Tag Archives: immigration

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.


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.

The Literary Blossom: Interview with Renee Liang

Last month, I managed to catch up with poet, playwright, paediatrician and mother of two Renee Liang while she was in Wellington on locum at Hutt Hospital.

Juggling a baby, a chocolate cake and a multi-faceted career, we commenced.

Performing poetry at WOMAD. Image from The Big Idea.
Performing poetry at WOMAD. Image from The Big Idea.

Hey Renee! The Chinese name your Yeh Yeh (paternal grandfather) gave you was ‘Literary Blossom,’ as opposed to the regular old blossom. How did this discovery affect you? 

My Yeh Yeh sourced a pretty rare character. Wei (blossom) is not an uncommon Chinese girls name, but there is an extra stroke on it to make it literary blossom. That with my generation Wen name made it wise/language literary blossom. I added it to my email signature in recent years, which I guess is part of my journey of being ‘more’ Chinese. A lot of my friends who are second or third generation Chinese have begun that journey in their late twenties, as many did not see the value of it when they were children while wanting to fit in.

Do you remember when you first started to write stories?

I wrote a lot when I was at secondary school, but then went on a journey to become a doctor. I remember being surprised the first time I was told I had a unique style – it was in primary school. I had a love of really long words which must have been a source of great amusement to my teachers. I had a phase where I needed to show off, so I’d open the dictionary and find the longest word I could, then deploy it into whatever I was writing about [laughs].

When I was about ten, we went to see The Neverending Story. I came out of the film complaining about the inaccuracies with the book and my dad saying ‘well fix it then, write the script.’ My aunty encouraged me to be a scriptwriter when I was a kid, which I thought was horrifying as I wanted to be the world’s greatest doctor! [laughs] Now, the irony is that I am writing scripts.

Writing doctors scripts and dramatic scripts!

I hadn’t actually thought about that, there is a good word play poem happening here!

When did you decide to pursue your writing alongside your career as a doctor?

Over time I realized I could have both. I wrote a poem called To A Husband on my last day of a full time job in clinical medicine before I started my Master of Creative Writing in Auckland, and it was based on a Chekhov quote – “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress; when I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other.”

Anton Chekhov. The grandmaster of medicine and writing.
Anton Chekhov. The grandmaster of medicine and writing.

The better I get at writing, the better I get at doctoring – its the same skill set. To use a metaphor, it’s to do with understanding what lies beneath.

When I place a drip in someone – I do it in very small children – I can feel my brain is in the tip of the needle when I insert it, and I can feel where I am in the skin. Its not spiritual, I can’t explain it, but its to do with experience. You know where to look and you know the signs. Poetry is the same.

How does your cultural background reach into your work as a writer?

Everybody writes informed by his or her cultural backgrounds. It’s a bit of a catch 22 as a writer or artist – you want to be a writer, you don’t want to just be the ‘Chinese writer’ or the writer who writes about cultural things.

I never asked to be a cultural ambassador. You can call it dumb luck or you can call it destiny. I started this writing career at exactly the right time. Publishers became quite interested, in the same way producers became interested in Roseanne’s work, because the publishers and producers who are knowledgeable in spotting trends before they emerge – the Maori Renaissance and strong Pacific writers – and that the next big thing, according to population statistics, was Asian writers.

The Bone Feeder looked at early Chinese settlement in New Zealand. Image from Theatre Scenes.
The Bone Feeder looked at the sinking of the S.S Ventnor off Hokianga in 1902, a ship bound for China containing the bones of Chinese miners. Image from Theatre Scenes.

Do you then find it natural or obligatory to include Chinese themes in your work?

I argue that my plays are not about Chinese culture, but about family. I’ve also recently written a play called Boat People, in which I exploited the fact that I am known for writing cultural stories –it’s not about being Chinese at all, but in the public reading I asked for an all Asian cast to throw the audience off the scent. It’s a political thriller. I started writing it because I was so angry at what the Australian Government was doing with the refugee boat people.

I have also young teen play which was shortlisted for the Adam Award, but it will be harder to get that one performed because its not an ‘Asian’ play. If you have got a niche in this funding environment, then you probably have an advantage. Of course you need to stay true to yourself. Michelle Ang, who I interviewed for The Big Idea, was really frank about it too – you can be really cynical about it or say “hey, that’s life.”

What kind of productions can we expect to see on stage soon?

There are two plays I’ve just pitched. One is a Chinese folk tale adapted for children’s theatre for a non-Chinese theatre troupe called the Story of the Farting Sister.

The other is called Under the Same Moon, after a Tang Dynasty poem I really love, in which the final couplet is “though we live a thousand lengths apart, we all look on the same moon.” It’s a comedy about connection through the generations, based around a bolshy Hong Kong grandmother who invites herself to her granddaughter’s wedding.

Tell us about the New Kiwi Women Write Their Stories project in Auckland. 

I was approached by Auckland Council two years ago too run some kind of cultural intervention in Albany. I suggested that we provide specific services for migrant women, who tend to be quite isolated but have a lot to think about and say. I didn’t want them to be migrant women writing about being migrants, I wanted them to write about anything from their hearts.

They are not classic migration stories. Their cultural viewpoint has been melded by both cultures.

The openness and attitude to telling a story has a very Kiwi style that has been overlaid over the top of the cultural memory.

A Chinese woman did the course twice, because she was so determined to crack the writing thing. She wrote a story called Fire Fire about her own memory of playing with matches as a kid and accidentally setting fire to the school, where the boys came along and hassled her trying to be like Red Guards.

An Iraqi woman wrote about being a university student and her classroom being bombed during the final exam. She wrote about leaving the classroom during the bomb alarm as usual, while continuing to think about what she would write in the exam.

Will Chinese stories in New Zealand ever just be stories without the cultural preface?

There has to be a cultural readiness to hear the stories. If you look at Asian American theatre, they have a parallel history to us in New Zealand. The plays FohSarn and Ka-Shue by Lynda Chanwai-Earle about ten years ago reflect a very classic Chinese story. She was limited in what people were able to digest at the time, in what audiences would sign up for. My own play Lantern is gonna date over time, it’s little vignettes about racism. I hope it will date.

Renee and Lynda. Image from Radio New Zealand.
Renee and Lynda. Image from Radio New Zealand.

Do you have any advice for creative writers and poets who are starting out?

There are lots of senior people in their fields out there who are just waiting to be approached and love to meet young, enthusiastic writers who are prepared to back themselves and want to have a good old fashioned nerd out about writing. All you need to do is approach them or look them up in the phonebook. In New Zealand, you can do that.

Thanks, Renee!

Check out Renee’s blog Chinglish. You can also follow her on Twitter for more updates on her various projects and plays!

Article image is ‘Palace Ladies,’ wall painting, tomb of Princess Yongtai, Quinxian, China, Tang dynasty.

Banana Split

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 Conference was 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!”

Chinese gold miners in Otago, circa 1900. Image from Te Ara.
Chinese gold miners in Otago, circa 1900. Image from Te Ara.

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.

Judith Collins at the firing range. From her Facebook page.
Judith Collins at the firing range. From her Facebook page.

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.

  “Immigration is always already a war.”

– Paul Gilroy, ‘Multiculture in Times of War

Anti-Chinese cartoon by J. Blomfield, 1905. Image from Te Ara/Alexander Turnbull Library.
Anti-Chinese cartoon by J. Blomfield, 1905. Image from Te Ara/Alexander Turnbull Library.

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.’

The 2014 Conference program is online here.

No hate, just opinion.