One Question Quiz
Poet laureate Chris Tse is a descendent of a Cantoneses-speaking poll tax payer (Photo: Supplied / Design: Archi Banal)
Poet laureate Chris Tse is a descendent of a Cantoneses-speaking poll tax payer (Photo: Supplied / Design: Archi Banal)

BooksFebruary 19, 2023

Sorry seems to be the hardest word (to hear in the wrong language)

Poet laureate Chris Tse is a descendent of a Cantoneses-speaking poll tax payer (Photo: Supplied / Design: Archi Banal)
Poet laureate Chris Tse is a descendent of a Cantoneses-speaking poll tax payer (Photo: Supplied / Design: Archi Banal)

Poet laureate Chris Tse reflects on this week’s government apology for the discriminatory poll tax legislation that treated our early Chinese New Zealand community so poorly – and why it’s so important that the apology was finally delivered in Cantonese.

Every year parliament holds an event to celebrate Chinese New Year. I’ve been to a few of these and they play out as you might expect – perfunctory speeches from officials peppered with statistics and positive statements about New Zealand–China relations, interspersed with a smattering of cultural performances to help keep the audience awake. Perfectly fine, in a Groundhog Day sort of way. However, this year’s event had an extra special item on the agenda: an apology for the poll tax in Cantonese.

First, a tl;dr history lesson: in 1881, parliament passed the Chinese Immigrants Act, which was designed to tax Chinese immigrants to New Zealand and restrict migration from China. The initial poll tax was £10 per person (about $2000 today). In 1896, the tax was increased to £100 and Chinese passenger restrictions on ships became even more stringent.

In the book Aliens At My Table: Asians as New Zealanders See Them, a collection of historical political cartoons edited by Manying Ip and Nigel Murphy, there’s an image that always catches my eye. It’s a 1905 cartoon titled ‘Still They Come’ that features grotesque caricatures of Chinese men bounding over a wall, startling a pair of stout, well-dressed Englishmen. “The wall’s got to go up a bit higher,” says part of the caption. “If a £100 poll tax won’t keep the yellow agony out then we’ll have to slap on another hundred.” Other cartoons in the book echo the calls for raising the tax, as well as the introduction of an education test for Chinese immigrants. (In 2002, months after the original poll tax apology, the government tightened language requirements for prospective immigrants, who were now expected to have English proficiency at a post-graduate university level.)

The poll tax legislation was repealed in 1944, long after other countries had abandoned such measures. On 12 February 2002, then prime minister Helen Clark made a formal apology to Chinese New Zealanders who paid the poll tax and were subjected to the discriminatory legislation. She said it marked the beginning of “formal process of reconciliation with the Chinese community”. 

The apology promised to be a momentous step forward in addressing and making amends for the government’s shameful treatment of early Chinese New Zealanders. Although the apology was welcomed by the community, there was one decision that left many in disbelief – the Chinese language version of the apology was delivered in Mandarin. It’s estimated that 98% of those who paid the poll tax came from the Cantonese-speaking regions of southern China. In other words, the Mandarin apology would’ve meant nothing to them or their descendants.

Last year’s public criticism of New Zealand Chinese Language Week (NZCLW) highlighted the delicate politics at play when it comes to the use and promotion of Chinese languages in Aotearoa. I’m not here to rehash my disappointment in NZCLW, but it’s important to re-emphasise that Cantonese has an important place in New Zealand’s history and, by association, its relationship with the Chinese community. As Jenny Too, president of the New Zealand Chinese Association, noted in her speech on Monday night, “Cantonese is the heritage language of our original settlers. We honour them by continuing to speak it.” Aotearoa is not alone in this sentiment – many other Chinese diaspora communities around the world are attempting to preserve Cantonese as their heritage language.

Esther Fung and Harvey Wu giving their right of reply. (Photo: Supplied)

These days I’m pleasantly surprised when I hear snatches of Cantonese in public. Over the years it’s become less common, in keeping with the rise of Mandarin as the most spoken Chinese language in New Zealand. On the day before the Parliamentary event, I watched the first episode of Sik Fan Lah! with my Mum. We turned to each other and beamed every time someone on screen spoke in Cantonese. In addition to being a fantastic showcase of the diversity of Chinese food culture in Aotearoa, the show is a potent reminder that language, often politicised, has a power and value to ethnic and minority communities that cannot be underestimated or taken for granted.

Earlier this year I came across a translation of a Cantonese quote: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” This sums up what it felt like to be in the room when interpreter Dr Henry Liu delivered the apology in Cantonese on Monday night. I’m by no means a fluent speaker these days, but I was surprised at how much of the apology I could understand. It was an incredibly moving moment knowing that the decision to apologise in Mandarin was not only being acknowledged, it was being redressed. Dr Liu was not given a choice to deliver the original apology in Cantonese back in 2002; 21 years later, he was finally allowed to do what should’ve been done in the first place.

Interpreter Dr Henry Liu delivering the apology in Cantonese. (Photo: Supplied)

Community elders Esther Fung and Harvey Wu followed Dr Liu with a right of reply to the apology. Both were present at the 2002 apology, along with some of the last surviving poll tax payers. They spoke of the frustration by those who could not understand either the English or the Mandarin versions of the apology. Since then, Esther and others have lobbied the government to correct this decision. That persistence paid off, but it was sad to note that those who deserved to hear the Cantonese apology – those who were subject to the racist actions of the government – would never hear it for themselves.

How, then, to follow such a powerful moment? With a poem from me, apparently. Before I read my poem, I held the Matua Tokotoko aloft and explained how it was the parent tokotoko that presides over all the Poet Laureates’ individual tokotoko. Although I’ve had many public appearances since my appointment as Poet Laureate last August, this was my first event with the Matua Tokotoko by my side (I’ll receive my own customised tokotoko in April). To me, the Matua Tokotoko is a symbol of legacy and it felt fitting that I had it with me during this milestone in our community’s history, particularly as a descendant of a poll tax payer.

Chris Tse with the Matua Tokotoko. (Photo: Chris Yee)

The poem I chose to read is about my great-grandfather’s journey to Aotearoa. I’ve heard many stories about him and his contributions to the Chinese New Zealand community, including his involvement with the New Zealand Chinese Association and the Poon Fah Association, which were both present at Monday night’s events. He may never have expected an apology for the poll tax to be given by the government, but I know that he too would’ve fought to ensure that it be delivered in the right language.

Landing (A Thursday, A Calm)

Call on those perfect gods and light will turn. / He left familiar doors

and their Protector / for a sharper grace / to seek what the stars sing. /

The shore is here! / Water loose in the air / breath caught in the stillicide /

unbearable itch in his mouth / white noise crashing through all thoughts. /

There is no design. / When it comes to solutions he dances in circles / though

some would say  / (through gritted teeth) / it was never his turn to lead. /

A stained line / on his prosperous map / his wife’s belief in unison /

a wave in the dark / with nowhere to crash. / The Maheno deposits

its contribution / to the growing land / of plenty. / In single file

he passes through / tax paid, no photo provided / fingerprints

taken for identification. / Joe Choy Kum / arr: 23 October 1919 / #853

The formalities wrapped up with a traditional red lantern dance performance from a troupe of adorable kids. As we mingled afterwards, the first episode of Sik Fan Lah! played on screens in the banquet hall. The young dancers darted through the crowd clutching boxes filled with fried noodles and dumplings. There was a palpable energy in the room as people embraced each other and spoke about how moved they were by the apology. One person told me that they felt a sense of closure. For the first time, this felt like an event for the community and not just a diplomatic lovefest. My heart had been spoken to.

Keep going!