Photo: Nathan Blundell
Photo: Nathan Blundell

SocietyFebruary 15, 2024

Poll tax apology: To know our history is to know ourselves

Photo: Nathan Blundell
Photo: Nathan Blundell

Chinese New Zealanders have called Aotearoa home since the 1840s. On the anniversary of the poll tax apology, Eda Tang explores how the history of Chinese New Zealand can help shape its future.

23 years ago today, former Prime Minister Helen Clark made a formal apology to Chinese New Zealanders whose ancestors paid a poll tax and suffered other forms of legislative discrimination targeting the New Zealand Chinese community. A year ago today, the same apology was delivered, only this time in Cantonese, the language that the poll tax payers and their descendants spoke. 

Aotearoa’s collective memory of Chinese New Zealand history is still somewhat shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding, even 182 years after the arrival of Appo Hocton, the first Chinese person to set foot on the land of the long white cloud. Between the 1860s and 1920s, thousands of Chinese men had arrived in Te Waipounamu on invitation to earn money to send remittances to their family during a time where home was in political upheaval. But from 1881, a fee of up to roughly today’s $20,000 was imposed on every Chinese person who entered the country.

Ships arriving in the country also restricted the number of Chinese passengers per tons of cargo. This generated a flux of yellow peril. Between 1881 to 1944, the New Zealand government had imposed 29 policies that explicitly excluded or targeted Chinese. Anti-immigration and anti-Chinese sentiments are traced from newspapers and documents of racially motivated violence. It wasn’t until 1934 that the poll tax was waived.

Chinese community leader, Esther Fung, speaks at the 2002 poll tax apology.

This history is still dawning on many Chinese New Zealanders, let alone our national conscience. Where do New Zealand-born Chinese turn to understand their cultural identity in the echoes of the Cultural Revolution that linger in the 11,000 kilometres between Aotearoa and China? Some Chinese New Zealanders have argued that this identity is more than the sum of being ethnically Chinese and growing up in Aotearoa. An identity beyond being the victims of racism can be found in the story of the SS Ventnor.

In 1902, the Chinese community scraped together funds to exhume bodies across 40 cemetries of 499 Chinese gold miners who died in New Zealand. They were put on the SS Ventnor to be repatriated home to China, but tragedy struck when the Ventnor, sank after striking a reef off the south coast of Cape Egmont.

Over the following months, the remains, as well as the bodies of the 12 crew lost in the shipwreck, began to wash up on the beach at Mitimiti. The people of Te Roroa and Te Rarawa cared for the bones and waited for their descendents to seek them. Not until 2007 did the Chinese settler community realise that their ancestors’ bones weren’t lost at sea but rather washed up into the caring hands of local iwi. 

Lifeboats of the SS Ventnor come ashore after its sinking. (Photo: Auckland Library archive and Drummond-Te Wake Collection)

Kirsten Wong has been central to the New Zealand Chinese Association‘s Ventnor work since these dots were first connected. She has since written school teaching resources for it and led kaupapa to bring Chinese people to the Hokianga to honour their deceased and thank local iwi for their manaakitanga across more than a hundred years. 

Leading up to Waitangi Day last week, a group of 46 Chinese rangatahi called Pāruru (meaning “place of shelter”) and another group of 45 living descendents and whānau of those lost, travelled around the Hokianga to remember their forefathers and wānanga with local iwi on how its story and legacy is an example of biculturalism in action. 

Chinese rangatahi travelled around the Hokianga to thank the mana whenua who looked after their ancestor’s remains. (Photo: Nathan Blundell)

Wong has documented and connected many of the oral histories around the Ventnor. “The desire to feel connection to our histories across the generations is something that runs very deep. We have such a long history of exclusion and racism, right up to the present day,” she says. “To have this historic example of our people being accepted literally into this whenua, and for their spirits to be cared for with such great manaakitanga and generosity is incredibly healing. So when we meet the descendants of those who cared for our ancestors, we are already deeply invested in our relationship with them, culturally and emotionally.”

Historically, says Wong, the framework for bicultural relations in Aotearoa has been mediated by Pākehā. “As we go forward and we deepen those community to community ties, I think that’s when we’ll start seeing more and more changes in how we approach our tauiwi identity and responsibilities.” 

Tumuaki of the local Kura o Mātihetihe, Linda Rudolph, says that the history of the SS Ventnor is taught within their local curriculum. Other than it being part of the community’s local history, she says it’s a part of relationship-building with Chinese New Zealanders.

The unmediated relationship between Māori and Chinese is a refreshing reminder of the place that tauiwi have outside of Māori-Pākehā relations.

The remote kura has a roll of under 30 students. “It’s an opportunity for them to learn and respect other cultures and I think there’s so much to learn from one another,” Rudolph says. “I was actually amazed at how much the Chinese knew about our culture [yet] we knew so little of [theirs].” She’s also observed situations where Chinese-Māori have been confident speaking Māori, but not so much with their Chinese languages. 

While Te Kura o Mātihetihe follows a local curriculum, the Aotearoa New Zealand History Curriculum requires broad topics be taught, and Chinese New Zealand history can be used for examples of concepts like government, culture and identity, and place and environment. But Chinese New Zealand history still isn’t compulsory in the curriculum and there is no way to prove that it is being taught at schools. 

Ruth Lin, an ESOL teacher at Ōteha Valley School, says that learning about Chinese history helped her understand the differences between generations of Chinese tauiwi. “Because of the diversity of Chinese today, history will connect us as Chinese, in our different stories,” says Lin. “Within Chinese we feel like there’s an ‘other’ and I think that’s just differences in time. The experiences of migration in that first generation are vastly different experiences of migration in the second wave [and] the third wave.” 

Lin suggests that establishing belonging may be one way of improving mental health outcomes for Chinese New Zealanders. “If you don’t know history, you can feel lost.” As a second wave migrant, Lin feels there needs to be a bridge between descendants of first wave migrants who came during the gold rush, and third wave migrants who have come in the last couple of decades. And that bridge is in education. “For new migrants coming, knowing the long history of Chinese in New Zealand can help them strengthen their identity.” 

Teacher Ruth Lin with students Teina and Shornah Dunn of Te Kura o Mātihetihe.

However, Lin identifies some limitations. “You only teach what you know.” Given she had only learnt about Chinese New Zealand history recently, she says if you don’t know about it, you’re relying on only a few curriculum resources. 

New Zealand Chinese community elder and advocate, Esther Fung, thinks these histories aren’t as well known because the early years were hard. “Chinese were not looked upon as desirable immigrants,” Fung says. “It’s left its mark on us, really. I do think we were very apologetic about being Chinese.”

Fung says recognising local history, for example, through the Poll Tax Apology and other discriminatory statutes, contributes greatly to the Chinese community’s sense of belonging. “It opened the possibility for people to talk about their histories, to take pride in their community.” Even for Chinese New Zealanders who don’t descend from settler Chinese, Fung says it is still their heritage. “The successes that can be enjoyed now have been built on their backs. I think it’s important that we learn to identify with each other. This heritage is not for us to keep but for us to share with other people.”

Esther Fung says New Zealand’s Chinese history must be known.

“Let’s face it, New Zealand history has been written very much from a Pākehā perspective.” She says it’s not a surprise that the Chinese story wasn’t told given that Māori histories continue to suffer through a process of selective amnesia.

But Fung’s outlook is optimistic. She thinks today, people are a bit braver. “We’ve got younger Chinese moving into the fields of arts and communication…that’s where the power is, the voices have got to be heard, and unless we take care of these things ourselves, nobody else is going to do it for us.” 

A basic reading list:

Chinese New Zealanders

This School Journal article written by Helene Wong outlines Chinese immigration from the 1860s until present day, including the push and pull factors, how Pākehā New Zealanders responded to these waves of migration and ways Chinese migrants have adapted to their new home. 

Chinese New Zealanders: Introduction

This DigitalNZ Story complied by the Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa National Library of New Zealand explores rich stories of arrival and life in Aotearoa for Chinese migrants.

Journey to Lan Yuan

Toitū Otago Settlers Museum has a 13-episode documentary which turns Dr James Ng’s research, Windows on a Chinese Past, into a film. It follows 19th-century Cantonese gold seekers back to their history and forward towards their descendants of present, revealing a rich tapestry of Chinese history in South New Zealand. The Lan Yuan is the Dunedin Chinese Garden and a celebration of the instrumental role that early Chinese settlers played in the making of Dunedin. Episode 8 is all about the Ventnor Disaster.

The Bone Feeder 

Gareth Farr and Renee Liang’s opera, The Bone Feeder, is inspired by the story of the SS Ventnor and grounded in the experiences of early Chinese settlers and their interactions with Pākehā and Māori. It illustrates the experiences of migration and belonging for a young Chinese man who is searching for his roots.

Keep going!