Tag Archives: renee liang

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

“Sorry,” “arohamai,” “对不起,” “ma bad.”

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

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

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

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

Let us whisk our minds back to February 2002…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(via beehive.govt.nz)

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

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

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


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

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

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

By Henri Meyer - An illustration from supplement to "Le Petit Journal", 16th January 1898. This reproduction from Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62229
China – the cake of Kings and Emperors cartoon showing Britain, Germany, Russia, France and Japan dividing China. By Henri Meyer, 1898. This reproduction from Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62229

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following two entries were cattle and sheep.

“There is about as much distinction between an Englishman and a Chinaman as there is between a Chinaman and a monkey,”
– Prime Minister Richard Seddon
“Any integration between Māori and Chinese would bring racial contamination and moral degradation of the Maori people.”
– Sir Apirana Ngata
1907 cartoon. Image  from International Socialist Organisation of Aotearoa New Zealand


Abolition of the Poll Tax (1944)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

kal feiyue
Hanging with KAL in Mt Vic

The Apology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True dat.

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

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

The Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust (est. 2004)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Current Qíngkuàng

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

Other resources include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Blood, Sweat and Tears: Interview with Hweiling Ow

Comedy for stage, horror for screen; evil gnomes, fish tanks and everything in between. 

Kiwese caught up with PJ-born actor, producer and ardent coriander opponent Hweiling Ow about her life as a creative in Auckland, to play or not to play the Asian roles, and what makes her tick.

NB: PJ is Petaling Jaya in Malaysia, not Peter Jackson.

Hweiling Ow’s resume reads like a menu at a funky nu-fusion restaurant, where you confidently nod away at the dishes you understand while being discreetly disorientated by others.

While some loyalists to the nation’s longest running soap drama Shortland Street may recognise Hweiling as the help-me-I’m-dying token Asian patient Angkasa, it is in independent stage and screen productions where her talents truly shine; gore flick T For Talk is only for the strong stomached and brave hearted, while her multiple roles in Under the Same Moon have had audiences cracking up and theatre reviewers singing her praises.

Like many creatives in the hardly bounteous funding environment of New Zealand, Hweiling’s credits are punctuated with advertising gigs and commercials. However, with so many new projects and concepts on the go right now, she should be able to close out of those Looking for Work tabs forever!! Or at least just bookmark them for later.

Without further ado, here is the interview with the hilarious and wonderful Hweiling Ow.

Screen shot from the short film M is for Musical Chairs. Not suitable for children.
Hweiling in a still from the short film M is for Musical Chairs. Nightmarish stuff.

KIWESE: What up Hweiling! Genuine question, how do you pronounce your surname? 

HWEILING OW: Huwayling Ow!! Like if someone punches your arm and it hurts, or if you stub your toe, or if you walk into a wall. Anytime you are in pain, think of me.

As an actor/producer/creative, your work is far from a 9-5. Can you walk us through a day in the life of Hweiling? 

No day is the same. Like every bacteria, plankton, and snowflake. But like every artist – I think about where my next pay cheque might come from, and how can I make this work. I am great at stretching my dollar and am a better cook too because of that… silver lining!

You discovered acting in your twenties. What were you planning to do as a career prior to that?

Unlike lots of people, I didn’t have a plan. Having a ‘career’ is overrated. Life is measured in many ways.

In a previous interview, you said that as an actor you need to bare all your insecurities. That sounds TERRIFYING. How do you approach that level of honesty with yourself while working? 

I strip down and rehearse naked. Honour thy feelings to yourself – no matter how inappropriate society may judge it to be.

Can you share some of your life’s greatest cringe moments?

This time I was on a date, and I hadn’t realise how much my stomach doesn’t agree with fresh milk. The whole date was silently toxic.

Blue Cod in Bubblelands. Photo by Julie Zhu for Tearaway.
Blue Cod in Bubblelands. Photo by Julie Zhu for Tearaway.

You just finished Bubblelands, where you played a Blue Cod in a fish tank. How did you and your co-star Benjamin Teh prepare for these fishy roles? Visits to Kelly Tarltons having deep and meaningful chats with the fish?

OMG – how did you know I speak fish?! The Blue Cod Society are really unimpressed with the extent the Gloriavale community has copied their culture without any public acknowledgement for where they get their inspiration from.

You’re currently producing and acting in the web series AFK. Is there a deeper gaming nerd within you that drew you to the series?

My deeper nerd is alive and well in my everyday life. I am a recent proud owner of a BB-8.

The players are all stuck in bodies that they created online, is the idea of separate inner and outer identities something that interests you?

The writer/director of AFK, Peter Haynes, should be the one credited for everything AFK encompasses because it’s his baby. Very very clever, and so much potential. I love everything sci-fi and fantasy. My character is kooky and slightly psychotic, so I’m loving it.

Amy plays alot of MMORPG with her boyfriend Jack. Turns out he’s a douche and cheated on her with her best friend. So when she was trapped in the game, she’s pretty pissed off and very skilled. She ate dead fairies to keep alive, and plotted her revenge. She wields a huge hammer, and plays a gnome in the game.

Woah epic. You are also doing some writing. Are you thinking of putting on your own show, or making your own film?

Short answer is yes for film. I have started to write something for theatre, but found it hard to get my head around. My background isn’t theatre – I’ve only been doing it for about four years and I am still learning the ways.

I am great at horror concepts. Exhibit A:

Dude, that is fucked up. Reminds me a lot of Saw/Hostel/gore movies my sister and I used to be obsessed with. What are your favourite horror flicks? 

Hah – lots of people made that comparison. The IRONY is that I do not and cannot watch horror. I remember watching Blade and having to leave all the lights on in the house. I watched Brain Dead in two sittings. And just thinking of Poltergeist pushes my anxiety levels up. My brain is warped enough and the dark still freaks me out.

WATCH: Hweiling starring in 48Hours 2015 Grand National Finalist ‘Katy Harrison: Grooming a Superstar’:

The Internet is full of stupid black holes and click bait, a theme you and Peter played around with in your 48Hours entry this year, as well as the online world in AFK. I feel like the world is waiting for you guys to make a way-too-close-to-home internet based horror flick… Thoughts?

There’s plenty of real horror stories – we should just pitch for a reality TV series of that instead. Life is like the internet. There is great amazing stuff, and bad dark stuff. Choose what you click on – cos you never know how many pop-ups you might end up with.

What draws you to compete in 48Hours every year?

We’re not very sociable. So its becomes a bit of a marketing tool for our skills. We make good shit in two days. Also, we’re a sucker for punishment.

Woah. Polyglot alert! You speak five languages, four more than most other Kiwis. Can you tell us how you learnt all these languages? 

Lol, okay, clarification: England my first language is. Then Malay, it was in all the schools, then Hokkien, the only language my grandma could communicate with me in (with the help of sign language), kinda like a 5 year old. Then Cantonese – cos all my classmates were speaking it, and now I’m learning Mandarin just cos there are so many peeps speaking it.

I want to pick up the basics of Tamil and Arabic at some point. Sounds impressive, but you get Cambodians, Vietnamese, Thai people coming to Malaysia, and THEY pick up the local languages and dialects to survive and find low level work for a better life.

How did you fall in with the Liang sistahz? You have worked with Renee and Roseanne for stage and screen.

True story, I met Roseanne in a casual random hip hop class in Auckland Central fifteen years ago, saw that she was into making movies, and I’m like HEY I LIKE MAKING MOVIES TOO!!!! Renee came much later when she was writing for theatre, they ARE STUPENDOUSLY AWESOME BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE.

WATCH: Trailer for Roseanne Liang’s film

My Wedding and Other Secrets:

Earlier this year, you took on the mammoth role of playing all the characters in Renee Liang’s play Under the Same Moon. Full on!! You’d playing two characters before in Two Fish ‘N’ A Scoop, how did you step it up in Under the Same Moon?

I had two personalities in Two Fish ‘N’ A Scoop. I invited another seven more into my brain, like Being John Malkovich. Baptism by fire is how I roll. I people watch.

Allan has designed the poster for Renee Liang's new play, Under the Same Moon.
Allan Xia designed the poster for Renee Liang’s play Under the Same Moon, starring Hweiling Ow. You can read interviews with all three of them here on Kiwese. Yes.

“I have turned down roles if I didn’t think the accent was necessary, or if I was having one of those – ‘nope, not doing an accented character’ days.”

I know Renee is more interested in writing more ‘non-cultural’ pieces this year, but using Cantonese on stage and even just seeing the NZ Herald publish the words ‘Por Por’ is awesome in asserting Asian voices into NZ theatre. 

What are your thoughts on playing roles where your Asian-ness is the focus, and how do you break away from that?

Non-cultural?! It’s got cultural. New Zealand needs that ‘transitional period’ of being offered stories of people from different cultures and races instead of default setting. It’s important these stories are more than just culture and race. As for Renee, I think her breaking point is Bubblelands, though I haven’t seen The Quiet Room. If having culture is relevant to the story, it needs to happen. Each person journeys through the transition of just writing humanistic stories – differently. I am happy to play those characters as long as it serves the story and the story is a good one to tell.

Have you ever had a showmance? 

On screen and on stage – yes.

Have you ever corpsed on stage? If so, what was it that set you off?

Yes! My sister blister sitting in the front row giggling. She’s been away and it was the first show she’d seen me in. After that, we agreed she should sit as far back as possible.

Which character that you’ve played have you connected with the most?

That requires knowing myself really well. Which is still a work in progress.

What is your ideal post-show celebration/commiseration feed?

Sweet and salty popcorn and sushi. Apparently being Asian, I should be in love with food. But I’m not.

“I get accused of being Malaysian and not liking coriander. If you want to see me puke, just bring me a bouquet of fresh coriander.”

Hath you any words of wisdom for aspiring filmmakers/actors/creatives?

If the timeline of earth was compressed into one year, humans wouldn’t show up until December 31 at 11:58 p.m.

Complete this sentence: New Zealand needs more________?


Chur Hweiling!

Here, Hweiling shares with us her YouTube recommendations, so we can all spend more time in front of our screens.
  • House of Cards:
  • VGHS:
  • H+:
  • Amy Schumer:

When the Chinese Kid Drops Maths for Art: Interview with Allan Xia

Chengdu. An old lady in slippers fossicks about in the bright yellow leaves for fallen nuts from the local ginkgo tree. Bananas on pedicabs roll past mahjong players and open air eateries. Bundled up babies flail about like pudgy starfish on the laps of knitting grannies. The pace is chill, the sun shines, the sky is blue. 

This is the environment where Allan Xia 夏昊禹, the Auckland-based artist and founder of the indie arts festival Chromacon and the transmedia production consultancy company Kognika, spent his childhood years. 

Mintown 明堂
Forgot to take a photo of Allan, d’oh. So instead, this is where Allan sat. Mintown 明堂.

Hey Allan! What brings you back to China this time? 

Hey! I’d originally already planned the trip myself, then was invited to be part of the Screen Delegation with the NZ Film Commission for five and a half days in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing.

Cool, what’s that about?

New Zealand was the first country in the world to sign a film co-production treaty with China. That was close to five years ago, but we haven’t actually made a co-production yet. Australia are already on their third one… Xi Jinping came over to NZ recently and signed another treaty for television co-production with ChinaSo the delegation is basically a drive to get things happening.

Welcome back to Chengdu! Your own side trip?

Thanks! Yeah, I can see future initiatives going in this direction, seen as we have a Consulate-General here now. Chengdu for me has always been a very creative and artsy city. The overall mood, environment and pace of the city is what I’ve always liked about it. Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing are very business orientated – everything moves at a rapid pace. Whereas Chengdu is full of teahouses – substitute them for coffee houses and its like Auckland.

A regular Saturday at People's Park, Chengdu.
A regular Saturday in People’s Park, Chengdu.

At the China in the Pacific Symposium at Te Papa, you spoke about your experience of moving from China to New Zealand as a kid. 

I moved to New Zealand when I was eight. It was a massive culture shock, really. We moved a lot and I went to like eight different primary schools in West Auckland within three years. So there was the language barrier, plus not having time to really make friends.

I think the lack of social engagement pushed me to become more interested in reading. I read a lot of everything, fiction especially, in Chinese and English. I was reading stuff like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West and all the martial art novels. It definitely helped me keep up my Chinese reading skills.

I read a lot of comics as well: Japanese manga, Tintin, Astrix. I drew for fun, as well. I always liked it. I thought I was decent at it, in hindsight I wasn’t really, but it is good to be ignorant [laughs].

Myths and legends and fantastical worlds with all these interesting charactersmy love for storytelling was developed before visual arts.

Image from Allan Xia.
Image from Allan Xia.

Your ‘Crossed Cultures’ remix of Renee Liang’s poem and Dylan Horrocks’ comic is amazing! I thought I was gonna cry by the end!

I feel like I was an observer in the whole thing – it came together so naturally. It’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever made. It was for a competition called Mix and Mash, which is all about Creative Commons and the idea of remixing work and generating new contexts for them. Renee’s poem and Dylan’s comic were put up under the Creative Commons License. Cultural identity isn’t something I always think about, but Renee’s poem encapsulated so much of my experience and perhaps even how I felt really deeply. It made me get over some stuff on a personal level, like I don’t think I ever need to make another piece of art about cultural identity [laughs].

READ: Crossed Cultures / Renee Liang x Dylan Horrocks / Allan Xia

Excerpt from Crossed Cultures.
Excerpt from Crossed Cultures. Image from Allan Xia.
Allan has designed the poster for Renee Liang's new play, Under the Same Moon.
Allan has designed the poster for Renee Liang’s new play, ‘Under the Same Moon.’

How did you first go about pursuing your passion for art?

When you are in high school, you are thinking about your career path and that. I was really into indie web comics and games at the time. Once I decided I wanted to be a designer for film and games, I joined a lot of online arts communities like conceptart.org, CGTalk and CGHub, and started learning more and more. In high school, you’ll just get told what you need to do in uni, then the job you need to get. Whereas online, people are industry professionals who skip straight to the relevant information. That was really good for me because I quickly saw this pathway – and to get there I needed fundamental skill sets and knowledge. We don’t really teach drawing fundamentals in New Zealand, so if anything, swapping Science for Design taught me that I needed to NOT do seventh form. I spent a year in Chengdu and Beijing doing boot camp style art tuition classes.

Haha woahhh, how did that go down with your parents?

I was a typical Chinese kid – I had good grades in Science and Math… until fifth form when I decided I wanted to do art, then basically dropped everything else [laughs]. I was just drawing in math class. I went from A+ to D. It was a shock for my dad. Asian parents aren’t used to seeing D’s on reports.

'Greed' Image from Allan Xia.
Image from Allan Xia.

How did the idea of bringing together local illustrators, comic artists, designers, animators and videogame developers in an event like Chromacon come about? 

I did a group show with some illustrator friends at the gallery above Kfm a few back. We had a really awesome opening. The whole “oh its low brow, but let’s try do a show, cos its K Rd!” vibe [laughs]. But after the opening, it was quite empty. I wanted the vibe of the opening expanded into its own event. Cos what’s the point of making art if people don’t see it?

For the first Chromacon in 2013, I thought it could be like twenty or thirty artists who I personally knew, but then word kinda spread and more people signed up. It just grew. It is a free event, but was still surprised with how many people came! Two thousand! Which is like nothing if you tell people about it in China [laughs].

Awesome! How are the plans coming along for Chromacon 2015?

It is gonna be from 18-19 April at Aotea Centre, with two floors this time. We went over capacity last year, which was positive but scary! The good thing was we had another room for talks and discussion panels and we didn’t have to turn anyone away.


How do you see creative outlets in China and New Zealand developing in the future?

I’m still trying to figure that out. It is also why the Kognika website is still quite empty. I want to co-develop a cross-cultural collaborative model with China, a strong and meaningful bridge between creative industries in New Zealand and China. One that is sustainable.

I think the most important thing at this point is to not make too many assumptions. Even I have. The more I engage with China, the more I realize I need to learn.

Thanks Allan! 

Check out more of Allan’s work here! As well as Chromacon and Kognika.


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.