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Two weeks at the top for Rose Lu. Photo by Ebony Lamb
Two weeks at the top for Rose Lu. Photo by Ebony Lamb

BooksNovember 20, 2019

On Rose Lu and her gorgeous, groundbreaking book of essays

Two weeks at the top for Rose Lu. Photo by Ebony Lamb
Two weeks at the top for Rose Lu. Photo by Ebony Lamb

Shilo Kino, a Māori writer who wove her own ties with China, rejoices at the release of Rose Lu’s debut, All Who Live on Islands

I first met Rose Lu when she stood up to introduce herself at an Asia Leadership Network meeting earlier this year. We were all newbies, a group of under-30s chosen to be “young leaders” in an organisation working to strengthen Asia’s relationship with New Zealand.

Each of us introduced ourselves and explained our connection to Asia. There were young business owners, CEOs, lawyers – you know, the kind of people who make you feel like you aren’t doing enough with your life. 

A Chinese girl wearing bold lipstick stood up. Her name was Rose. She said she had written a book based on her experiences of growing up as a Chinese immigrant in New Zealand and it was due out this year. A stunned silence and then a deafening round of applause – the loudest cheer coming from me. I was desperate to read this book. 

So what’s my connection with China?  I am tangata whenua – Ngāpuhi and Tainui – with no Chinese tupuna. I grew up in Waipu, a small town in Northland with a population of just over 1,500. The majority of the population was Pākehā and Māori, with the exception of one Chinese family who ran the local fish and chip shop. Magic Tasty was revolutionary, introducing the locals to fried rice and chicken chow mein. It was the first time most of us had tasted Chinese food and it was also the first time most of us had interacted with Chinese people. 

Shilo in classic tourist mode, on the Great Wall of China. Supplied.

In 2015, when I was 25, I left my job as a journalist for Fairfax Media and embarked on an 18 month volunteer mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Hong Kong. 

You can only imagine how it felt for me, growing up in a small town like Waipu and then living in a place like Hong Kong, where trains travelled at the speed of light, massive buildings seemed to reach the clouds, and herds of people moved around in a frantic dash, speaking a language I could not understand. 

As a missionary, I mostly interacted with and shared my faith with the people from Mainland China, which meant I had to learn Mandarin. Learning Mandarin was hard, the hardest thing I have ever done. There were many days I saw the language as simply a barrier.  

But there is a saying in Māori, ko te reo te taikura ō te whakaaro marama – language is the key to understanding. As I strenuously studied my Mandarin textbooks, and forced myself to open my mouth and speak Mandarin, the Chinese people saw the effort I was making to understand them and so they opened their doors and their hearts. I began to love these people – not just as friends, but as family. I truly believe that with the embracing of language comes the embracing of culture.

Shilo and Cathy, a young girl to whom she taught English. Supplied.

When I came home to Tauranga, I went to both the Mount Maunganui and Papamoa libraries, searching out fiction and nonfiction literature on Chinese people in New Zealand. I wanted to understand the Chinese experience in this country, read up on the history, and hear a different perspective – a perspective that can come only from Chinese people living here.  

What I found was a tiny section – about 10 books – right next to the section on Europe. The only local, as in New Zealand, books in it were by University of Auckland emeritus professor Manying Ip. I mean, I was ecstatic to find those. Ip has done amazing work on analysing the relationship between Chinese and Māori, something I am hugely interested in. But I was left wondering where the other Chinese Kiwi books were. Had I not looked hard enough? And why were Ip’s books lumped in between Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club) and the story of some white American dude’s experience living in China?  

Enter Rose Lu, a 29-year-old software engineer now based in Wellington. She’s the daughter of Chinese immigrants who own a dairy and takeaway shop in Whanganui. In All Who Live On Islands, her debut essay collection, Lu writes with precision and grace about her grandmother inspecting peaches. She writes about working at the Mad Butcher and about very bad high school sex. About yoga and MSN and tramping in the Himalayas. 

As Nina Mingya Powles noted in her launch speech, Lu incorporates Hanzi and Pinyin without italics throughout, writing in an endnote: “For those of us who have grown up with several languages, this signifier is meaningless.”

Powles, a poet and writer, was born in Wellington and is of Chinese-Malaysian heritage. “I tried to imagine what it would have been like for me if this book had existed when I took my very first undergrad creative writing workshop when I was 19,” she said. “There had been Asian-NZ writers published long before, but I didn’t know yet how to find them. I would have been less afraid to write about my Asianness. I would have allowed myself to exist in that workshop space unapologetically as the only Asian in the room.”

Rose Lu and her debut novel. Rose shot by Ebony Lamb.

Lu is a pioneer. That bold lipstick matches her bold voice in a whitewashed publishing industry. She is paving the way for a new generation of writers. But, she tells me, there’s still a long way to go. 

“I can name all of the other Chinese New Zealand authors, which is great, but there should be so many that I can’t do that. I can’t name all the Pākehā writers and I don’t even think I can name all the Māori writers.”

I think back to that shelf packed with books on the Asian American experience. Why has it taken so long for our stories to emerge? 

“There’s this entire structure set up to help Asian American writers succeed and nothing like that really exists here in New Zealand,” Lu says. “It’s not that I don’t think Asian Kiwis are given opportunities, it’s just that there’s not that many opportunities in New Zealand.” 

She also points out that migration patterns have an influence. “There was the gold rush generation [and] the fruit shop generation, and both those generations had to work so hard and probably didn’t have time to write books. With my generation, it’s been only in the last five years where we are getting to an age where the children of the people who migrated are entering their twenties and thirties.”

In All Who Live on Islands, Lu explores growing up in small rural towns where she and her family were often the only Chinese. She writes about prejudice, isolation, expectations, family dynamics. But it was the internalised racism, Lu says, that was the great silent battle. 

“When I was living in Auckland, it was easier to be passively Chinese because I had Asian friends and I felt a bit more protected. But I spent more time in places where there wasn’t a big Asian population and you do feel kind of exposed. A lot of my friends were Pākehā because I lived in Pākehā towns. 

“I think I had a lot of internalised racism because I didn’t really understand or appreciate my Chinese culture. I think that’s something I could have let go of, or worked through at an earlier age, if I knew it was okay to have those kind of feelings. We talk a lot about racism, but in terms of internal racism? That’s such a subtle thing.”

As a child, Lu’s grandparents called her Shiao-nyi-geu, a nickname that meant ‘happy little dog’. Photo: supplied.

Lu’s relationship with her grandparents weaves throughout the essay collection and is perhaps the most endearing aspect of it. In the opening chapter, for example, we meet Kon-kon and Bu’uah and follow the couple as they go shopping with Lu at Pak’n’Save – or as they call it, “the poor people shop”. 

“Whenever I talk to people about my family, Pākehā are always surprised my grandparents live with us,” Lu says. “But this is a normal thing in my culture.”

 But the central role of her grandparents in these essays goes far beyond a sweet family relationship. Lu is paying homage, and making us see the people we so often ignore. “[Older migrants] are a voiceless community because many of them are at an age where they are way too old to proficiently learn a language. They’re a big block of people here but there’s no one really talking about them and their lives. But for my family, we couldn’t have gotten here without the support of my grandparents. The amount they have given to us is invisible.”

Lu wrote All Who Live on Islands while studying a Masters of Arts in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters, where she won the Creative Nonfiction Prize. She’d been working as a software developer for six years before starting the course, after swerving off the med school path that seemed set for her. 

“It just seemed impossible to me I could do something like writing; I didn’t even consider it as an option,” she says. “From a really young age, an idea that was really drilled into me was that work needed to be stable, dependable and skilled. You don’t have to necessarily like your work, but this is how my mum and dad got by. I chose engineering school because it seemed like the least worst thing I could be doing. I mean, I really like my job now so it turned out okay.”

Rose worked part-time while studying and writing – the book took upwards of 15 months. Her favourite essay in the collection is the final one, written for her younger brother Matthew. ‘The Tiger Cub’ is a story about exams and expectations and depression. “Some of the stuff I write about is big stuff I’ve been thinking for years and processing in the background,” Lu says.  

In the acknowledgements, she jokes that the target audience for this book is “1.5 generation Chinese migrants who have grown up in the regions”. 

She’s being self-deprecating, of course. This is one of the most buzzed-about local books of the year.  

For some it will function as an eye-opener, Lu thinks. “I just know there will be people that will read this and it might be one of only a handful of books from an Asian writer they will read in a lifetime.”

For others, like me and Nina Mingya Powles, it means much more. 

“Reading these essays felt like I’d jumped into very cold water and come up laughing,” Powles said. “It felt like my heart had been opened.”

All Who Live on Islands, by Rose Lu (Victoria University Press, $30) is available at Unity Books. 

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