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Old Racism, New Racism

Book Review [1] | BWB Texts [2]
Old Asian, New Asian, by K. Emma Ng (BWB Texts, paper $14.99; e-book $4.99)
Reviewed by Judith Morrell Nathan

oldasian-001This book, written by a young second-generation Chinese New Zealander, gives many examples of the racism that Asian New Zealanders experience. Ng defines racism as both prejudice (attitudes) and discrimination (acts). She points out she uses the terms “Asian” and “Chinese” more or less interchangeably but in fact most of her material is about Chinese. The statement on the cover conveys her hope that: “Perhaps at some point we will no longer be asked to justify our presence or prove our worth.”

Ng gives a brief historical overview, noting that the Chinese were invited here as long ago as the 1860s to the Otago Goldfields. Once they were here, anti-Chinese sentiment quickly developed and spread. She points out that Paul Spoonley and Richard Bedford commented on the similarities with regard to Pasifika — invited to fill labour shortages but subsequently discriminated against. For Chinese, there were some 55 acts and amendments that singled them out, for example levying a poll tax on entry (for many years 100 pounds) and preventing them from becoming citizens or receiving welfare benefits. Police could search Chinese dwellings without warrants. Chinese women were not allowed to immigrate here until the rules were loosened after the Japanese invaded Manchuria in the 1930s. As recently as 1961, even New Zealand-born Chinese had to get a permit to re-enter the country if they left it. She also considers the barriers to acceptance — most obviously appearance — but the 1960s to 1980s saw a decline in discrimination and apparent acceptance at last. Chinese New Zealanders were largely invisible and strove not to draw attention to themselves.

However, after the passing of the 1987 Immigration Act removed the “source country” as a factor in the selection of immigrants, New Zealand experienced a rapid rise in Chinese immigrants and a new wave of anti-Asian feeling. This was illustrated by the Labour Party’s release of data in 2015 showing a high number of house buyers here with “Chinese” surnames in support of the view that immigrant Chinese were pushing up Auckland house prices. That incident stimulated Ng to write a critical piece for a website. The huge response to that article encouraged her to write this book. Politicians sometimes refer to “middle New Zealand” which she categorises as white New Zealand. She sees the solution as a firm commitment to multiculturalism, instead of thinking Māori and Pākehā we should be thinking Māori and tau iwi.

Born in 1990, Ng has personally known only this most recent phase in which there have been some tensions between “old” and “new” Chinese. Three generations of her family have experienced previous phases. Her parents, born in New Zealand to Chinese immigrant market gardeners and restaurateurs, worked in medicine and banks.

With its focus on Chinese, this book is in many ways complementary to Fair Borders [3], a diverse series of essays on broad immigration themes by a number of academics, also published this year by Bridget Williams. While primarily discussing general issues, Ng does tell some personal experiences, for example being told to go home or that she speaks English well, and she cites further examples from Helene Wong’s brilliant personal story, Being Chinese [4]. Wong, a New Zealand-born Chinese from an earlier generation, personally experienced legal discrimination such as having to get a re-entry permit to return from Australia in 1961.

This is a straightforward, if somewhat uncomfortable, read for a Pākehā. It packs a lot of information into 90 pages and it makes you think.

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