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Roskill Asians talk about their lives, or: Tze Ming Mok interviews her Mum and Dad

A conversation on the byelection result, politics and Asian communities, and whether Michael Wood’s big win points to a Labour resurgence, with two longtime Mt Roskill residents who happen also to be Tze Ming Mok’s parents

Tze Ming Mok was born and raised in Mt Roskill by immigrant parents from Malaysia and Singapore. Her parents, left-leaning voters from way back, still live in the house in which she was born, and her brother lives in a house behind them with his Mainland Chinese immigrant wife.

The day after Labour candidate Michael Wood’s victory over National’s Parmjeet Parmar in the Mt Roskill byelection, she gave her parents a call to collect some local intel.

Tze Ming Mok: For the record, how long have you guys been living in Mt Roskill?

Dad: Forty years. Since 1976.

TMM: How do you think the electorate has changed in that time?

Dad: Well obviously the ethnic mix has changed considerably. [On our street] it used to be mostly Pākehā, a few Māori, mostly church-going Pākehā.

TMM: Even in the early 80s there was always a good-sized Pacific Island population from what I remember at school, and then in 1987 there was the Fijian coup, so a massive Indian influx.

Dad: The Fijian Indians, then the Indian Indians. Then 15 years ago there was a big influx of Chinese – onto our street even …

TMM: Before Fiji there were not really Asians in Mt Roskill that I remember.

Dad: We were the only Chinese in these streets.

Michael Wood and Andrew Little talk to a reporter for Auckland Indian radio station

Michael Wood and Andrew Little talk to a reporter for Auckland Indian radio station Tahana. Photo: Labour website

TMM: There was Natalie Wong and her parents.

Dad: Oh yeah, they were “local” Chinese. And quite far away. I used to collect for the Red Cross in the 80s, and yeah mostly white Pākehā. I think there was a Singaporean family that lived up the road that I didn’t know existed.

Mum: Some of the wealthier Chinese have moved on to Epsom and Remuera after living in Roskill – or to the Shore.

Dad: If they have the money. Some of them are just hardworking people, might have moved to South Auckland or something.

Mum: No, they go to the areas with the Grammar Zone schools.

Dad: Yeah, but a lot of them just run little takeaway bars and –

Mum: Well, they still can make a lot of money.

Dad: Well, I don’t know for sure.

Mum: I do.

Dad: Political parties now have repositioned, the National Party has repositioned itself I suppose. Phil Goff has been here for yonks, and basically he was the face of Mt Roskill.

(Here dad goes into a lengthy anecdote about the time he didn’t vote for Phil Goff because he was “an apologist for the monetarist system” during the fourth Labour government, and he was angry about the introduction of university fees, so in 1993 “We voted for Values and he lost his seat!” I correct him: he actually voted for the Alliance in its first incarnation in 1993. Mum chimes in: “The Values party didn’t exist any more!” I suggest this was when Phil lost his seat to former National MP-turned Alliance member Gilbert Myles, who then cycled through a series of political parties in a single term then was kicked out again when Roskill returned tearfully to Goff in 1996 and promised never to do that again. It would have been 1975 or 1978 when he voted for Values. But yes, my parents used to vote for the Values Party in the 70s. Later, Dad emails: “A clarification: Gilbert Myles was elected in Oct 1990, beating Phil Goff, representing the National Party. I voted for the Greens in that election. They had just been formed that year from the remnants of the Values Party, among others.”)

TMM: What was your reaction to Michael Wood’s victory?

Dad: I was quite pleased that he won!

Mum: He deserved to win. He’s the one who puts in the hard work for Roskill.

TMM: What’s your experience with Michael Wood, if you try to pretend that you didn’t know that I went to university with Julie?

Dad: I had contact with Michael Wood because I complained to the local board when he was Chair about them taking away the toddler slides and swings at the playground [by Cameron Pools], and Tze Hoong too, he complained about his drains. And we both got replies from him, which was pleasantly surprising. And then he promised he would do something about it, put it into their policymaking or something.

Mum: I think they did!

Dad: And then we met him when we went on this possum-round [clearing DOC traps at Waikowhai Reserve].

Mum: He answers the queries pretty quickly.

Dad: Yes, he’s very prompt. His email comes out in the Puketapapa community newsletter, and you can email him. Tze Hoong emailed him, and he got some action from Watercare.

Mum: So he’s quite hard-working.

TMM: Were you generally aware of the stuff he’s done in the neighbourhood?

Dad: it comes out in –

Mum: The Central Leader.

Dad: Well, Mum reads the Central Leader.

Mum: Yes.

Dad: It comes out in the Puketapapa newsletter, what they’re doing about the parks and the waterways and this and that.

TMM: I saw descriptions of Parmjeet Parmar in some of the news coverage as “low profile”. What do you think they meant by that?

Dad: No one had seen her in Mt Roskill except for election time I suppose, heh! Her face appears on the billboard. She doesn’t live here, I don’t know where she lives.

Mum: She’s not really involved with the local community work.

Dad: She might have some sort of office somewhere, which I haven’t seen. It’s probably –

Mum: Royal Oak probably.

(She says this slightly disdainfully. Wealthier Epsom-ish Royal Oak was only recently tacked-onto Roskill electorate.)

Dad: Maybe where Jackie Blue used to sit at the Roskill shopping centre area. But I haven’t seen her electorate office anywhere basically. Whereas Phil Goff had, I mean we didn’t see him that often, but periodically his office would send out a newsletter saying he’d be available on this and this date and I know people approached him for various things. So Phil has been more like a local electorate representative, whereas this Parmjeet is a list MP – she pretends to be for Roskill, I haven’t seen her doing anything anywhere. Not that I’ve heard of anyway.

TMM: Did you get canvassed on the phone by her campaign?

Dad: No?

Mum: We got phoned quite a few times for Michael Wood. [laughs]

Dad: I got one call way before the election, when Phil Goff had only just got Mayor, and they asked who was I going to vote for, was I prepared to say? And I said “Labour” and they said, oh well, forget it. [laughter]

I got a call for the local council elections, from this Indian guy, Kaushal something [Shail Kaushal], and a call from Julie Fairey I think, and I said: “Oh, when’s your husband’s campaign starting?” And they said: “Oh, we’re working on it.”

TMM: Can you tell me a bit about how you perceived that drama over the allegations that Michael Wood assaulted Parmar’s husband at a meeting? What did you think about it as it unfolded?

Dad: Parmjeet Parmar made a bad political mistake because she said, “I have no comment about it.” The other side has a lot of comment but she has no comment! It’s a bit weird. So that’s bad political judgement. And I think people are not stupid either. On one side all they’re saying is Wood’s assaulted him. If he’s assaulted him why won’t he lay charges with the police? But Michael Wood’s saying he was slagging people off and it had nothing to do with his policies, it was to do with his wife. I don’t think people liked it too much; I think they damaged themselves considerably with the general public.

TMM: Do you think National could have done better with a better quality candidate?

Dad: Oh yes, I was just commenting this morning to mum, I think next year they might change the candidate! Make this woman stand somewhere else. They’ve got no quality Roskill candidates the National Party.

Mum: I don’t think they’re very interested in Roskill anyway.

TMM: Really? If you look at the party vote breakdown for 2014 it’s a split down the middle between the left and the right, and National won the party vote. There’s obviously a voter base for the National Party, but why can’t they get a credible candidate?

Dad: But who would they get?

TMM: I guess if they’re going for the “ethnic vote”, they look at Roskill and think ooh, it’s full of Indians, let’s stand an Indian. Can’t they find a better Indian?

Dad: They’d do better standing a white accountant. I think all the National Party candidates don’t want to stand for Roskill.

TMM: Don’t you think that the increased vote share for National suggests that the electorate is changing, becoming more wealthy, and more of a National base?

Dad: I don’t think people are getting wealthier.

Mum: I think that the migrant population, the Asian migrant population are generally more right wing. But then they’re so diverse so you can’t just put an Indian there or a Chinese there and think they’re going to get the vote, or any other “coloured person”. They don’t have any quality people standing here. You may be right wing or centre right, but you also want somebody that does some work in the community.

TMM: So why aren’t there any right wing Asians doing any quality work in the community?

Mum: That’s just not their natural way of doing politics, they don’t work from the grassroots-level working up through the population, getting your face seen, it’s just a different way altogether.

TMM: What’s your view of any of the Asian list MPs for any of the main parties that we’ve seen.

Mum: Not many quality people…

Dad: This Raymond Huo, he was a useless fellow. And then this Pansy Wong was quite popular with the Hong-Kongers [laughs]

Mum: But there’s not many Hong Kongers around any more, it’s more dominated by the Mainland Chinese migrants.

TMM: You mean in Mt Roskill. Obviously Hong Kong people still do exist in Auckland.

Mum: Mt Roskill too.

(Several hundred words have redacted here for legal reasons.)

Dad: I look at people like [my Mainland Chinese daughter-in-law]. She reads the Chinese papers and says things like, “oh, look, Phil Goff is proposing this terrible thing”, which is this levy on the hotels – according to some Chinese media it’s a terrible thing, I suppose because Chinese tourists are going to pay more. If she reads that, that’s what the rest of the Mainland Chinese will be reading. That’s where they get their information, from the Mainland Chinese social media and newspapers.

TMM: You guys have never been rightwing voters. Why do you think you’re so different from other Asian migrants, even of your generation?

Dad: I don’t know. Maybe I was born not too attracted to money.

Mum: I think that’s the main problem. Money is most people’s god. They don’t think of it that way but that’s what it is. And if you think of it that way and want it for yourself you go for it at all costs to society or to the community. So you don’t have any community spirit or social conscience, of course you’re right wing.

Dad: My family were dirt poor. My father was a policeman. Maybe from what I read. My grandfather was sort of vaguely left wing and a lot of our family friends were frank Communists, young Communists. A few of them got arrested actually in Malaysia for engaging in Communist activity. But I read some of the Chinese literature they had at that time, and I read some books from Mainland China… Malaysia was a different world altogether; Socialism and Capitalism mean nothing to people just scrambling for a living. But looking at China I was of the belief that Communism did it good. So I suppose I’m a bit of a left-wing socialist from early days…

Mum: And yes, most of our Chinese friends are more National supporters…

Dad: And I don’t know how your mum turned out this way because her father was a stockbroker…

Mum: No.

TMM: He was a Communist, dad.

Mum: He started like all young Mainland Chinese at that time of the revolution as a Communist-minded person. But then it didn’t work out in practical terms so he left. Or else get slaughtered. Or else turn your face when normal, good people get slaughtered for no reason, just for being good people. If you can take that you stay on, and if you can’t take that then you leave. And so he left. And you do things overseas to survive if you haven’t got a profession, how do you survive in Southeast Asia if you come from China with nothing.

(Dad goes to eat his lunch, Mum stays on)

TMM: You said earlier that eventually even the Mainland Chinese will get wise to it.

Mum: I think the not-so-wealthy ones; you know not all of them are wealthy. The wealthy ones live in Epsom and Remuera, that’s where [my daughter-in-law]’s friends and business people live, they all live in Remuera. And I think she’s probably the only one of her friends who lives in Mt Roskill because they haven’t got enough money to live in Epsom and Remuera! If [my daughter-in-law] had enough money, that’s where she would live! That’s where she wanted to live but they couldn’t afford it basically. You know, she wanted to rent a place there [to get their children into the Grammar Zone].

TMM: So it’s quite self-selective then, the Roskill Mainland Chinese population. That is, they’re stuck in Mt Roskill because they can’t afford to leave.

Mum: That’s right! And if they could, they’d go there! And she’s one of those.

TMM: So they might be more middle class than wealthy.

Mum: Yes, there are other Mainland Chinese people who aren’t that wealthy anyway.

TMM: In terms of the demographic of Mt Roskill, it’s 40% Asian now, mostly Chinese and Indian. Obviously a huge change from when you first moved here.

Mum: Yes, very much.

TMM: Do you think it’s made it better for you or worse?

Mum: For me? I probably don’t like it as much, to be honest. Some things are better I guess, but with new migrants generally there’s less community spirit. After a while, they settle down and get used to a place they’ll have more community spirit, but there’s probably less of it now.

TMM: What would you like to see happen to engage migrant communities in community identity?

Mum: I think because there are so many of them, they’re so diverse, they find it easier to move in their little migrant groups rather than actually get to know local people or find out about the local place. I think a lot of the local people have opened up a lot more to the migrant population now, especially in schools and things so that’s good. But the older migrant people find it very hard to open up to the local people, partly because of language I’m sure, and partly because there are so many of them. So there are good things and bad things, just like with any migrant population. Like in the conservation group that I joined, there’s not a single Asian.

TMM: Except you.

Mum: I’m not even that Asian any more. I’m not a recent migrant. But slowly that will change, when the children grow up and they get more used to the country and the way things are done. These are still early days for Roskill, for such a major change. It will slowly change, I hope, for the better. There are lots of good people in the migrant population anyway – it takes time.

TMM: What were your thoughts on the People’s Party and their candidate in the byelection?

Mum: Oh, I thought he would have got more votes! I was quite surprised! Because he represents the businesspeople, and there’s lots of little businesses in Mt Roskill, Indian businesses, I thought he would have got more. Obviously they still voted for Michael Wood. So that surprised me, because with Parmjeet being not so present in Roskill, whereas this guy is more a business guy, he’s a successful person.

TMM: And he actually lived closer –

Mum: Yes, on the other side of the street just bordering Balmoral or something.

TMM: Do you think they’ll do better in the general election in Roskill?

Mum: Maybe, yes. Locals still want to vote for someone who does something for the community I would think.

TMM: Did you see this as basically very much a local issues byelection –

Mum: Yes.

TMM: Rather than a referendum on any particular party?

Mum: Yes, not so political.

TMM: John Key came seven times to Mt Roskill.

Mum: Did he??

TMM: Yes, he came to the schools, he turned up everywhere, it’s like he was the candidate.

Mum: [laughs]

TMM: And now Labour’s trying to say oh, this is like a referendum on the government, and an affirmation of Andrew Little.

Mum: I actually don’t think so. I just think Michael Wood’s been doing the hard work all these years and people know him. Because Roskill’s not that Labour leaning any more.

The above transcript has been edited for length and clarity, and redacted where potentially defamatory

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