Tag Archives: NZ Chinese

Year of the (Scape)goat: Responding to Phil Twyford on Chinese sounding names

Crime rates rising? Road toll increasing? Quality of secondary or tertiary education declining? No jobs? Housing bubble in Auckland? Just blame the Chinese.

New Zealand’s social media is aflame with hot and sour responses (from people with Chinese sounding names and non-Chinese sounding names) to comments from Labour’s housing spokesman Phil Twyford on TV3’s The Nation in an interview with Lisa Owen on Saturday evening, where he accused foreign investors, specifically those with Chinese names, for depriving Kiwis of their house buying dreams.

Read the transcript of the interview here.

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.

Kiwese doesn’t often weigh into politics, but I’ve been following the responses to Phil Twyford’s statements over the weekend from hard-edged Kiwi commentators such as Tze Ming Mok and Keith Ng and have found it hard to restrain my own frustration.

On Saturday 11 July, Phil Twyford appeared on both The Nation and in the NZ Herald armed with Labour’s latest “analysis” of the housing market in Auckland. Over the weekend, actual analysts have taken him down here, here and here, while Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy says Chinese in New Zealand “deserve better than to be singled out” based on their surnames.

So what are the numbers? Labour are running their combo fried rice set of data which consists of ‘leaked’ figures from an unnamed real estate agency in Auckland, as weighed up against the city’s 9% resident Chinese population. As all people with Chinese surnames know: combination fried rice consists of random leftovers and shit in the fridge.

Now, despite what my Chinese name may suggest, I am god awful at maths. Thankfully, Keith Ng, statistician, journalist and Chinese sounding name person, has examined the figures in absolute terms over on Public Address. He writes: “You can’t magically MATH your way from a last name to a residency status.”

The real estate data from the myopic period of three months between February and April 2015, shows that 39.5% of houses were purchased by people with “Chinese sounding names,” while the electoral roll shows that Auckland is only 9% ethnic Chinese, leaving a discrepancy of 30%, as emphasised by big chunky infographics and a scrolling list of Asiany surnames full of X’s and Z’s. According to Twyford, this discrepancy points to a “tsunami” of foreign Chinese investors who are flooding the Auckland property market, taking with them the water-logged debris of the dream verandah from the grasps of young, hardworking Kiwi home buyers.

If this is supposed to be about restrictions on foreign buyers, why bring ethnicity into it at all? Not only has Twyford brought out the race card, he has specifically targeted one ethnic group. The Chinese. We look distinct, our names sound distinct and the groundwork has already been laid through decades of having a crap image in the media… hidden camera exposés on dirty Chinese kitchens, dramatic confiscation of contraband products in airport security shows, the all-tarring brush of news headlines about dodgy Asian drivers, high-profile murderers and now, greedy offshore investors.

The Auckland Banquet, via NZ Herald.
The Auckland Banquet, via NZ Herald. 10 March 2015.

It appears that for Labour, singling out ethnic Chinese for looking Chinese is a bit too old-fashioned, so the change of tack is to judge whether we sound Chinese. Perhaps Labour should have door-knocked these properties after all and sniffed around for any scent of soy sauce, illegal fireworks and/or opium.

For the sake of analytical accuracy in his interview with a somewhat stunned Lisa Owen, Twyford discussed the probability of Lee being a Chinese name or a non-Chinese name, the house buyer could be a Brett Lee or a Bruce Lee! To dredge up the old Winstonism, we could be talking about a white one, or a Wong one. He goes on however, if your surname is Wang, there’s a 95% chance of being Chinese. But what am I harping on about, let’s just forget racism.”

Upon removal of one’s yellow tinted glasses, Labour’s figures boil down to little more than an unsubstantiated set of figures that blame the Chinese for Auckland’s housing crisis based on a game of Charades, with Twyford heavy on the clue for “souuuuunds liiiiike…

Twyford corroborates Labour’s surname guessing game by stating there’s a “major presence of people of Chinese descent in the Auckland real estate market, but the Government has been in complete denial about this.” Newsflash, guys, there are Chinese people in Auckland looking at houses… and the GOVERNMENT IS DOING NOTHING ABOUT IT. I swear dragging us along to open homes “just for a look” was Dad’s favourite hobby when we were kids, alongside bulk-buying discount toilet paper at Pak N Save and discussing the price of bok choy with Uncle Wong. As London-based “shouty Asian girl on Public Address,” Tze Ming Mok writes“for Chinese immigrants in the West, buying houses is almost on a par culturally with food. It’s like you’re giving us shit for eating.”

After watching The Nation interview, it was clear to me that Twyford has played to the assumption that those with “Chinese sounding names” are foreigners to New Zealand, furthermore, they are the ones who are “driving up house prices beyond the reach of hard-working Kiwi first home buyers.” It is just plain offensive. The us and them attitude smacks of fresh, 2015 Yellow Peril rhetoric for people to deploy alongside the opener “I’m not being racist, but…”

Today Twyford wrote for the Herald to support his statement from Saturday night. He and his frighteningly large support base of Stuff and Herald commenters (if there were ever a time to say never read the comments, it is now) can deny this being about race, accuse offended Chinese commentators of being too PC, and even have the temerity to ask us to just “forget racism” in order to have a “mature public debate,” but when a party bases their foreign housing market analysis squarely upon whether a name sounds Chinese or not, well, that is just straight-up racial profiling.

There have been emotive responses to Twyford’s comments from all sides of politics. Any issue that scapegoats a particular ethnic group will provoke emotion. It is offensive. I am offended. And I’m worried about how the continuously negative, invasive portrayal of ethnic Chinese in the media by the highest levels of government will fall back on the way we are treated on the street, at an open home, online, or at school. I hope we are past ching-chong Chinaman. I hope I never have to hear “go back to where you came from!” ever again.

Labour’s analysis rests on the presumption that people with Chinese names are simply non-resident foreign property speculators, and perhaps the most upsetting part of it all is the underlying narrative that New Zealand, and by extension New Zealanders, are not Chinese. It reinforces and relies upon the toxic monocultural hegemony that to be Kiwi, a real Kiwi, is to be white.

Just last week marked the 134th anniversary of the New Zealand Government’s Poll Tax on Chinese immigrants, many Kiwi Chinese families were affected by this shameful and unjust tax, but just how many Kiwi kids are taught about this part of our national history?

There is a deeper cultural refusal to allow Chinese stories to permeate mainstream cultural consciousness in New Zealand, a denial to our rightful stake in the building of this nation. It doesn’t fit alongside the long white cloud of British settler history in New Zealand. A closer examination of the colonisation of Aotearoa would bring out too many colonial skeletons.

My Chinese Sounding Name is Fuck You, via 没人在 everythingisnothingbyitself.tumblr.com
My Chinese Sounding Name is Fuck You, via 没人在 everythingisnothingbyitself.tumblr.com

From the market gardens, the restaurants, the shitty ass jobs that no one else wanted to do… Chinese people have been contributing to New Zealand society since the mid-late 19th century. Chinese ingenuity and experience with farming and irrigation saw all sorts of fruits and vegetables spring up where they’d never been sown before. My family on both sides had started, developed and sold several businesses (back-breaking laundries and restaurants etc) before Twyford’s Irish immigrant parents even arrived in the 1960s. Who’s the foreigner here, again? Is it just me or is there SUM TING I’m missing here?

Now that Mr. Twyford has divided the housing crisis into two sides: 1) those with Chinese sounding names and 2) deprived, hardworking Kiwi families, I can finally understand what Mai Chen meant at the Bananas Conference about us Chinese needing to combat discrimination and redefine for ourselves what it is to be a Chinese New Zealander. We need to speak out. We need to tell our stories. We need to stake our claim.

Chinese greengrocer. Image from Te Ara.
20th century Chinese greengrocer. Image from Te Ara.

The Chinese have been in New Zealand for a really long time now. Mr. Twyford and supporters, please, enjoy our fruit and vegetables, come dine at our Yum Chas, even utilise the hashtag #ilovedumplings or some shit to demonstrate the diversity of your palette for Asian cuisine, but do not then have the audacity to scapegoat us for Auckland’s problems, then turn around and say it’s about foreigners.

A final question for Phil:

If this isn’t an issue about race…

then why the bloody hell did you make it one?!

[You’ve pissed off a lot of angry online Asians. Good one. Nice job.]


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Header image by Charlotte Curd, from Stuff.co.nz.


He Tangata: Interview with Mayor Meng Foon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is all about people, people, people.

My own agenda.

Having and plan and executing it is very important.

Say what you do and do it well.

Keep focussed on the important matters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you share your favourite spots in Gisborne?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.