New Zealand’s Chinese heritage

When I was a teenager our art teacher used to take us on sketching trips to the museum. The idea was that we would spend our time sketching rather unattractive stuffed animals. It soon became a problem to extract me from the Asian Gallery. The beauty and sophistication of the ceramics and carvings there held my attention long after I left school.

However, they weren’t objects that I associated with New Zealand until many years later. What did Asia have to do with us who were so attached to the British Isles? It wasn’t until the 70s, after Britain cut the economic ties by joining the EEC (EU), that I began to appreciate that our future lay with our neighbours in Polynesia and Asia.

Then in the 1980s books by authors Manying Ip and James Ng again transformed my awareness – this time of the history of Chinese in New Zealand – with their readable and often beautifully illustrated books.

Our growing awareness of our own country’s history over the intervening decades and our understanding of our real geographical place in the world, has made us all a great deal more aware of China and what early Chinese immigrants endured here. This was a place where they hoped to find peace and enough money to help families trapped by poverty, famine and political unrest.Instead they endured lives of great hardship and put up with degrading prejudice. Initially wives generally stayed in China to look after family and later the Poll Tax made it almost impossible to bring them here, so many men remained single. At one time there were 4995 Chinese men in New Zealand but only 9 women. Making a life here wasn’t easy.

New Zealand was the first country to apologise to their Chinese community for the Poll Tax – a representation of decades of unfair immigration policies and prejudice.

SnakeThese days, snippets of the rich culture Chinese immigrants bring with them are beginning to reach the rest of the community, most noticeably in the form on Chinese New Year celebrations. In Christchurch we celebrate with a Lantern Festival  in Hagley Park at the beginning of March. However, New Year celebrations officially begin on 10 February and this one ushers in the year of the snake, apparently signifying a good year for science and research.

LanternsLanternsBeijing Opera masks