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Breaking the cycle of anti-Asian sentiment in NZ demands recognising our racist past

In order to constructively address anti-Asian sentiment, development of a proud Pākehā identity seems vital, writes K Emma Ng in this extract from her new BWB Text Old Asian, New Asian.

Whiteness was for a long time the informal cornerstone of our nation building in New Zealand. Though the scientific racism of the 19th century has long been cast aside, the historical bigotry it supported persists in the everyday discrimination that is the tail end of our racist past. The historian James Belich has suggested that “we should not necessarily castigate its exponents, who were creatures of their time, but we cannot understand New Zealand history without understanding it”. It may not seem like much; it may seem obvious, but breaking the déjà vu cycle of “othering” – for how else could you describe the Labour Party’s “Chinese-sounding surnames” foray except as an attempt to draw a line between an “us” and a “them”? – depends on this collective acknowledgement.

Sometimes it feels as though we’re at a dead end, as if we have convinced all who might ever be convinced. While we are stuck in a culture of flagging the things that offend us, others dismiss this as the policing of political correctness. How do we go about overcoming this deadlock – ensuring that this conversation is one that all New Zealanders feel they have some stake in, rather than merely chattering among our minority selves?

The development of a proud Pākehā identity seems vital: not one with an agenda of laying a naturalised claim to “being from here”, but one that comes to terms with the historical fact that the Pākehā identity is at its root an immigrant identity. Defending a natural right for Pākehā to be here above others asks us to deny or forget the violence of colonisation. In a country where most of us are tangata tiriti, drawing distinctions between migrant groups based on ethnicity requires us to forget that at the point of immigration we are all new immigrants, who, over time, have come to be “from here”.

The 1973 termination of the unlimited rights of New Zealanders to visit Britain, their “ancestral home”, is often written of as a cutting of the umbilical cord, one which resulted in a pivotal shift in New Zealand’s conception of itself. It might be argued that this shift naturalised the Pākehā identity as the New Zealand identity, in that it gave Pākehā no other place to call home. But I, too, have no other place to call home, and so I, too, claim an identity as a New Zealander. Visiting China as a Chinese person from a small, faraway country is a strange experience. It delivers no magical moment of homecoming. Equally, living in the United States, self-conscious about the possibility of being misread as Asian-American, creates a curious anxiety – one that only entrenches the clarity of my identification as a New Zealander.

Even so, there is no permission in being Chinese to do the things that some white New Zealanders feel entitled to. It is overwhelmingly ethnically European New Zealanders who insist on writing their ethnicity as “New Zealander” on national census forms – though, in a funny twist, this is currently recorded as part of the “Other” grouping. During the flag referendum, I recall seeing a comment on a proposed design, praising its orange colour scheme as an “acknowledgement of the significant Dutch contribution to New Zealand”. Though it was just one opinion on a design that was far from being even a remote possibility for our national flag, I was startled by its audacity. It demonstrated an entitlement that I doubt any Chinese New Zealander could convincingly express. And one, frankly, I hope no Chinese person would ever attempt to claim.

Being Tauiwi

Ultimately it is the uncertainty of how to negotiate multiculturalism – a multiculturalism that already exists – on the foundations of our nation’s entrenched biculturalism that paralyses us. The relationship of non-Pākehā-non-Māori to the Treaty is rarely discussed. For Asian immigrants, an understanding of New Zealand history only deepens confusion around the seeming hypocrisy of anti-immigration or anti-Asian attitudes held by some Pākehā.

Reframing our biculturalism as a relationship between tangata whenua and tauiwi, rather than Māori and Pākehā, offers us a starting point for negotiating multiculturalism in our contemporary moment. For in seeking acceptance as New Zealanders who have made lives here by way of colonisation and the Treaty, we tauiwi must also take on the responsibilities that this entails. No nation is a blank historical slate – but it often feels like we treat this place as if it were. Too many of us readily accept the rewards of colonisation without considering the ethical obligations of being tauiwi.

The Asia New Zealand Foundation tracks attitudes towards Asia and Asian New Zealanders in its Perceptions of Asia reports. Though some researchers have expressed reservations about the methodology underpinning the findings, the reports indicate that, while Pākehā attitudes towards Asian migrants are generally improving, those of Māori are becoming increasingly negative.  It is in this context that this question of multiculturalism becomes urgent. Interestingly, the 2002 poll tax apology, made to the Chinese community by Helen Clark on behalf of the government, was opposed by both the Office of Treaty Settlements and Te Puni Kōkiri (the government’s principal adviser on the Crown’s relationship with iwi, hapu and Māori) during an internal feedback process. One concern was that an apology would open the door to financial reparations being sought. Another recommendation was that this acknowledgement of past wrongs should be a “formal expression of regret” rather than an apology, lest it diminish apologies made to Māori.

The Auckland Lantern Festival. Photo: russellstreet

Manying Ip has edited and published a weighty volume on the relationship between Māori and Chinese in New Zealand, The Dragon and the Taniwha: Māori and Chinese in New Zealand. In her introduction, Ip suggests that this relationship was negatively impacted by the fact that new Asian migrants after 1987 arrived at a vulnerable time “closely following the reassertion of Māori pride and redress”. Ip also accuses the government of making the decision to change immigration policy based largely on economic motivations, and subsequently doing little to prepare New Zealanders for the social impact.

From this perspective it seems natural that Māori were generally apprehensive of immigration from this point onwards, and some of these fears can be seen to have played out. Many migrants do have a poor understanding of the Treaty of Waitangi, its contestation and our bicultural dynamic. This poor understanding is shared across many New Zealanders, not just Asian, but being visually identifiable as possible immigrants sediments the generalisation. In her contribution to The Dragon and the Taniwha, Margaret Mutu observes that this is not the first time that Māori have watched immigration turn from a “trickle” into a “flood”, while figures such as the late Ranginui Walker have made it clear that their opposition to Asian immigration has been on this basis.

It is easy to demand acceptance as New Zealanders from Pākehā. It is much more difficult to ask for the same from Māori. We have all seen how easy it is for the desire to belong to teeter and slip into a neocolonial agenda of “laying claim” to a place. How can we belong here, become “from here”, without re-enacting the violence that is historically embedded in the gesture of trying to belong?

Here, Now

This is an uncomfortable question that we can only begin to think through, let alone answer. But we can at least be grateful that we are not starting these relationships from scratch. The rapid growth of New Zealand’s Māori, Pacific and Asian populations, as projected by Statistics New Zealand, will in part be due to greater numbers claiming mixed ethnic identities – and there have long been New Zealanders whose identities are testament to deep-rooted relations between these groups.

The evidence of this shared history throughout the Pacific is close at hand if we care to look – nestled in everyday life we find family resemblances in sapasui and chop suey, keke pua’a and cha siu bao. Long genealogical threads interweave the Pacific and Asia, as well as mutual values of strong family and clan/iwi bonds, the importance of hospitality, and respect for the elderly.

These values are often highlighted as having laid a foundation for early friendships between Māori and Chinese in New Zealand – particularly as they worked the land together from the 1900s on. At the time, these two groups had much in common; working class and rural in background, they often shared meals as friends, co-workers, neighbours – and, eventually, as families.

On the cover of Helene Wong’s memoir, Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s Story, the author smiles at the camera, pounamu around her neck. It’s a bold assertion of personal affinity with tangata whenua, and it shines out as a reminder that within a contentious history there is also a legacy of friendship, family and exchange.

A poignant episode in New Zealand history is that of the SS Ventnor. In the late 1800s, money was scraped together by the Chinese community to exhume the bones of gold miners who hadn’t earned enough to return home before they died, so that they could be returned to China (burial in one’s homeland being particularly significant to Chinese). The Ventnor, carrying the remains of 499 men, set out in 1902. But not long into its journey, the ship sank off Hokianga Heads. Some of the human cargo washed ashore. The remains were found by local Māori of Te Roroa and Te Rarawa iwi, who carefully buried them on their own lands or in nearby Pākehā cemeteries.

For many years it was rumoured that these gold miners’ remains had been cared for by local Māori – but it wasn’t until the late 2000s that filmmaker Wong Liu Shueng discovered that their recovery and burial were very much remembered by the local iwi. The connection between them and Otago Chinese was made. Chinese descendants have since made emotional visits to Te Rarawa and Te Roroa to thank them for caring for their ancestors. The relationship has brought to light shared customs with regard to death and tending to tupuna, or ancestors, as well as a deep connection formed through respect for common values. Chinese bones rest as grateful guests of the iwi; their connection literally embedded in the whenua of Hokianga.

My own grandfather, who died long before I was born, is buried in Mangere. All my life we have visited him there. It’s my grandma who decides when we’ll visit, according to significant days in the Chinese calendar – although no matter what the date, it always seems to be drizzly or raining. Walking the rows of headstones, with their litany of Asian, European, Māori and Pasifika names, tells the story of an Auckland for whom “diversity” is not a new challenge but a longstanding condition of everyday life. When we are there, there are often Pacific Island families, too, also tending to their relatives. And as we burn incense and joss paper for granddad – in a cemetery 9,000 kilometres from where he was born – it feels natural in the way that things you have never known any alternative to feel absolutely ordinary.

The above is an edited extract from K Emma Ng’s Old Asian, New Asian (Bridget Williams Books). More details here


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