha-Māori narratives around me, assembling a motley array of voices from Monty Python’s ‘I Like Chinese,’ to ‘Got Rice Bitch?’ which I used in order to laugh with my peers at an identity I didn’t completely understand.
During my teenage years, I hardly knew that my idea of Chinese culture was actually just a small Cantonese-flavoured fragment of a much, much larger whole. It’s true that in New Zealand and other parts of the western world, the conception most people have of ‘Chinese food’ is actually just Cantonese style, introduced by the migrants who first sailed from the south.
To the present day, living in the spicy, mountainous province of Sichuan, I am constantly being reminded of the vastness, variety and complexity of this country.
“Being in a foreign country means walking a tightrope above the ground without the net afforded a person by the country where he has family, colleagues and friends, and where he can easily say what he has to say in a language he has known from childhood.”
– Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The street running alongside the river below my apartment in Chengdu is lined with green and yellow trees. A local friend recently told me they are not the original ginkgos from her childhood. These ones blend in with the other trees, they have the same coloured leaves as the other trees, but they have different roots.
With a Chinese face in New Zealand, one carries the markers of Asia and it’s dragon boat of sweet and sour connotations. Most of the time, you don’t think on it. Though there are times, like being mocked by the teenage fungi that fester around Reading Cinemas with “LI MEI! OI, IT’S DOCTOR LI MEI! BAHAHA!” (Shortland Street, 2003-2006), which can act as stinging reminders that people are putting you in a separate little Asian takeaway box.
“I am over-determined from without, I am the slave not of the ‘idea’ that others have of me but of my own appearance…”
– Frantz Fanon
So it was an overwhelming thing, standing awash a sea of black hair on the Beijing subway for the first time. Woah. Everyone… looks like me. Privy to the world of the local, yet simultaneously disregarded as a wài guó rén 外国人 (lit. outside country person), by both Chinese and foreigners.
In official capacities, I’m asked to present my Chinese ID card 身份证 instead of my passport. While back home in New Zealand, well-meaning airport Auckland Airport staff will ask me in a loud clear voice “what kind of passport do you have?” before curtly suggesting I turn over any illicit dried mushrooms and/or fruits.
On one hand, my appearance affords me the ability to participate in the theatre of society, without becoming the theatre itself. To walk among vegetable markets, to stop and observe street calligraphers, to wait at the bus stop without drawing attention to myself.
The way I’ve seen visibly foreign ‘laowai’ treated on some occassions in China spans from sycophantic compliments on their Chinese, refusal to speak Chinese, incessant hellos and photos, heavily inflated prices and constant staring. Some laowai get jobs for just standing there and being white. I’ve been told the industry term in some circles is literally, ‘white monkey,’ 白猴子…
As a Chinese face, you don’t get that. It’s like being undercover, your cultural differences masked by your own skin. People assume my Mandarin is fluent. I’ve been finding myself ‘passing’ as a local more and more as my Mandarin improves. But when I concede to defeat and have to utter a gut-wrenching “听不懂,” (“I don’t understand,”) the built-in disguise fails, my foreignness is laid bare, and it generally goes like this:
a) in creating confusion, people say “I thought you were Chinese, you have the same skin!”
b) in creating confusion, the usual set of questions about your heritage is trotted out.
c) in creating confusion, people say “are you Korean?”
d) in creating confusion, you feel like a silly fraud who was pretending to be something they’re not. Identity crisis ensues.
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
It tests me to be confident in myself, to remember where I’ve come from (an isolated set of islands in Pacific Ocean) and where my ancestors have come from (rural villages in southern China), and to have patience. But sometimes it’s hard. To just be oneself without concession. As Kerry Ann Lee said of her time in rural Guangdong, “you can feel like the stupidest, prissiest, foreign alien.”
I am constantly reconfiguring where I stand in the overarching ‘Chinese and everybody else’ mentality subconsciously possessed by much of the one billion strong Han Chinese population in this country.
The way we are interpolated by society can have a huge impact on the way we see ourselves –
how we fit in, or how we do not.
The complexity of my placement within the ‘us and them’ can be gauged through one of my teachers in Chengdu, whose views on the world and the role of women make me want to walk into the classroom blasting the Chimamanda part of ‘Flawless.’
She is not quite sure how to deal with me during our regular disagreements; calling me a Westerner as an insult, calling me Chinese as a form of acceptance. With the acknowledgement of one, comes the denial of the other. One week, she offered an olive branch of peace with “Kristen will understand, her grandparents are from China,” as if including me as Chinese was the nicest thing she could say to me. And in a way, at the time, it was.
Returning to China to ‘find one’s roots’ is almost a rite-of-passage for many New Zealand-born Chinese, myself included, and in coming ‘back’ to find them, I have realised in many ways they are in fact where I left them, grown deep in the windy hills and choppy waves of Te-Whanganui-A-Tara, Aotearoa.
The coffee-shop yum-cha lifestyle of Wellington, the mahjong mixed with Pak N Save wine, knowing more Te Reo than Cantonese. Climbing trees and building swings as a kid, instead of rote learning stacks of textbooks. Chasing mosh pits as a teen, instead of chasing university examinations.
“Are you Chinese?” in New Zealand and the negative inversion “so you’re not Chinese?” in China are queries which challenge me to redefine for myself what the word really stands for, and how much of what it encompasses is wrapped in skin.
I don’t have reservations about my cultural identity, not since refusing to tick Chinese and instead defiantly emblazoning NEW ZEALAND CHINESE under ‘Other’ as an 11-year-old kid in the Census, despite the shortage of squares. “If Pakeha New Zealander can be an option, then I am a New Zealander, too,” I thought.
When all is said and done, the words of one of my ten-year-old students in Beijing come to mind…
Grasping the pounamu around my neck and the jade pendant around hers, she exclaimed with a smile:
Chengdu. An old lady in slippers fossicks about in the bright yellow leaves for fallen nuts from the local ginkgo tree. Bananas on pedicabs roll past mahjong players and open air eateries. Bundled up babies flail about like pudgy starfish on the laps of knitting grannies. The pace is chill, the sun shines, the sky is blue.
This is the environment where Allan Xia 夏昊禹, theAuckland-based artist and founder of the indie arts festival Chromaconand the transmedia production consultancy company Kognika, spent his childhood years.
Hey Allan! What brings you back to China this time?
Hey! I’d originally already planned the trip myself, then was invited to be part of the Screen Delegation with the NZ Film Commission for five and a half days in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing.
Thanks! Yeah, I can see future initiatives going in this direction, seen as we have a Consulate-General here now. Chengdu for me has always been a very creative and artsy city. The overall mood, environment and pace of the city is what I’ve always liked about it. Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing are very business orientated – everything moves at a rapid pace. Whereas Chengdu is full of teahouses – substitute them for coffee houses and its like Auckland.
I moved to New Zealand when I was eight. It was a massive culture shock, really. We moved a lot and I went to like eight different primary schools in West Auckland within three years. So there was the language barrier, plus not having time to really make friends.
I think the lack of social engagement pushed me to become more interested in reading. I read a lot of everything, fiction especially, in Chinese and English. I was reading stuff like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West and all the martial art novels. It definitely helped me keep up my Chinese reading skills.
I read a lot of comics as well: Japanese manga, Tintin, Astrix. I drew for fun, as well. I always liked it. I thought I was decent at it, in hindsight I wasn’t really, but it is good to be ignorant [laughs].
“Myths and legends and fantastical worlds with all these interesting characters… my love for storytelling was developed before visual arts.“
Your ‘Crossed Cultures’ remix of Renee Liang’s poem and Dylan Horrocks’ comic is amazing! I thought I was gonna cry by the end!
I feel like I was an observer in the whole thing – it came together so naturally. It’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever made. It was for a competition called Mix and Mash, which is all about Creative Commons and the idea of remixing work and generating new contexts for them. Renee’s poem and Dylan’s comic were put up under the Creative Commons License. Cultural identity isn’t something I always think about, but Renee’s poem encapsulated so much of my experience and perhaps even how I felt really deeply. It made me get over some stuff on a personal level, like I don’t think I ever need to make another piece of art about cultural identity [laughs].
How did you first go about pursuing your passion for art?
When you are in high school, you are thinking about your career path and that. I was really into indie web comics and games at the time. Once I decided I wanted to be a designer for film and games, I joined a lot of online arts communities like conceptart.org, CGTalk and CGHub, and started learning more and more. In high school, you’ll just get told what you need to do in uni, then the job you need to get. Whereas online, people are industry professionals who skip straight to the relevant information. That was really good for me because I quickly saw this pathway – and to get there I needed fundamental skill sets and knowledge. We don’t really teach drawing fundamentals in New Zealand, so if anything, swapping Science for Design taught me that I needed to NOT do seventh form. I spent a year in Chengdu and Beijing doing boot camp style art tuition classes.
Haha woahhh, how did that go down with your parents?
I was a typical Chinese kid – I had good grades in Science and Math… until fifth form when I decided I wanted to do art, then basically dropped everything else [laughs]. I was just drawing in math class. I went from A+ to D. It was a shock for my dad. Asian parents aren’t used to seeing D’s on reports.
How did the idea of bringing together local illustrators, comic artists, designers, animators and videogame developers in an event like Chromacon come about?
I did a group show with some illustrator friends at the gallery above Kfma few back. We had a really awesome opening. The whole “oh its low brow, but let’s try do a show, cos its K Rd!” vibe [laughs]. But after the opening, it was quite empty. I wanted the vibe of the opening expanded into its own event. Cos what’s the point of making art if people don’t see it?
For the first Chromacon in 2013, I thought it could be like twenty or thirty artists who I personally knew, but then word kinda spread and more people signed up. It just grew. It is a free event, but was still surprised with how many people came! Two thousand! Which is like nothing if you tell people about it in China [laughs].
Awesome! How are the plans coming along for Chromacon 2015?
It is gonna be from 18-19 April at Aotea Centre, with two floors this time. We went over capacity last year, which was positive but scary! The good thing was we had another room for talks and discussion panels and we didn’t have to turn anyone away.
How do you see creative outlets in China and New Zealand developing in the future?
I’m still trying to figure that out. It is also why the Kognika website is still quite empty. I want to co-develop a cross-cultural collaborative model with China, a strong and meaningful bridge between creative industries in New Zealand and China. One that is sustainable.
I think the most important thing at this point is to not make too many assumptions. Even I have. The more I engage with China, the more I realize I need to learn.
“Don’t forget your roots, my friend,” jangled that awful song by Six60, bringing flashbacks of some drunk chick’s ass crack in my face as she shoulder rode her boo at Homegrown 2011.
Though the concept remains present. How can I forget my roots if I’ve never seen them before?
The time has come to return to the Motherland. Guangdong, here I come!
落叶归根 lùoyè guīgēna falling leaf returns to the roots
Returning to the ancestral homelands in the south of China seems to be a rite of passage for many NZ-born Chinese. Going back to where our grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents (the one’s of whom we only have watercolour paintings) came from.
Recently it has come to light through the wonders of Aunty Communications, that I still have blood relatives in Guangdong in the form of my Por Por’s brother, Kan Bong.
Yes. Kan Bong.
“I wouldn’t bank on travelling round Chinese NY after watching LastTrainHome“ – Mum
“I said she can only speak Mandarin, so nobody will understand? They reckon the village people will comprehend …” – Aunty B
“Not sure about nowadays but hopefully the village doesn’t slaughter a manky chook in anticipation of your arrival and expect red packets in return …” – Mum
So now, well into my second year living in China, I’ve decided to make the foolhardy journey to find my grandparents’ village over the Chinese New Year break.
I’m not sure why I waited this long. Perhaps it was to build up confidence, build up some language, build up some resilience… Does that mean I am confident in going there now?
Only now, after four years high school, three years of university, one year in Beijing and a semester in Chengdu, do I think my Mandarin is somewhat passable.
But my Cantonese? ‘Brush your teeth’ and ‘wash your face’ are two phrases which have been embedded into my memory as a child, though I’m not sure how far those choice phrases will get me once I’m lost and confused on a dirt road in Guangdong.
“Muuuuuum, why didn’t you just force me to learn Cantonese??” I occasionally groan to my mother. She laughs. A five-year-old me kicking and screaming at the very prospect of going to Chinese School vaguely rings a bell…
Cantonese is the language of the original gangsta Chinese in New Zealand. It is the language of the market gardens and original Chinese restaurants. But to my ear, it sounds like a mash up of indiscriminate ‘waa’s’ and ‘laa’s’ playing backwards.
It reminds me of the unidentified grannies at Yum Cha who would pinch my sister and I’s cheeks with their rock-hard hands, while deafeningly expressing variations on ‘WAAA!’ and periodically planting Haw Flakes in our clammy little palms with Alzheimer’s-like consistency.
As far as village life goes, the main villages in my life so far have been Satay Village on Ghuznee Street and the Maori Department down in the carpark at Wellington East.
I am in for a big shock. I know it will be intense and emotional and even uncomfortable.
My personal roots lie in the windy hills, choppy waves and sweaty mosh pits of Wellington – and I know I am gonna feel like a stupid foreigner in the land of my ancestral roots.
Kristen Ng aka Kiwese went to the Diverse Bananas, Global Dragons’ Conference in Auckland, to be told she was in fact white on the inside, but her yellow skin gave her great job prospects in the corporate business world.
I was born in Wellington. So was my dad. My mum was born and raised in Gisborne. My great-great-granddad came to New Zealand over 100 years ago to mine for gold. I’m Chinese.
That last sentence is the reason why I generally avoid Courtenay Place on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights, as I dread the possibility of receiving Bruce Lee-style karate noises from drunk, hair-gelled white boys in Hallensteins shirts, where their laughter is echoed by other drunk, hair-gelled white boys in Hallensteins shirts.
While my experience of such overt racism has been pretty low growing up in New Zealand, the classic upwards stretch of the eyes with index fingers, the misdirected Konichiwa, the cake-taking “THE AIRPORT IS THAT WAY!” – all remain fixed in my memory as a reminder of one thing – I am different, I am Asian, white people are not different, white people are not Asian. I embrace that. It is who I am. Yum cha waitresses will always consult *me* at a table of friends. I don’t need, or want, to be white. Conversely, I don’t speak Cantonese, I do not belong to any Chinese Association and I have never been to Easter Tournament.
Last month, I decided to attend the Diverse Bananas, Global Dragons Conference 2014 at the University of Auckland Business School. The Conferencewas held in 2005-2007 and 2009, though it seems this year’s return from a five-year hiatus will be the last for a while, as the well-meaning head organisers from the New Zealand Chinese Association closed the conference with comments in the vein of “we gettin’ too old for dis shit!”
The conference was rife with interesting and noteworthy juxtapositions. The Chow brothers – original Hong Kong boys turned sex industry kingpins, speaking on the same bill as Chinese Poll Tax historian and author James Ng. Lectures about how the first Chinese immigrants arrived just two years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, next to urgent calls for the Chinese to prove ourselves and justify our presence with quality contributions to society. A harking back to ancestry and traditional burial customs for the dead, underpinned by a wider narrative of insistent internal whiteness.
“‘Banana’ is a term used to describe Chinese who are ‘yellow on the outside but white on the inside’” Kai Luey, Co-Chair, told the New Zealand Herald, in an article somewhat distastefully titled ‘Conference to tackle Asian growth.’
Bananas were given out as free snacks at the door. An eerie sense of cannibalism swept throughout the weekend.
I have several skins to peel on this.
The ascription of skin colour as a defining feature of someone’s identity is flawed and stupid. Surely, if we are striving towards this idealised form of happy, inherently positive ‘multiculturalism’ in New Zealand, it seems backwards to be identifying Chinese New Zealanders as “white on the inside.” As if whiteness is the feature that will see us accepted in society. As if our internal whiteness will exonerate us of our yellow skin.
Fuck. That. Why are Chinese people telling me I am white again? Pretty sure my great-granny didn’t spend years of her life scraping baby shit out of white diapers in an East Coast laundry for me to be told I am anything but myself.
It is a deep seated issue. We live in a society where telling someone they are Asian can be used as an insult. Where NZ Chinese can attack other NZ Chinese by saying “oh my god you are so Chinese.”
The banana label not only brings forth an internal cultural disassociation from one’s skin, but also implies an inherent lacking of genuine ‘Chineseness’ – we are a deviation from the authentic, original product.
The ‘celebration’ of ethnic diversity in New Zealand requires those of ethnic backgrounds to perform their culture in order to demonstrate how diverse we are as a nation. The ‘Rhythms of Aotearoa’ performance saw authentic Samoan, Indian and Chinese dancers fuse their styles together in a presentation of “sensuous moves,” accompanied by an appropriate photo slideshow of Samoan, Indian and Chinese people contributing to society. I mean no disrespect to these talented dancers, but it is a fine example of the way culture can be used as a commodity, to shine like coloured jewels in New Zealand’s big White Crown.
The conference tended to follow a ‘Started From the Bottom Now We Here’ narrative of model minority Chinese who had made good through working hard and saving hard – with some families spanning back to the Gold Rush in the South Island during the late 1880s, while others arrived after the amendment of immigration laws in the 1980s. Hard work and success (read: wealth) appeared to be the key goals of the Chinese project.
It got me thinking…
Q: Who is this allied Chinese community? Is it the fourth generation Chinese who have New Zealand accents as thick as Footrot Flats, the Masters students who decided to live here, the little old grannies that sit at home and only speak Cantonese?
A: It doesn’t matter. We are all united under this beautifully convenient umbrella of Chinese ethnicity, the ticked box, the same values and histories, the same ‘voice.’
Don’t worry guys, John says National MP Dr Jian Yang is representing the Chinese in Parliament. #allgood
It was interesting and mainly odd to be addressed as a member of what is commonly mythologized as the ‘Chinese community.’ Hon. Judith Collins, Ethnic Affairs Minister opened the event on the Friday night with a resoundingly incorrect “NI HAO,” replacing the Right Honourable John Key who was off in the Pacific Islands.
“Sadly, there have been some recent political statements that have taken aim at Chinese migrants to New Zealand,” Collins said to the crowd of a hundred or more, “don’t pay any attention to these ill informed comments. Please don’t let them hurt your feelings. Please don’t let them upset you.”
Huh? Whose feelings are being hurt? Who are you talking to? J-Coll boosted the scene straight after her speech, missing out on the deep fried wontons, red wine and questions about how the garden is going.
On Saturday morning, there was an enchantingly persuasive call to arms by prominent lawyer Mai Chen; telling young Chinese to redefine success, become leaders in their fields, combat discrimination and “preach a sermon of peace” to New Zealanders who may be threatened by our presence. It was estranging to be addressed in this way. Growing up in Wellington, I’d never really thought my existence as a Chinese could be considered as part of a greater wave of unwelcome migration. Auckland is very different in that sense, with a much larger Chinese population than Wellington, and according to statistics from Massey University Pro-Vice Chancellor Professor Paul Spoonley, the majority of them are born overseas. I did not realise that NZ-born Chinese account for only 26% of all Chinese in New Zealand.
I thought many of the speakers were generally insightful, thought provoking and even #inspiring. There was a #diverse line-up of topics ranging from personal journeys of identity, cooking for Barack Obama at the White House, Chinese brush painting, climbing the corporate ladder at ANZ, to cross-cultural dating and parental responses.
Though the wider narrative of Chinese people telling other Chinese people they are high achievers based on their race and upbringing, does not appear to dispel such race-based attitudes in New Zealand society. I could not help but think the individual successes of each speaker surely must be attributed to their own hard work, ambition and sacrifice – not their skin colour.
What sense of Chinese-ness was being appealed to here? While many NZ-born Chinese have roots in Southern China, the greater NZ Chinese population come from all over. Among the NZ Chinese, there is no real binding language but English. People cook all different styles of Chinese food, etc.
If what we are left with is deep fried spring rolls, Amy Chua quotes and allusions to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, then we have some issues to deal with.
Chinese people, like all others, are individuals with individual desires, upbringings, experiences, passions, views and identities, which cannot conveniently be collated to rally under the banner of the Chinese community. If the aim of the Going Bananas Conference is to promote ‘diversity’ in the New Zealand population (one of those words used so frequently that it eventually loses all meaning), then is lumping everyone of the same ethnic background into united group an act which advances or diminishes a Chinese New Zealander’s claim to individuality?
Some of the biggest stoners I know are Chinese.
Read Renee Liang’s brilliant speech at the conference. Opens with her poem ‘Chinglish.’