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Te Whānau-ā-Apanui 
performing a haka on the Great Wall of China (Photo: Aukaha News/Pool)
Te Whānau-ā-Apanui performing a haka on the Great Wall of China (Photo: Aukaha News/Pool)

PoliticsJuly 3, 2023

Aotearoa Inc: How kapa haka became the star of Chris Hipkins’ China trip

Te Whānau-ā-Apanui 
performing a haka on the Great Wall of China (Photo: Aukaha News/Pool)
Te Whānau-ā-Apanui performing a haka on the Great Wall of China (Photo: Aukaha News/Pool)

All week in China, the prime minister was outshone by the Matatini champions. Is culture the future of New Zealand trade relationships?

The pōwhiri to welcome the prime minister at the New Zealand embassy in Beijing last week sounded a lot better than usual. Embassy personnel, both New Zealand and Chinese, sang enthusiastically to welcome manuhiri to the grounds. And the New Zealand trade delegation sang in response to support Chris Hipkins’ and Peeni Henare’s opening remarks. The singing was probably better than it’s been from a trade delegation in a long time thanks to 16 te Matatini champions from Te Whānau-a-Apanui leading the waiata.

A condensed group of the kapa haka world champions accompanied the prime minister on his trade mission to China as he worked to “try and open doors, create opportunities and strengthen the close bond that already exists between these two countries”. Essentially, Hipkins was attempting to sell New Zealand to China as both an economic and cultural destination. So it made some sense that he would opt for the recent champions of the most popular cultural event in the country to showcase Aotearoa. 

But the surprising inclusion of culture among the business delegation had a whiff of guilt about it. In May, at an event hosted by the High Commission in London before King Charles’s coronation, high commissioner Phil Goff neglected to open proceedings with a karakia, then further insulted Kiingi Tuheitia (the Māori king, who was present) by saying that no one present had witnessed a king’s coronation before. 

At the same event, Kiingitanga chief of staff archdeacon Ngira Simmonds scolded Goff. “I’ve actually just expressed significant disappointment at what has taken place here,” she said. “When that happens, the experience that we feel as Māori are pushed down in the life of our nation and Pākehā are lifted up.”

The incident made headlines and prompted an apology from Goff. It also proved a reminder that many of our national representatives are surprisingly ignorant about tikanga. And when they are the ones representing the country and culture abroad, what sort of culture are we advertising?

Te Matatini champions Te Kapa Haka o Te Whānau-ā-Apanui on the Great Wall of China. (Photo: Aukaha News)

Tamati Waaka from Te Whānau-ā-Apanui confirmed that the request came through to the group as a concerted effort to learn from the London incident. “As soon as that Phil Goff thing happened, we knew there was gonna be a fallout,” he said as he walked back to the team bus after performing a haka on the Great Wall of China. “And for someone that’s gonna be bad, for someone that’s gonna be good. I suppose we’re on the good end of it,” he laughed.

For the week in China, at least, Hipkins ensured he wouldn’t repeat Goff’s mistake. Te Whānau-a-Apanui performed a number of times in support of Hipkins and Henare, but were also asked to lead the cultural side of the trip.

In public, that looked like the best kapa haka in the world being showcased to Chinese officials and potential trade partners. In private, it looked and sounded like karakia in the Koru Lounge, waiata being taught to the business delegation and media during a short stopover in Manila, and an expectation that everyone on the trip, not just Hipkins and Henare and O’Connor, was representing NZ respectfully and participating fully in the sharing of culture throughout the week. 

Hipkins addressed the group during his opening remarks at the pōwhiri: “Thank you for lending your mana to our delegation here in Beijing,” he said. Ambassador Grahame Morton noted how large the delegation was. “It’s significant in its size, it’s significant in its diversity.” He was right, though the presence of 16 te reo Māori speakers did a lot of heavy lifting in balancing out what was an overwhelmingly Pākehā business delegation.

Even so, Hipkins found himself at a loss when asked whether he had spoken about Māori or Māori tourism with Xi Jinping during their meeting. He said while he devoted a majority of the 40-minute meeting to discussing economic matters, he did not speak specifically about Māori tourism or culture. The next day, he made sure to specify the importance of New Zealand indigenous culture when speaking with premier Li Qiang.

In 2018, China consolidated its Ministry of Culture and National Tourism Administration to form one body, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, in recognition of the inherent shared goals of the two departments. In New Zealand, not only are tourism and culture two separate entities, there are two versions of New Zealand tourism.

There’s New Zealand as a culture destination, a place of indigeneity and tradition, where tourists learn about history and culture in the same vein as Japanese tourism.

Then there’s New Zealand as a pop culture destination. A giant setting for Lord of the Rings. For two decades, New Zealand has banked on the latter as a key driver in the sector. With Lord of the Rings now filming abroad and that shine finally wearing off, it needs something both more authentic and more sustainable to serve as Aotearoa New Zealand’s identity.

Charlie Rahiri is new to his role at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but knew that this particular trip was the time to do something new. “Other countries are here reconnecting,” he said, referencing the Mongolia, Barbados and Vietnam prime ministers also being in China at the same time. “What’s our point of difference from the rest of the world? You often see when New Zealanders are overseas, what unites us is the haka.” 

But there’s a difference between having haka as part of your trade mission and fully incorporating it into how you conduct proceedings. “When we invited Te-Whānau-ā-Apanui on this trip, we made a promise that this will not be Disneyland and we’re rolling out Mickey Mouse,” said Rahiri. “We would be authentic in the way that we portray our culture. Sometimes when we let culture lead, connections happen.”

And connections have happened. The kapa haka proved hugely beneficial for the trade mission as a whole, with Chinese businesses and stakeholders relishing the chance to see Māori traditions up close. A video of the haka on the Great Wall quickly spread on Chinese social media, doing more to advertise the presence of the delegation than any news article. Rather than simply performing an item as entertainment, Te-Whānau-ā-Apanui were deeply involved in each event, leading waiata tautoko for Hipkins and Henare’s remarks, and bringing the business leaders along with them.

In Shanghai, the delegation attended an event at the Baoshan International Folk Art Museum, where the huge waharoa taonga was gifted in 2010. There was dragon dancing and Shanghainese drumming, and a traditional opera performance from the hosts. And from the New Zealand side, a performance from Te-Whānau-ā-Apanui, with a waiata and haka following Henare’s speech. Henare, who had given strong speeches in te reo Māori throughout the week, performed the haka from the stage. It was perhaps the cleanest demonstration of how haka had been folded into the mission, rather than added on top. It also forced those present to consider that the required skillset for a tourism minister should include cultural and language capabilities. 

Te-Whānau-ā-Apanui performing at the Baoshan International Folk Art Museum in Shanghai (Photo: Madeleine Chapman)

By then (Thursday) the delegation had practised the waiata, under the guidance of Te-Whānau-ā-Apanui, a number of times. At the museum, the business leaders had a problem. “Half of our delegation isn’t here,” said one CEO to the smaller group. “We’re going to have to be extra loud for the waiata.” 

“Should we all move up closer to the group, then?” 

“Yeah I think so.”

While there remained a few members of the business delegation resolute in not participating in the singing, most overwhelmingly embraced the chance to learn and be involved. Considered cynically, it’s concerning that many had to travel to China to see the benefits of culture in business, but the enthusiasm was welcomed nonetheless. Air New Zealand CEO Greg Foran was one of the enthusiastic participants, which was no surprise to Waaka from Te-Whānau-ā-Apanui. “He’s got a Māori [plane] tail,” said Waaka. “He understands and CEOs before him have understood – there’s benefit in being linked to Māori, there’s benefit for the country in promoting Māoritanga.” 

But who is benefitting from this cultural connection? In the short term, the big businesses like Air New Zealand, Fonterra and Silver Fern Farms will be helped by the cultural presence as they sell product in overseas markets. The real test will be whether, were trade missions to continue to incorporate kapa haka and tikanga, that benefit would stretch to Māori business and tourism. 

What began as a corrective to Goff’s ignorance in London was, by the end of the week, considered the first step in a new way of conducting foreign trade trips. “They’ve certainly made me proud to be a Kiwi,” Hipkins said of Te-Whānau-ā-Apanui on Thursday. “And I’d love to see much more of that built into our future missions.”

Authentically incorporating more Māoritanga into future trips will be reliant on a few key factors, firstly personnel. Having a Māori minister of foreign affairs (Nanaia Mahuta) and tourism minister (Henare) has greatly sped up the inclusion, though not without objection. When I asked Rahiri if there had been reservations voiced about Te-Whānau-ā-Apanui’s invitation, he paused for a long time before saying, “We have a lot of work to do, as a nation but also as government departments and partners.” Mahuta in particular has been a strong proponent of “connections and culture over commerce” as a way to build more sustainable foreign relationships, trade or otherwise. Rahiri was previously a cultural adviser to the minister and predicted the sentiment would only grow. “We’ve got a generation of tamariki that have grown up with the language, with their culture. They’re the ones that are asking ‘why are we doing it like this?’ For them, the status quo is no longer acceptable. They’re saying ‘actually, we can create a better representation of who we are as Aotearoa New Zealand.’”

On Thursday, after leaving the museum where cultures were respectfully shared and appreciated, the business delegates attended a working lunch with the prime minister and ministers, but without the kapa haka. There was a notable absence of waiata and karakia before the meal. Before announcing the results of a “business outlook survey”, the senior business leader MCing the event gave a warm welcome to Hipkins. 

“When I told my Chinese friends that I was doing this event, they didn’t ask me if I’d be meeting the prime minister, they asked if I’d be meeting the people who danced on the Beijing Great Wall.”

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