In August, the Herald ran a crazily racist opinion piece where an unnamed real estate agent criticised Auckland for being “unwholesomely Chinese”. Guy Williams went in search of the truth about the story, and ended up being sucked down a rabbit hole filled with intrigue, recriminations, and Winston Peters.
First published August 16, 2016
Holy shit! I’m in too deep. What started as an angry Twitter rant slagging off Winston Peters has led me down into the dank caverns of actual journalism. I’m having late-night phone calls with sources who don’t want to be named. A man who’s being “hunted by angry Chinese mobs” is asking me if I can do anything to help.
I’m a pop radio shock jock who’s accidentally stumbled across a story, and it’s thrilling. My life has become a plot for a bad Adam Sandler movie, only slightly less racist.
This is how it happened.
Chapter 1: The beginning
Let’s start with the story that changed my world. It appeared on nzherald.co.nz on Sunday night under the headline “Auckland too much like China says Chinese immigrant and real estate agent”
I saw it on www.reddit.com/r/newzealand on Monday morning. The comments section was ugly. I didn’t even want to check Facebook.
“Chinese people are coming over here and buying up all the land” is a tabloid tale as old as time, but this story started weird and got weirder.
I was calling BS from the first line. “Winston Peters” had received an “email” from a “Chinese real estate agent”. Even more unlikely, that “agent”, who asked to be known only as “Adam” somehow went on to deliver one of the most classic Winston Peters-style arguments of all time. OF ALL TIME!
I hurriedly wrote a blog post titled: I’m worried Winston Peters made up a fake Chinese man and published a letter from him in the New Zealand Herald.
I could not have been more wrong.
Incredibly, Winston Peters did not write the terrible sentences which I am about to post.
This is the craziest line of the letter. The words “unwholesomely Chinese flavour” seemed insane. I couldn’t believe they were being published in a newspaper.
For an earlier use of “unwholesome” to describe Chinese immigration, see the Wesport Times of 21 June 1881. pic.twitter.com/IpPTVu0c5R
— Giovanni Tiso (@gtiso) August 14, 2016
At this point I thought that either Winston Peters or someone at the Herald was just making this up. It read like some crappy racist gag my dad’s friends would say.
This Hosking-esque story made me incredibly suspicious. It couldn’t be real. Peters was back, and this time some of his best friends were Asian.
I’d cracked it. The last paragraph of my article was like a bomb I was ready to drop. I finished with the immortal lines:
“I desperately need the mysterious Chinese Real Estate Agent “Adam” to come forward to a more reliable source than Winston Peters because otherwise:
- I think Winston Peters has made up his source “Adam”
- I think the New Zealand Herald has published it without checking his source “Adam”. Essentially becoming a propaganda arm for Winston Peters.”
And that’s where my “journalism” started to come off the rails.
CHAPTER 2: A bloody shambles
Almost as soon as I finished my blog rant (I’m not a blogger, or a journalist. I didn’t know where I was going to publish it theedge.co.nz? The Jono and Ben Facebook page?), Twitter ripped my entire conspiracy theory to shreds.
In a kind of crowd-sourced research @gtiso, @HaydenDonnell and @DylanReeve pretty quickly found out that “Adam” was a real person. Adam was actually his real name and he had appeared on Newshub (I assumed “Adam” was made up and this article was a red herring. At this point I was fully insane).
It was humiliating, but I couldn’t admit defeat. Something was suspicious. Who tries to be anonymous by using their real name? Who attacks their own culture? Who criticises the foreign investors who pay them? Why was his profile “Adam” suspiciously deleted from the real estate company’s website? What immigrant goes to Winston Peters for help?! That’s like a fish asking for help from a shark that eats that type of fish! (I don’t know a lot about sea life).
By this stage the Herald, who got this shitstorm swirling in the first place, were hitting us with “Chinese react stories”. Believe it or not Arthur Loo, lawyer and executive board member of the New Zealand China Council had the same crazy theory as me, telling the Herald:
“”I doubt very much this was written by a Chinese person. It is anonymous, which is a danger. There’s always a danger responding to something that’s anonymous…
“It looks like it’s come out of the Black Ops department of NZ First – it presses all the ‘hot issue’ buttons… housing, education. I think it’s been written by a mischievous non-Chinese person.”
David Soh, editor of the Mandarin Pages had similar doubts. By the end of Monday, nzherald.co.nz had four different articles about how people were outraged by the outrage nzherald.co.nz had helped create.
CHAPTER 3: Accidental journalist slash hero
This is where it gets weird. Again, I’m not a journalist, but for the story I needed to talk to“Adam”: the mysterious man who I once thought was fake. I needed to do some actual reporting, so I called up my mate Dunko Greive (don’t call him that – he hates it and says it brings up traumatic schoolyard memories) and asked him how you record an interview. “With an iPhone obviously,” he said. “But what if I’m talking on my iPhone?” “Get two iPhones!”
I borrowed my mum’s iPhone.
I was ready.
I tried to track down people who might know Adam. It was a path fraught with drama and intrigue and journalism. People wanted to remain “off the record”. Others told me he was “keeping a low profile”; that he’d had employment issues for “speaking out”. They said I shouldn’t contact him because “people were after him”.
I was journalising extremely hard.
To be honest I should have just skipped all that and Googled him. He’s a former real estate agent so his number was available on multiple sites. I texted because I knew from my journalism that he was going through a tough time.
Adam texted a reply saying his “anti-Chinese speculators” and “cultural harmony approach got twisted” and because of this “I was fired and I’m being hunted by angry Chinese mobs”. It sounded sad, but it was easy to see how his “cultural harmony approach” of complaining about Auckland’s “unwholesomely Chinese flavour” in New Zealand’s highest-selling newspaper would go awry.
Besides the quite-easily-interpreted-as-racist statements towards Chinese immigrants, Adam seemed like a great guy! He’s been in New Zealand for 16 years and says in the last four years he’s become worried about Chinese speculators “destroying” the housing market and Chinese immigrants not making an effort to integrate into New Zealand society.
What was amazing to me is – despite claiming that speaking out had ruined his life – the Herald was just the icing on the cake. He’s been a soundbite machine for over a year on TVNZ and Newshub, and didn’t back away from any of his comments. I asked him whether his racist statements were made because of translation difficulties and he said no. I felt racist making that assumption! I wondered if he was misunderstood?
“Only in the way some people read it,” he said.
CHAPTER 4: Adam’s Story
The only time I was a little dodged out in our 25 minute chat was when I asked about his job issues, and he was weirdly calm about it. He claimed he didn’t know his views would be interpreted as racist.
He asked me why he would bag Chinese investors, when he sells “50%” of his property to Chinese people. “I’m Chinese myself, and I make money out of Chinese people. Would I be stupid enough to shoot myself in the foot? Ask yourself that question,” he said. It was like he was realising his mistake as he was talking. I said: “From my view it kind of seems like you did shoot yourself in the foot?” He replied: “Big time”.
It was the only time he seemed uncertain. He was desperate to get his message out even though he was disappointed by the negative reaction. “If it’s going to make people angry and more separated, if I’m being a divisive person… I’d keep my mouth shut… Any divisive force that fosters racism and hatred should not be tolerated,” he said. “If the article did that then it’s a bloody mistake.”
I felt sorry for him. He went on to claim the Herald took out a key paragraph from his letter, and that had changed the context of the article. He later sent me the paragraph and it does seem weird they took it out but I don’t think it would have saved him. It read:
“It makes me wonder. On one hand our industries are screaming for overseas professionals to fill the gaps in IT, healthcare and engineering, on the other hand we are deliberately shutting our doors to all immigrants other than mainland Chinese – those with enough cash to set up a Queen Street front shop without having to worry about any non-Chinese clientele. Shouldn’t our immigration policy be equally welcoming to say, a medic from Britain or an engineer from Japan? What is our government doing to attract these human assets to New Zealand?”
He claims that with the exception of this edit, he wrote the entire thing. What about Winston Peters? Despite the New Zealand First leader apparently writing the intro to the story, Adam said he had nothing to do with it. Adam’s letter went straight to the Herald, who spent a while sitting on it, during which time he was fired for his media comments on TV. The Herald apparently only decided to run the letter after Peters mentioned Adam’s name in a press release.
The harassment and the threatening phone calls? They definitely increased after the Herald article. While he praises Peters twice in the article he thinks the Herald added extra Winston with the photo and caption. He says he doesn’t align with any political party but agrees with Peters’ thoughts on immigration.
CHAPTER 5: My findings
- Adam is real.
- His comments are very misguided
- NZ Herald didn’t try and help him, but instead made the rope longer for him to hang himself
- AM I BEING PLAYED BY ADAM AND WINSTON PETERS? SURELY NOT?
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.