Scoop Review of Books

Our Unresolved Tensions

Asians and the New Multiculturalism in Aotearoa-New Zealand
Edited by Gautam Ghosh and Jacqueline Leckie
(Otago University Press, $40)
Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana

otago088838This is an important and timely book, because the Asian segment of the New Zealand population is increasing exponentially faster than any other ethnic grouping, given – of course – that the term Asian is rather general and sweeping and includes Chinese, Indian, Korean, Filipino, Cambodian et al.

Now, I am duty bound to point out that the edited set of chapters that make up Asians and the New Multiculutralism in Aotearoa New Zealand  is the result of a 2011 symposium held in early February at Otago University. Because of this, the figures quoted throughout are largely taken from the 2006 nationwide census, which lends a somewhat dated feel to many of the chapters.

For, whilst the 2006 census results show a very rapid increase in the number of Asians in NZ, whether as new arrivals or as born here, the 2013 census results – touched on really only in the Afterword – ram home just how massive this expansion has become. Because in 2013 Asians identified as 11.8%, double the sum of the 2001 census, and out of this 11.8%, 31.6% were overseas born (See Figure One below). On this basis, it is predicted that by 2026, people identifying themselves as Asian will be the second largest ethnic grouping within NZ behind the sluggishly growing Caucasian majority, and surpassing the tāngata whenua, Māori (See Figure Two below).

All of which is a major factor, which needs to be taken into consideration now. Asians will continue to be more visible throughout Aotearoa, not just in selected suburbs in Auckland. Thus, the abiding questions are, what is their true status, remembering their own distinct cultural topos; what are their integral societal roles; what are their overall access ways to power?

Because, as several contributors to this volume point out, there is and has been no clear-cut official definition of what multiculturalism means to this country; there is no official policy per se, unlike as in Canada and Australia, where such official status exists. Given the varieties of the rather amorphous concept, promulgated by academics, multiculturalism is a fact of life in this country, most especially within Auckland, but as respected critic Paul Spoonley writes early on, “With one or two exceptions, New Zealand did not have anything approaching the multicultural policy frameworks of Canada or Australia. …When a more extensive ‘rights’ package was suggested for minority ethnic and immigrant groups … in early 2012 … the reaction from both the minister … and the media was immediate and dismissive.” Nothing seems to have changed.

In other words, Asian people are here, are increasingly visible, but there is no clear mandate as to what their roles are as New Zealand citizens with a different cultural ethos; more, there is becoming somewhat of a power imbalance between their numbers and the local and national political potency such numbers should bring (think political representation). To take one specific example of New Zealand’s rather lazy laissez-faire approach here, in Chapter 9, when writing about the heavily Asian ambience of several Auckland suburbs and their concomitant shopping centres, Spoonley, Meares and Cain point out that “there has, until recently, been limited understanding or recognition of the presence of ethnic precincts by the local authorities or business organisations in Auckland.” This despite the very real potential to earn tourist and sales volume from such ethno-centres.

Asians are here, but seem to be working, somewhat muted, away from mainstream New Zealand society, given the tremendous value that businesses in Aotearoa could also obtain from Asian “immigrant employees, transnational entrepreneurs and returnee migrants, and enjoying enhanced business opportunities as a result” (Beal, Lindsay and Retna, Chapter 10).

Similarly, there also seems some ignorance of just how rapidly the Christian face of Aotearoa is also changing, because so many Asians do identify themselves as Christian, albeit with a slightly different avowal. As Butcher and Weiland conclude Chapter 7, “Forms and expressions of Christianity developed in various Asian contexts are an increasingly significant component of New Zealand’s Christian population, and of New Zealand society as a whole.” Asians are here, because we see them, but in another very real sense, they are invisible – except, perhaps when scapegoats are required!

It is almost as if ‘mainstream’ Kiwis will tolerate the presence of Asians, and adopt and adapt to the fun of festivals such as Diwali and Lantern (which Johnson in Chapter 3 views as a beneficial process in that “they help raise awareness of Asian New Zealanders and their cultures to the broader public”) and even attend and augment audiences at theatre performances such as Native Alienz – but do not recognise the rights and roles and renewals brought about by Asians beyond this soft Caucasian sequestration. There is a danger then, that multiculturalism within Aotearoa consists only of “grafting bits of diversity onto a mainstream core … the inevitable assimilation to Pākehā norms by long-established minority communities,” Hilary Chung writes in Chapter 4. I am immediately reminded of the work of Stephen Greenblatt (1990), whereby he comments about what he calls “subversive discourses” that dominant discourses “co-opt” and “assimilate” and “neutralize”. Subversive voices are then “produced by and within the affirmations of order, but they do not undermine that order”. Dewali and Lantern Festival et al may well become sorts of stylised Kiwiana, lacking their original autochthonous lustre, given that they may also become genuinely unique multicultural events.

Yet, of course, should Asians be seen as potential political stirrers or as too set in their divergent ways away from codified Kiwi cultural ‘norms’, Kiwis are the first to react, most especially as regards Muslims – especially Muslim women and indeed there are tremendous sub-currents and suspicions under our supposedly amicable open-to-all cultures Kiwi blokeism, when it comes to Muslims in this country – as Stephanie Dobson points out in Chapter 8. More, one becomes wary of a near-future outbreak of outright racial discrimination as was practiced primarily by Pākehā earlier in the nation’s history– the nefarious 1881 Chinese Immigrant Act and the equally heinous 1982 Citizenship (Western Samoa) Act are just two indices of our blighted racist past – should Asians be seen as overtly threatening as regards employment chances or as somehow being tied to ‘terrorism’. In other words, they may, as a generic constructed Other entity anyway, be seen as an increasing threat to a still somewhat entrenched ideal for many Pākehā New Zealanders: that this skinny country somehow is still tantamount to a Britain of the South Seas.

For it is precisely this Kiwi lax fence-straddling approach to multiculturalism; this overlooking of the sheer number of Asians and their endemic differences one from another, let alone from ‘traditional’ New Zealanders (both Pākehā and Māori), that has to be addressed, so that all parties are apportioned official citizens’ rights in our increasingly diverse land. Because all we have ‘as’ multiculturalism at present is a sort of liberal let-be policy, as Erich Kolig stresses, “multiculturalism … by and large refuses to enshrine a priori the collective cultural rights of defined groups in law. On a basis of a liberal orientation the political and legal process then accommodates small-scale cultural differences when it feels it can do so without political damage, and without seriously violating its own interests, dogmas and core values.”

It is almost as if, if Asians ‘behave’, then all will be fine – although, of course Māori have a vested existential interest in this overall picture too, something I will shortly return to.

But it is simplistic to say Asians will somehow only remain seen and not heard. As Leckie iterates, when she points to “the complex future of New Zealand’s multicultural population …multiculturalism … is a lived reality being constantly negotiated throughout people’s lives and daily activities. This reality can also be perceived, distorted and reframed.” Or even more pointedly, Paul Spoonley, forces us to focus, when he writes, “There are unresolved tensions and possibilities as a result of immigration and the clash between an evolving biculturalism and the recognition of ethnic minority rights. The resolution of this tension – if there is one – is far from clear.” Unresolved tensions indeed.

One vital aspect of Asian-led multiculturalism within Aotearoa is the impact for Māori, who claim Indigeneity per se and have this vested in the Treaty of Waitangi via a legislated biculturalism. Ranginui Walker, for example, quickly voiced concerns that biculturalism could well become replaced by multiculturalism and therefore that Māori could even further minoritised existentially, culturally, legally, employment-wise. How then does the massive rise in Asian Kiwis impact on this assured biculturalism, on the ontological priority of Māori here?

Spoonley, once again cogently summarises here in his particularly well-written Chapter 2, “If biculturalism reflects the recognition of indigenous rights, there is still little to indicate what adjustments – if any – will be made to recognise multicultural diversity and citizenship. These developments highlight the unfinished business of colonisation and migration. These issues are becoming clearer, but the realisation of them is not. If the issues of the citizenship rights deriving from the Treaty of Waitangi are being addressed …they do not presuppose the local or national structures that may be required to mediate or govern in the future, especially given the superdiversity [Vertovec, 2007] that immigration has produced.”

In Chapter 3, Nakhid and Devere postulate that, in fact, the Treaty of Waitangi can be used as a foundation for a binding multiculturalism also: “We argue that there is scope within the Treaty of Waitangi to be the basis of an immigration agreement that allows for multiculturalism.” For them, “there will be affinities between Māori and immigrant groups as both have been subjected to racism and discrimination.” For these writers, also, Māori would continue to have ‘uncontested sovereignty’ and ‘significant partnership in decision-making.’ Multicultural construction would be embedded on the firm rock of bicultural foundation.

So there we have it: an important book in a time of tremendous societal variegation in this country. The ultimate thesis of this book, I believe, is that we must as a country get beyond the 2007 words of then Governor General Anand Satyanand, “The question of our essential identity is one we are still posing of ourselves. … It may be many more years before we have a definitive answer … we are a blend of many people”. The state of stasis is long gone.

This writer believes that beneath the rhetoric about ‘diversity and inclusion’ the lived reality for many Asians gives the lie to such goody-good sentiments and that we need to ratify the rights of all New Zealand residents, sooner rather than later. I hope that as we become more Asian, peace prevails and out-and-out discrimination dies away: a fully legal implementation of a nationwide policy of multiculturalism can only be a boon for us all.

Vaughan Rapatahana (Te Atiawa) lives in a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual whānau. His wife holds a Philippine passport; his children Hong Kong or New Zealand passports. The main language in the household is Cantonese, by the way. And everyone in the whānau is a New Zealand citizen or a Permanent Resident. His daughter teaches English to two born-in-New Zealand Chinese girls, even though English is not her first language. Such is Aotearoa in 2015.


Greenblatt, Stephen (1990) Shakespearean Negotiations: The circulation of social energy in  renaissance England. CA: The University of California Press.


Figure One: Ethnic groupings – Census New Zealand 2013:

Asian ethnic groups almost double in size since 2001

  • Asian ethnic groups continued to grow, almost doubling in size since 2001. The percentage of the population who identified as Asian in the last three censuses was:
    • 2013 – 11.8 percent
    • 2006 – 9.2 percent
    • 2001 – 6.6 percent.
Ethnic groups
For the census usually resident population count
2013 Census
Ethnic group(1) Number Percent
European 2,969,391 74.0
Māori 598,605 14.9
Pacific peoples 295,944 7.4
Asian 471,711 11.8
Middle Eastern, Latin American, African 46,953 1.2
Other ethnicity 67,752 1.7
1. People were able to identify with more than one ethnic group and therefore percentages do not add up to 100.
Source: Statistics New Zealand

The percentage of overseas-born people living in New Zealand who were born in Asia has been increasing, rising to 31.6 percent in 2013. Asia is now the most common region of birth for the overseas-born.

Hindi now the fourth most common language


Figure Two: Projected Population 2013-2038 – Census New Zealand 2013:

National ethnic population projections indicate New Zealand’s future population for four broad and overlapping ethnic groups.

The projections indicate a 90 percent chance that New Zealand’s:

  • ‘European or Other’ population (3.31 million in 2013) will increase to 3.43–3.62 million in 2025 and to 3.43–3.82 million in 2038.
  • Māori population (0.69 million in 2013) will increase to 0.83–0.91 million in 2025 and to 1.00–1.18 million in 2038.
  • Asian population (0.54 million in 2013) will increase to 0.81–0.92 million in 2025 and to 1.06–1.26 million in 2038.
  • Pacific population (0.34 million in 2013) will increase to 0.44–0.48 million in 2025 and to 0.54–0.65 million in 2038.