Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s Story
by Helene Wong (Bridget Williams Books, $39.99)
Reviewed by Judith Morrell Nathan
This is the fascinating story of Helene Wong, born in 1949 in Taihape to Chinese parents: her mother, born soon after her parents migrated here, and her father, born in China but sent to relatives in Taihape at seven to get an education in English.
As a child, Wong generally moved with ease between Chinese and European contexts while aware of differences. There were many large, glittering Chinese social gatherings but she learned to be wary around most Europeans. She vividly describes growing up in a household where the children were expected to work in the shop in Hutt Valley from the age of seven and were taught to keep their heads down when taunts such as “slit eyes” were hurled at them. Somewhat surprisingly to me, the family spoke English at home. At university Wong became immersed in theatre and film though she found being Chinese sometimes restricted the parts she was offered. While still in her twenties she was appointed to Muldoon’s think tank but the media focused on the fact that she was its first woman, rather than on her ethnicity.
The book is a sobering reminder of the range and long duration of the “plethora of legislation” discriminating against New Zealanders of Chinese origin. While the poll tax of ten pounds per migrant, raised to 100 pounds by Richard Seddon is well known, it was news to me that as recently as the 1960s, if they left the country, Chinese New Zealand citizens had to produce a re-entry permit to return (and to enter Australia, a letter of permission from the Australian High Commission). Wong alludes to phases in discrimination. She felt it was at its lowest in the 1970s but gradually worsened again from the late 1980s with increasing Chinese immigration.
For many years young adults were routinely sent back to China for a few years to get some Chinese education and a marriage partner, often arranged between families as her parents’ was while they were each visiting China. New Zealand citizens of Chinese origin did not have to pay the poll tax to bring their wives to New Zealand but only if their marriages were recognised here, and traditional Chinese marriages were not. Some couples got round this by disembarking in Australia to marry again there. Visits to find marriage partners continued to Hong Kong after 1949 but Wong herself married a Māori, Colin Knox. Having “escaped with relief into the disguise of Knox”, ten years later she decided to revert to her maiden name.
In 1980 Wong took her parents back to China on her first ever visit and their first visit since the establishment of the Communist regime. It had a deep emotional impact on her. As well as Canton (Ghangzhou), where she had some business to do, they visited her father’s ancestral village, home of the Wong (Huang) clan. Here she really felt her lack of Chinese language as she came to grips with her Chinese identity. Of least interest to the general reader are the sections on the ancient origins of these clans or family groupings. But plentiful maps and family trees help the reader to navigate through the plethora of unfamiliar Chinese names, and once the story reaches her grandparents it becomes gripping again.
I wholeheartedly recommend this enlightening, well-written book.