Tag Archives: guangdong

Why Robin Hyde is My Homegirl

Robin Hyde, born Iris Guiver Wilkinson, was a New Zealand journalist, poet and novelist who raised her middle finger at the expectations of housewifery in post-WWI society by travelling solo to the frontline in China during the war with Japan in 1938.

The resulting work was Dragon Rampant.

"I haven't attempted anything so presumptuous as a book about China– only a record of things seen and heard during a few months of the Sino-Japanese war; and, for the rest, faces, voices."  - From the Introduction to Dragon Rampant
Robin Hyde. Lyall Bay. Image from the University of Auckland.
Robin Hyde doesn’t care what you think. Image from the University of Auckland.

When the humdrum rhetoric from our Government leaders about wartime sacrifice and national identity finally came to a close at the Anzac centenary commemorations last month, the $120m refurbishment of Wellington War Memorial glimmered in the half light of dawn, we all lamented on how truly fucked up Gallipoli was, and heaved a close-lipped, polite sigh of relief.

Now in May, the world media are turning towards to the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, the fall of Nazi Germany to the Allies and the Soviets. School curriculums, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ tea towels and museum displays will ensure that this triumphant vanquishing of evil is tattooed on the nation’s collective historical consciousness forevermore.

Upon rewinding the clock just a touch further, our stored memories of the horrors exacted by Japanese forces in China during the 1930s seem either hazy or absent. Nazi concentration camps, Hitler, Hiroshima and Nagasaki… history became fatigued with atrocities, and the events that occurred before Pearl Harbour are often overshadowed.

The Second Sino-Japanese War was a brutal imperial conquest that inflicted incalculable destruction, disease and dismemberment, massacred tens of millions of people, forced thousands of ‘comfort women’ 慰安婦 into sex slavery, and scattered countless numbers of men, women and children to strange, foreign lands such as New Zealand, where the only such welcome was the Government’s two pronged omission of the Chinese poll tax and additional maintenance taxes

Those who fled Canton for Hong Kong for Aotearoa during the war are either not with us anymore, or understandably, just do not wanna talk about that shit. For both the media and the heads-down work-hard old-hand Chinese of New Zealand, this history is largely left unspoken.

Which is where Robin comes in.

Image from Te Ara.
Image from Te Ara.

Robin Hyde, born Iris Wilkinson in Capetown, South Africa on 19 January 1906, was an outspoken and outstanding New Zealander who challenged the personal and professional boundaries of patriarchal New Zealand society. Driven to be a great writer, Hyde set out on a path that would invariably lead her away from the life of a married “Hawkes Bay housewife.” A socialist and a feminist, she studied Te Reo in order to better understand the plight of the Maori, she attended riots in Auckland and made a name for herself writing for publications up and down the country on everything from parliamentary issues to children’s stories.

A prolific and talented writer, Hyde’s work is often discussed alongside the many traumas that punctuated her short life: the loss of lovers, the death of her first child, her second child born secretly out of wedlock, physical disability, long months of hospitalisation that brought on a lifelong addiction to sedatives, attempted suicide and institutionalisation for her ongoing mental illness, where she voluntarily checked into ‘The Lodge’ in Albany, where Janet Frame would be treated with electro-shock therapy ten years later, as documented in the harrowing semi-biographical novel Faces in the Water.

"Since I don't speak of mystical faith, but of the faith of man in man, before faith there must be understanding. And what may be found, perhaps, in this book– an effort to understanding." (13)
“Since I don’t speak of mystical faith, but of the faith of man in man, before faith there must be understanding. And what may be found, perhaps, in this book– an effort to understanding.” (13)

I managed to find a copy of Hyde’s 1939 novel Dragon Rampant at Arty Bees in Wellington before I came back to China last year – a memoir of her spontaneous five-month stint in war-torn China, a second-hand edition published by the New Women’s Press with an introduction by her son Derek Challis, critical notes by Linda Hardy and Hyde’s travel permit stamped and signed by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek on the front cover.

In January 1938, after discharging herself from The Lodge, Hyde planned to head to London via the Trans-Siberian Railway to gather new material for a book that would ultimately provide financial support for her son. However, aboard the S.S Changte from Sydney to Hong Kong, Hyde had her first real encounter with Chinese people and culture, meeting “sweet and sour pork,eggs with crimson insides,” (24) alongside amicable people from bombed villages with whom she sympathised and wanted to help. Upon arriving in Hong Kong, she wrote to her family “the conviction that I’m not going any place but China came over me,” and she purchased a boat ticket to Shanghai instead.

Map showing Robin Hyde's route across China. Image from NZEPC.
Map showing Robin Hyde’s route across China. Image from NZEPC.

During my journey to the south of China this year, I brought Robin along in my backpack, where her beautifully crafted prose in old-fashioned English and old-school Wade-Giles pinyin provided me with much companionship and inspiration as I traversed the same land she did more than 75 years prior. While I was craning my head upwards at the towering skyscrapers of Guangzhou, she was there watching the skies for Japanese aerial attacks. As I trucked out to the rural countryside to meet distant relatives, she was meeting with army generals and discussing military objectives. As I occasionally longed for New Zealand, Robin did, too. And so it was, us two Kiwi girls on the road.

I was searching for my roots in Guangdong, piecing together the family puzzle that scattered with the dropping of Japanese bombs. Robin helped to fill in the blanks of the stories I was never able to ask my grandparents.

On July 7, 1937, full scale war breaks out with Japan in China. Circa ’37, my maternal grandfather Yee Jeng Doon moves from Guangdong to New Zealand.

In February 1938, Robin Hyde arrived in Hong Kong. A stranger in a strange land, she wrote bluntly of her new identity: “You are the foreigner. Nobody loves you.” (37) Rickshas, opium, smallpox, dead children, British broadcasts, Sikh police officers, Tiger Balm, “toys with bright cheap plumage, furniture, hats, camphor chests, restaurants, fish-shops where split and dried sharks show golden-brown over dangling remnants of octopus…” (52)

My paternal grandmother Hon Yue was also in Hong Kong in 1938. She had fled from her village in Guangdong (some say on foot) and was staying in a rented shack in Sum Sui Po with several other women. Hong Kong was invaded by the Japanese just eight hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, when she hurried back to Guangdong.

In April 1938, Robin arrived in Canton (now known as Guangzhou) instead of staying in Shanghai and writing herself “blind, deaf and dumb for the Middle West” (100). My Por Por was around Canton at the time. Her brother Kan Bong would have been just a toddler in Pang Jeel. Guangzhou is now a giant megalopolis full of skyscrapers and subway lines, thought it was rather empty when I was there over Chinese New Year.

“For three weeks, while I was there,” Robin told me, “bombing casualties were few and purely sporadic, though we had at least two air raids and probably more signals every day. In the last week, the bombers were annoyed, changed their tactics, killed 180 civilians, besides bringing back the old fuss and nervousness.”

“Occassionally some harmless old sheep of a village got bombed and machine-gunned; (after the first phase there were seldom any visible defence planes in Canton, and though the anti-aircraft guns rattled away so importantly, really all they did was to drop remarkable quantities of shrapnel in everybody’s backyards).” (117)

Hyde interviewed Governor Wu Te-chen of Canton:

“Do you think it likely Kwungtung may be invaded?”

“Oh, well!” he stood up, politely, “it is not at all unlikely” (136)

Canton, the capital of Kwungtung (now spelt Guangdong) fell to Japan in October 1938, around the time Robin started writing Dragon Rampant near Kent in England.

The wounded being taken to hospital on a cart, and attended by two Nurses, c.1938. Canton. Image from http://www.presbyterian.org.nz.
The wounded being taken to hospital on a cart, and attended by two Nurses, c.1938. Canton. Image from www.presbyterian.org.nz.

Like myself, Robin grew up in Wellington and has an adoring affection for the place. Her family rented various ‘dingy houses’ in Newtown, Melrose and Berhampore, before eventually settling in Northland. As a child, Iris attended Berhampore School and SWIS, where her love of poetry began. One day she wandered from home and was found curled up writing verse in an old boat at Island Bay.

Wellington Girls College students performing Swedish drill, Parents Day, 1927. Photograph taken by P H Jauncey, Wellington, in 1927. Image from Natlib.
Wellington Girls College students performing Swedish drill, Parents Day, 1927. Photograph taken by P H Jauncey, Wellington, in 1927. Image from Natlib.govt.nz.

As a teen, she attended Wellington Girls’ College. Like many friends of mine, Hyde found ‘Dub Gee C’ to be rather ‘stodgy and cold,’ though it provided her an environment where she could develop her writing skills. I imagine Iris would sneak out at lunchtime to smoke rollies under the bridge like my WGC friends used to do. Heh.

Having Dragon Rampant with me on the trip was like having a friend from home, someone who could make observations with the same wind-swept Wellington worldview. Of fishers Hong Kong she wrote: “This custom seemed familiar. It is what the Italian fishermen do at Island Bay in Wellington” (32), while in Chengchow (now Zhengzhou), she noted: “the same catkin-grasses and convolvuli we knew around the Wellington bays.” (203)

I found a pohutukawa like flower in Guangzhou and wondered what Robin might have thought of it…

“Almost every night, lying in the red padded quilt, I dreamed about New Zealand, dreams so sharp and vivid that when I woke up, it seemed the black-tiled houses that were a fairy tale.”

Dragon Rampant, p. 97

As a foreign female journalist in wartime China, Hyde was often surrounded by condescending men in the Press who didn’t take her seriously. The big boys of the New Zealand-China story during the early twentieth century Mr. Rewi Alley and Mr. James Bertram met with Hyde on her journey and thought of her as a naive girl on a reckless adventure, but helped her on her way regardless. The freelancing Kiwi writer James Bertram, who provided Hyde with assistance and companionship in China and afterwards in England, gave the book an unfavourable review in Landfall 1953, palming Hyde off as a “precocious child” who has written “a rather embarrassing record of dangerous living and over-stretched ambition.”

James Bertram and Hsiao, North Shanxi, China, 1938. Image from Te Ara.
James Bertram and Hsiao, North Shanxi, China, 1938. Image from Te Ara.

“They are too polite to say so. But can’t you see that you’d be an encumbrance to them?”

I don’t like any reference to women as encumbrances, chance or otherwise.

“Go to Hell. We’ll see whether I’m an encumbrance.”

Dragon Rampant, p. 206

Hyde’s vexation at the way some foreigners would treat the local people was heightened by her genuine desire to help. In one chapter, she wanted to give some coins to a leper on the street, but two Australian men stood in front of her and yelled obscenities at him in English. The way men would get protective of her and the way foreigners would dehumanise the Chinese clearly got to her, and she often felt more comfortable in the company of the Chinese. “I wanted to get away from anyone who might possible speak my language” (184). Though as a white foreigner, she found her efforts to be friendly with the Chinese often ended with confusion: “I was sorry for her and tried to be very friendly, so immediately she thought I was insane” (83).

Bertram described Dragon Rampant as “fragmentary and chaotic, and not very easy to follow.” Anyone who has ever travelled in China will know the experience is precisely that, so a written account which manages to capture the chaos must be on point!

Each sentence bursts with the illustrative descriptions that Hyde is so well known for in her poetry; the sensory overload one is confronted with in China conveyed through a myriad of tenses and voices in Hyde’s writing. Sobering descriptions of rotten corpses and bombed villages, a harrowing scene where a raped Chinese woman tries to kill herself by swallowing a pair of sharp-pointed earrings, intertwined with interviews, anecdotes, conversations, poetry and insight into the human condition during wartime.

Hyde was writing for a Shanghai newspaper and attended a Press meeting in Canton. Her accounts of how the foreign Press would report the war back home are underlined by her sympathy to China’s cause and her own desire to foster an understanding of the nation’s struggles in her readers. “Canton, Hankow. Within a few days these cities were gone, neither achieving much of a sunset on western front pages,” (13) she laments in the introductionwritten from a caravan in England at the start of 1939.

The atrocity fatigue of world news reportage goes on: “‘Even if there’s another Nanking,’ one American reporter told me, during Pa Ta Chia’s chocolates, tea, bulletones and bonhomie, ‘what of it? There’s already been one Nanking.'” (169) These words recur in Hyde’s narration throughout the rest of the book, despite all the suffering and death she sees, the papers won’t report it with Nanking like enthusiasm. “And it is so hard to make West take East even a little seriously,” (193) she rues.

Hyde’s descriptions of the people she meets along the way are made with keen observation and for me, are the highlight of the book. The writer Agnes Smedley “kept looking at the flowers as if she expected them to turn into string sandals, munitions, or a small donation for the Orphans’ University in the north-west” (176), the Chinese-Australian girl Rene Hsu “alternated between being twelve years of age and approximately a Chinese five thousand” (22). Hyde’s impressions of other people show off her humour and wit, alongside her ability to capture the best and worst facets of the human condition. “Her eyes were exactly like those of an eighteen-year-old who used to come up to me and talk in a New Zealand book-shop,” (216) she wrote of an injured villager named Mrs. Wong. The human spirit transcended race. Later in London, Hyde said Dragon Rampant was “secondarily a war book, primarily a book about people—not Consular book—or maybe a war book reflected through people.”

Contrary to many biographies online, Hyde sustained an eye injury not from the assault by Japanese soldiers, but “a poor old scared devil of a Chinese peasant,” who pushed her down a hill.

The image of Hyde limping for thirty miles along the Lunghai railway line in her bid to escape the captured burning city of Hsuchowfu (now known as Xuzhou) with a bung leg and a fucked up eye is an enduring description of Hyde’s epic bravery and insane commitment to the art of journalism and storytelling.

Photo of Hyde taken during a visit by Dr. Buchanan to Hyde's rented caravan at Pope's Hall in Kent, which she apparently called "Little China". November 11, 1938. Image and caption from Oztypewriter Blog.
Photo of Hyde taken during a visit by Dr. Henry Meredith Buchanan to Hyde’s rented caravan at Pope’s Hall in Kent, which she apparently called “Little China”. November 11, 1938. Image and caption from Oztypewriter Blog.

On her second attempt to make a “pedestrian retreat” out of Hsuchowfu, perhaps inspired by the “brains, courage and energy” of Miss Chang Yi-Lien and “another diminutive Chinese girl writer” (193) who had succeeded in escaping on foot, Hyde was captured by Japanese soldiers and eventually handed over to the British in Qingdao, who sent her to Hong Kong via Shanghai where she recovered briefly in hospital and wrote of her longings to return home, but her internal pressure to continue on to England.

 “I want New Zealand, though I doubt if it’s a reciprocal affection.”

– Hyde to her family, Hong Kong. 23 July, 1938.


Hampered by tropical illnesses, post-traumatic stress, drug addiction and her ongoing mental illness, Robin spent the final months of her life in England with the support of James Bertram, Charles Brasch and fellow writers. Dragon Rampant was published in 1939 to favourable reviews, but it was quickly overshadowed by the looming war in England. The situation worsened in China and now in Europe. In August 1939, the New Zealand High Commissioner visited Hyde in London and arranged her journey home to New Zealand, where in an inquest he reported she wanted to go back to China. But it was too late.

Robin Hyde took her own life by overdosing on Benzedrine at a cottage in Notting Hill on 23 August 1939, never to make it back to her beloved New Zealand. The following year, my Yeye Carr Yam immigrated from Canton to Hong Kong to New Zealand to join his father. Hon Yue managed to get out in 1948.

Her writings in Dragon Rampant and in her poems about China in Houses By the Sea would capture the humanity, strength and suffering of a people so readily discriminated by her countrymen (she was ashamed of New Zealand’s racist immigration policies at the time). She desperately wanted her fellow New Zealanders to understand; that would be the way she could help.

Hyde often reiterated her amateurish knowledge about the greater situation and admitted to feeling “ignorant and childish” (83) in the company of her more informed counterparts, yet published Dragon Rampant, originally titled Accepting Summer, in her efforts to “understand fragments of the mosaic” (9). Her longing wish to help was staggered by the enormity of the country, the sheer amount of suffering and the ginormous population, but her writings were not in vain.

While books by James Bertram and Rewi Alley may record a more ‘complete’ picture of the Sino-Japanese War, Dragon Rampant survives as an important document of the multiplicity of sights, sounds, smells and voices of wartime China, both poetic and journalistic, recorded earnestly by a Kiwi woman who was not so ignorant as to believe she could become ‘one’ with the Chinese people (an encounter with Japanese soldiers told her she’d be shot if she weren’t white), but through her compassionate attitude to all human beings and solidarity with China’s plight to defend itself, she produced a remarkable, enduring account of a brutal war that is often overlooked by the Anglophone world.

May her memory go on.

R.I.P Iris.


Header image via Oztypewriter, who has written an excellent article on Hyde’s typewriter and travels. Robin Hyde writing outside Charles Brasch’s rented cottage in Wiltshire, April 20, 1939.

Research resources  NZEPCVictoria University, NZ History.


Roots Manoeuvre: Chinese New Year in the Motherland

From indentured labourers exported to work on American railroads and Samoan plantations to refugees fleeing the Japanese occupation and beyond; the southern county of Taishan, Guangdong 台山,广东 has experienced an exodus of millions moving abroad since the early 19th century.

For Chunjie 春节, Chinese New Year, Kiwese felt 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).

Por Por's brother Kan Bong and I in Pang Jeel
Por Por’s brother Kan Bong and I in Pang Jeel

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.

Taishan residence.
Taishan residence.

(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?"
Everyone: "...your Mum."


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.

Don't chicken out.
Don’t chicken out.

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) is lovingly 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.

Statues at Wan Lin's house.
Fu Lu Shou statues at Wan Lin’s house.

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.

Chopping up the goose.
Chopping up the goose.

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.

The Mei Meis 妹妹们 at the Pang Jeel opera stage
‘The Mei Meis’ at the Pang Jeel opera stage

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.

Canton Hangi!

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.

The moment you realise everyone in the village has the same surname 伍 as you.
The moment you realise everyone in the village has the same surname 伍 as you.

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.

The hunt begins. Verdict: need older people.
The hunt begins. Verdict: need older people.

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 – waa laa yaa! 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.

Laojia. Home sweet home.

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.

Mei Jia Da Yuan
Mei Jia Da Yuan

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 hóngbāo shaped 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.

Lion arrives at Kan Bong's house.
Lion arrives at Kan Bong’s house.

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”?

Portraits of my great-grandparents at Kai Bong's son's home.
Portraits of my great-grandparents at Kai Bong’s son’s home.
Siblings and Por Por. Circa 1996.
Siblings and Por Por. Circa 1996.

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.

Family photo at Kan Bong's house, Pang Jeel.
Family photo at Kan Bong’s house, Pang Jeel.

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.  ♦

Huh, where are my roots? Oh, there they are.

“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!

My dad's dad in uniform on the left. My great great grandmother in the centre. Date unknown. Image from my uncle.
My dad’s dad in uniform on the left. My great great grandmother in the centre. Date unknown. Image from my uncle.

落叶归根 lùoyè guīgēn                                          a 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 Last Train Home – 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

Counties of Guangdong
Counties of Guangdong. Toi Shan 台山 the large one at the bottom is where I’m headed.

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?

Hell no.

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.


More as it happens.

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.

Enter the lounge with Kerry Ann Lee

Kiwese got to hang out with multi-media visual artist, designer and punk enthusiast Kerry Ann Lee at her cozy abode in Mount Victoria, for a rainy afternoon full of LPs, books, ornaments, coffee and fresh cream donuts.

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 10.40.31 am

Hey KAL! Tell us about the upcoming exhibition you are involved with in Auckland?

Its called Unstuck in Time, it’s a group show with a bunch of artists curated by Bruce E. Phillips at Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts. The exhibition takes its name from Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and looks at the ideas of dislocation in time in space.

What was your childhood like, growing up in Welly?

Ahh, 1980s Wellington. Yeah. Pretty quiet. I’m the oldest of three, have two younger brothers. I lived in Hataitai most of my childhood and we went to St Mark’s. My parents had the Gold Coin Café takeaway at the top of Willis St, which was the focus of the project I did last year for Enjoy. It was a strange project, returning to that space before they tore it down – the back of the shop was a big extension of my home space growing up.

Home Made Installation.
Home Made Installation (2008), Toi Poneke Gallery. “I find a lot of descendants from migrant families in NZ get this piece – they understand it because its similar in their families – collecting and hoarding random junk as a form of stake hold in settlement.”

My Por Por and Gong Gong were involved with setting up a bunch of early Chinese restaurants in Wellington in the 40s and 50s, such as The Canton. My parents’ era was The Shanghai in the 70s. They were extremely minority; heads down working class, you will get that story from so many people and elders; it has shaped the way the community is in many ways.

What are your memories of growing up between school, home and the Gold Coin Cafe?

There was a diverse clientele that used to come to the Gold Coin. As my mum said – “Upper Willis St, Mongrel Mob, skin heads, white collar workers from the Government departments.” For me as a kid, it was more of a quiet observation of these interactions. It’s funny being back in Wellington now because it is heaving with food! Yet this quiet little legacy of original stakeholders remains in the city and Newtown, not just the Chinese community, but the coffee houses and takeaways run by Greek families as well.

Throwing back the familiar, but with a twist. I like the idea of questioning comprehensions.

Restaurants (2007). Image from the artist.
Restaurants (2007). Image from the artist.

The symbol of money comes up quite a lot in your collage. Kiwi bank notes, Queen Elizabeth’s face. 

When I was a kid, I used to count the money at the end of the night. My uncle sent my a five pound note from England when he moved over when I was a kid – it had a picture of Queen Elizabeth and he had pencil sketched it with a big gang fist, spiky bracelet and a punk stud. And I thought “woah, you CAN do that with money!”

Where did you interest in paper cutting stem from?

Initially it came from a love and active interest in collage and punk poster graphics, record art, Dada and a lot of that historic use of montage. I learned the more elegant, craft aspect of Chinese paper cutting later on. I like that punk and Dada were more about upsetting popular imagery, a transformative reconfiguration of paper cutting to both reveal and take away.

Kitchen Universe (2007). From KAL's Masters thesis.
Kitchen Universe (2007). Image from KAL’s Masters thesis and Home Made book.

“My mum was born and raised here. She still gets the where are you from?’ She’s got a good way about it,  Made in New Zealand, with ingredients from China!'”

Your work often works to subvert expectations of local, familiar symbols and those of your own Chinese background. 

People have different views on it. The ‘oh, it is such a shame’ view which puts the onus on the family to maintain and preserve a rich, heritage culture like pickles in a jar. Then there is also the pressure for a family to assimilate and normalise and do the best they can. But when you assimilate – only bring the desirable qualities into the mainstream space, the ones that could be creative and colourful to add flavour, but not too much tension or dynamic.

Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 10.07.53 pm

[K.A.L leaves the room and returns with a copy of Home Made: Picturing Chinese Settlement in New Zealand, the book she made for her Masters in Design at Massey]

Oh. My. God. I don’t even. Woah. *implodes*

Home Made and a written thesis were the product of that year. It was fifty hardbacks and 100 soft back editions. There are a few things in there that people found kind of useful for research in many respects. The Chinese legacy in New Zealand isn’t read and taught like the ‘colonial founders’ of the country, but credit to James Ng and all the incredible work he has done with Windows on a Chinese Past. It’s insanely cool. It’s hilarious cos it’s so hefty, but so underground.

I recall John Lake mentioning your name during an interview about Up the Punks, tell us about your interest in music?

Lake! Music in a similar way to art, it is so immediate and evocative, immediately transports you to other places and times. Punk, mix tapes, that sense of discovery. It is a form of communication, not just the music itself but the format. How music travels, how art and words move from one place to another, how they affect different people, how they are read, translated and misunderstood.

“I’ve always had music in my life – from always having the radio on and having a Gong Gong that could sing.”

Poster for PUNK FEST 1999 designed by Kerry Ann Lee. Image from the Up the Punks archive!
Poster for PUNK FEST 1999 designed by Kerry Ann Lee. Image from the Up the Punks archive!

Growing up in the 80s it was super pop. I will listen to anything. I’m a big John Cage fan… but I also listen to Crass, Screamin’ Jay, Weezer, Nina Simone… My friend Julia in Milan sent me a bunch of records that she put out on her label Vida Loca Records, [puts on a record]. There is whole lot of crazy shit in here. Backyard Burial to the Breeders, to Shanghai Lounge DivasTom Waits, Hanggai, ESG

You’ve been to your family’s village in Guangdong, how was that?

My uncle drove from the city and we went way out into the sticks… it was so rural. This place didn’t have roads. Or shoes. It was a total world culture clash. You feel like the prissiest, stupidest, foreign alien. Transplanting myself back into that space was probably the most quiet, reflective time of my life.

KAL feat. the Haibao mascot that covered Shanghai during the World Expo 2010. Photo courtesy of KAL.
KAL feat. the Haibao mascot that covered Shanghai during the World Expo 2010. Photo courtesy of KAL.

At Te Papa’s China in the Pacific Forum, you talked about doing the WARE Residency in Shanghai in ’09 during the city’s preparation for the 2010 World Expo.

What an exciting time to be introduced to China and spat out the other end! The immenseness, the space, the ocean of black hair. This place with weird buildings, twenty million people moving really fast on motorcycles, smoking, ploughing into you drunk and peeing on the street. Wonderful, maddening, dirt covered chaos – that’s whats writhing under the skin of all this gorgeous, sparkly brand new mega city facade.

“In China, things are magnified. A lot of our understanding of Chinese heritage is completely different to what goes on over there.”

I found myself always writing journals and letters home, drawing and documenting to try and take it all in, but the definitions and descriptions don’t matter after a while. My neighbours used to sell illegal tofu jerky from a store in their house, I used to knock on their door and buy my weird snacks. One time my bus stop turned into a pile of rubble. I just went with the flow.

Check out KAL’s video work ‘Shanghai Shorts,’ filmed from her mobile office at the back of the Baoshan bus.

KAL shanghai-works-lg

Big City Rising. Image from Ocula.
Big City Rising. Image from Ocula.

How did these perceptions influence the works in Da Shi Jie/ The Great World: Shanghai Works 2009-2010 [大世界:2009-2010 创作于上海] which you exhibited at Toi Pōneke upon your return?

Destruction, loss, fragility, the beautiful stuff that Westerners find fascinating because it is happening there on a local, day-to-day administrative level. It kind of oscillates between the two China narratives of doom and gloom vs. China is great! Modernise! This is 21st century Empire building!

Did living in the outskirts of a bustling mega city like Shanghai change your perceptions of your own ‘Chinese-ness’?

I’m not a very good Chinese [laughs]. I was actually terrified when I first got the WARE Residency – like, oh fuck – I have never been to China, I can’t speak Chinese, but I am Chinese, how the hell is this gonna work?! Being over here you in New Zealand you are visibly different, especially growing up. Over there I would be outed in a second if I was trying to mimic a bit of basic Chinese, it was an immediate fail. I felt really undercover over there. I feel it reinforced my other identities – of being into punk rock, sci-fi, the privileges and pitfalls of being a Westerner.

“Another analogy I heard from somebody over there was ‘same hardware, different software.

Double Dragon (2012), Commissioned by Enjoy Gallery for the Wellington City Council's Light Box Project.
Double Dragon (2012). “I was quietly stoked about this one because I managed to get a Chinatown archway in Courtenay Place. These small things within Council perimeters.”

Do you ever feel obliged to tell a Chinese story in your work?

Just my own. You cannot disconnect yourself from where you come from, your community, family and life – but in the end, your pursuit of truth and storytelling is what you’ve lived through. Your choice of fictions, dreams, truths. It’s all up for grabs. People often touch it with kid gloves, the idea of connecting with a heritage culture while not wanting step on anyones toes, or aiming for a sense of ‘authenticity.’ People should create new understandings of that, of what is real, what is authentic for you.

“Things aren’t always clearly defined, things are murky and weird and terrifying and messy and splendid and hard.”

What are you reading at the mo?

I recently read Slouching Towards Bethlam by Joan Didion. Now I’m reading some short stories by Italo Calvino.

What are you listening to at the mo?

Random classics. $1 discount CDs. Got a great $4 Buddy Holly CD from Grayson for my birthday. This mix I made for Stevie Kaye.

Anything you recommend people check out?

Any advice for aspiring artists?

Trust yourself! Don’t listen to anyone else. Be okay with the fact its hard going – it’s part of the delight and sweetness. It’s okay not knowing, but still doing. You are only answerable to yourself. Do the don’ts!

Thanks Kerry Ann, you da man!

Catch Kerry Ann Lee speaking at the Working the Gap Symposium presented by The Adam Art Gallery, as part of their series of free public events exploring art writing now in Wellington, Sat 9 Aug.

For Aucklanders – Unstuck in Time will be on at Te Tuhi from 2 August – 26 October.

kal feiyue