Meng Foon has been a fixture in Gisborne local government for more than two decades. Today he starts a new role, as race relations commissioner. Alice Webb-Lidall heads over to his Gisborne home for dinner, to find out what he’ll miss as mayor, and how he’ll approach his new job
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Among the voters at this year’s local elections will be those born as recently as 2001. For those in that category in Gisborne, they’ve only ever known one mayor: Meng Foon. He’s not on the ballot this time, however. After more than two decades on the council, Foon is stepping down, and taking on the role of race relations commissioner.
“It’s quite a nice full circle, I think,” he says, looking up from the salmon he’s slicing for dinner at his Gisborne home. “Kids who were born 18 years ago can vote now, but they can’t vote for me.”
He cooks every night, says his wife, Ying Foon. The couple regularly do charity cooking, auctioning their culinary services for good causes.
“It sometimes goes for over $3000 and we do a degustation menu. Meng’s a very good cook, I’m going to have to start cooking for myself now that he’ll be away more.”
He’ll tell you his signature dish is markedly less than gourmet, however, than the elaborate meals for auction winners.
“A microwaved donut with mock cream. You microwave them and the mock cream soaks into the butter. I had the archbishop [Don Tamihere] here a few weeks ago and I said, ‘Mate, this is the first time I’ve made this dessert,’ and I microwaved a donut and then I just made a coulis out of mixed berries. The bowl was cleaned.”
Part of Foon’s enduring popularity, he reckons, is having led the Gisborne District Council with the kaupapa of listening more than you speak.
“We were born with two ears and one mouth so listen more than you speak and do what people want you to do.”
Profiles of Foon never fail to mention that he is fluent reo Māori – and that’s no surprise. Not just because he’s born to Chinese migrant parents: in 2019 he was the country’s only reo Māori speaking mayor. It’s been a huge asset, he says, in his tenure as Gisborne Mayor.
The chairman of local iwi trust Te Aitanga a Mahaki, Pene Brown, agrees.
“If he was in Yugoslavia, he would learn Yugoslavian. He is very gifted with languages and it’s certainly appreciated that he can move between all the marae and the local people have appreciated that.”
Growing up in Tairāwhiti, Foon had a knack for languages, and is fluent in Māori, English, Cantonese and the Seyip dialect. He’s currently learning Mandarin.
Gisborne’s population is 43% Māori, and Foon’s time at the helm of this council has seen some breakthroughs for Council-Iwi relationships.
“He was always open about any developments in the city, he let people know what was happening and he has battled hard on our behalf,” says Brown.
Foon picks as his proudest moment of the past 18 years the construction of the C Company Memorial House, which opened in 2014. But the process to getting it established was fraught. The location alongside the Tairāwhiti museum was considered by some to be inappropriate, and the pou erected outside declared an “eyesore”. The criticisms largely dissipated over time, he says.
“There was a bit of community kerfuffle, but the pou are still there and nobody says anything now. They’re quite a nice part of the landscape and they have intrinsic value in terms of the whakapapa. They are the guardians of the house themself in a half-moon shape around the house, a pā tūwatawata, a palisade to protect the house. That would be one of my proudest projects.”
When he first won the mayoralty in 2001, Gisborne’s waterways were under huge stress. Pollution from sewage had been leaking into the sea for years and iwi were angry they’d not been listened to when they started fighting for cleaner waterways years before. Foon’s first priority as Mayor was to remedy this. He says water quality is still the most important issue facing Gisborne today.
“Water, water, water. We’ve got two rivers that produce the most silt in the world, that’s the Waiapu river and the Waipaoa river. We have the Makauri aquifer, which is declining and we need to remedy that, so we’re doing some trials of pumping Waipaoa river water into the aquifer during the winter time. We have storm water that we need to better treat before it goes into the rivers.”
Both these rivers have improved from their state at the beginning of Foon’s tenure. In October 2015 The Gisborne District Council entered into an agreement with Ngāti Porou, giving them management rights over their tribal waterways, one of only two examples of this in the country. It was a critical moment in marking the relationship Foon has sought to build over the past 18 years, he says.
Today Foon begins his new job, but he’s not leaving Gisborne behind. He and Ying will continue to live in the region, saying they couldn’t imagine moving anywhere else.
“I could not live with the traffic in Auckland. No, Gisborne is our home and we’re not moving away,” says Ying.
The announcement that Foon would be taking the long-vacated position of race relations commissioner was not universally welcomed.
Some suggested it would have been preferable to appoint a Māori commissioner for the first time, and despite Foon’s connection to te ao Māori, knowing the language wasn’t enough. Māori Council executive Matthew Tukaki told Newsroom that it was a “missed opportunity”, and despite praising Foon’s time in the mayoralty, said the position should have been given to a Māori person.
Foon says he understands why there may have been some contention, but believes he’s proven himself. He wants people to recognise his commitment to racial unity, something he hopes he’s demonstrated in Gisborne in the past two decades.
“It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it can catch mice. I’m full Chinese and I’ve taken the time to be with our people, to learn their language and their skills and tikanga and kawa. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, as long as your desire, passion and person is supportive of our particular issues.”
The Human Rights Commission has attracted controversy of its own in recent years, with a ministerial review into the handling of sexual harassment claims in 2018 turning up some concerning results that the HRC scrambled to correct, and which prompted the resignation of previous race relations commissioner Dame Susan Devoy.
Following her resignation, the position sat vacant for more than a year after one unsuccessful applicant sued the minister of justice over the selection process.
Despite all this, Foon is confident that the culture at his new workplace is of a high standard, and that a lot has been done to address the problems within it.
“Commissioners have a role of governance, but they also have part of the doing part, which complicates it a little bit. It’s probably not dissimilar to the mayor’s job. I think the role is that from the setting of strategy and allocation of budget and holding people to account, the other role is that we need to build relationships throughout the country. Because we are the face of disabilities, human rights and race relations.”
He notes the lack of representation in the South Island, however, saying it’ll be a priority to spread his time over the country, and ensure there are more people hired in the south island offices.
“There’s only one person working in the whole of the South Island. After Christchurch and everything we saw then, I think that’s just unacceptable. I think if there are vacancies created, we need to advertise those positions in Christchurch. Get the appropriate skill for the South Island.”
And Foon has come up with a mnemonic he thinks will help New Zealanders better deal with race relations.
“I was in London a little while ago, and they have three S’s and those are ‘see it, say it, sort it’. So if you see something happening, tell the authorities and they will sort it out. I’ve come up with three E’s. The first E is education. Education needs to be continuous and I think learning about our own history and our own country would be a start. More emphasis on our own history and local stories of our people from the beginning of time to now will give us a better understanding of the different ethnicities that are here. The second part is if people are racist, they should be exposed. By exposing them, hopefully they will correct their ways and continue to learn and hopefully that will end in the last E, which is eradication.”
March 15 was a monumental moment in New Zealand’s race relations history. It confirmed fears that white supremacist culture persisted in Aotearoa, and highlighted our ill-preparedness for such an atrocity.
Foon wants to look into the specifics around hate speech, asking whether New Zealand’s hate speech laws are sufficient, and why they don’t count speech against religious groups in the definition.
“I need to make the important things important. I want to do some more exploration and research on hate speech. We have freedom of speech but I don’t think freedom of speech should be harmful to people, it shouldn’t create violence in the public space and it shouldn’t denigrate anyone’s dignity.”
Also high on his list: a day of commemoration for the New Zealand wars.
“Having a commemoration day for our New Zealand wars is pretty high on my list, because that’s a lot of raupatu that happened and those stories need to be told, and the commemorations need to happen. It’s as significant, if not more, as the current ANZAC day where the nation comes together to give thanks to our soldiers who fought overseas.”
As a second-generation Chinese Kiwi, Foon has direct experience of the way xenophobia and racism continue to fester in communities.
“The Chinese people came here in the 1850s and there are still issues – 169 years later there is still discrimination towards Chinese people. ‘These Chinese names, they must be overseas house buyers.’ It’s the bias that people don’t think about, because in fact Asian buyers are probably about 10% of the market. It’s an ongoing journey.”
Drawing on the “It’s Not OK” domestic violence campaign for inspiration, Foon wants to spark healthy debates to confront some of these prejudices. He’s not afraid to admit to his own biases, he says, and the New Zealand public needs to do the same.
Now his office is packed as he readies for a powhiri in Wellington on Monday. Foon says the Gisborne public have been overwhelmingly supportive of his new role.
A patu sits on his kitchen bench, a parting gift from one of the local hapu. He’s received cards, messages and tears from some of his supporters, and Foon says even those who opposed him in the past have wished him well in his new position.
His advice for his successor is to tell the truth. It’s a simple philosophy, but one he says has never set him wrong.
“If someone asks me a question I just tell the truth, then there’s no more questions after that. If you’re vague they’ll ask you some more questions until they find out the truth. I don’t want to tell a story, and I have to be mindful of the fact that some people know the answer already. If you say bullshit then they’ll catch you.”
As for saying goodbye to local government, Foon insists the time is right.
“I feel content. I’ve had a great 18 years as mayor, six years on the council as an apprentice where I learnt a lot. I took a chance and people voted for me. My ethos is move on. Let somebody else be whatever they want to be.
“The city is in good hands. Whoever takes over from me, and whoever gets into council in this year’s election, the city will do great … It’s time to let somebody else be whatever they want to be. Let the young people have their voice. It is what it is.”
This feature is made possible thanks to the Spinoff Members Fund. For more on how to support our work, click here