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Together Apart

White Ghosts, Yellow Peril: China and New Zealand 1790-1950
by Stevan Eldred-Grigg, with Zeng Dazheng 曾达峥 (Otago University Press, $55)
Reviewed by Judith Morrell Nathan

Eldred-Grigg-front-coverThe complex relationship between China and New Zealand in the pre-Communist era is not well known. Stevan Eldred-Grigg, a New Zealand historian who has lived in China, is well qualified to write a history such as this.

I grew up with stories of the Chinese gold-miners of Otago, shopped at Chinese greengrocers in Dunedin, wore Sew Hoy clothing and subsequently learned about Chinese on the West Coast from Julia Bradshaw’s excellent history,  Golden Prospects: Chinese on the West Coast of New Zealand.  I was aware of the poll tax (though not that it was passed by the House of Representatives in 1881 by only one vote) and some of the other discriminatory measures against Chinese in New Zealand such as their exclusion from old age pensions.   But this book covers a lot that was new to me, from the New Zealand-China seal trade, to New Zealand businessmen supporting Chinese immigration, and the Chinese empire opening an embassy here in 1909. And that’s just in the New Zealand sections.

The Gold Rush period occupies only one of the six chapters of this book; it is the other chapters that cover ground that was largely new to me. For example, in the later nineteenth century there were efforts by New Zealand and the various Australian colonies to develop a co-ordinated approach to limiting Chinese immigration.  And even if the anti-Chinese prejudice in New Zealand was not quite as strong as it has sometimes been portrayed, it nevertheless required a turnaround in political rhetoric when New Zealand found itself allied with China in both world wars. But between the wars, an Immigration Restriction Amendment Act amongst other things, resulted in children born of Chinese parents in New Zealand being denied citizenship, offending Beijing. It was interesting to learn how events in China impacted on the lives of twentieth-century Chinese in New Zealand. The warring Chinese factions in the decades-long civil war even thought it was worth sending agents to agitate amongst the Chinese in New Zealand.  On a lighter note, a student soccer team from China toured New Zealand in 1924.

To better understand the sections on China, where I knew so much less to start with, I needed some maps: this is a real weakness of this book. The frequent use of geographical expressions such as “northern China” with lots of names of places and political factions left me somewhat confused as I tried to work out what was happening where.  It took me some time to realise that the Guomindang were what I knew as the Kuomintang (Nationalists) and that Jiang Jieshi was Chiang Kaishek. So this is not as easy read for newcomers to the field.  There is less about New Zealanders in China than might be expected from the blurb on the book’s cover, though there are some descriptions of New Zealanders caught up in the twentieth-century fighting.

The book is well illustrated with contemporary paintings, photographs, sketches and cartoons reproduced on high quality paper, which makes the book heavy for its size.  The tone at times seems somewhat condescending: “The Qing empire wobbled drunkenly around its twin stars, Manchuria and China” or  “A few tribes for several years fought a small and sapping struggle to hold on to their land and power in what we now call the New Zealand Wars .”  Overall, however, it is an interesting and informative read.