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OPINIONSocietyDecember 15, 2020

Rhymes of the ancient murderer: How a racist killer became an NCEA question

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An NCEA history exam this year included a poem by Lionel Terry, a white supremacist and cold-blooded murderer. Chris Tse, who wrote a book inspired by Terry’s victim, explains why the exam question has caused such hurt within the Chinese New Zealand community.

I have a complicated history with Lionel Terry, and it pains me to be writing about him again. If you’re unfamiliar with him, these are the facts: Terry was an Englishman who arrived in Aotearoa at the turn of the 20th century. He was an anti-Semitic racist who wrote turgid poems and letters espousing his views, that he then published and distributed as pamphlets. When his lobbying to get parliament to ban Chinese and East Asian immigration failed, he shot and killed Joe Kum Yung in Wellington’s Haining Street to bring his views about race “under the public notice”. In other words, he’s one of the biggest dickheads to tarnish the history books of Aotearoa.

It’s because of Terry and his notoriety that I was driven to write How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, a book of poems that takes the narrative around Terry and his despicable act and reclaims it in the name of his victim, Joe Kum Yung. For decades, Joe Kum Yung was sidelined, relegated to being a footnote to Terry’s story. I wanted to challenge that, to ask how we should collectively acknowledge both the darkest moments of our history and those who are slowly erased in favour of more infamous characters. For the best part of nine years, Lionel Terry and Joe Kum Yung wrestled in my head as I figured out how to include both of their voices. The only negative review I got for my book was that I didn’t tell enough of Terry’s story. For me, that meant I had succeeded in what I’d set out to achieve.

A photograph of Haining Street, once the heart of the Chinese district in Wellington, was published in the New Zealand Mail on 17 August 1904, the year before Lionel Terry murdered Joe Kum Yung here (Alexander Turnbull Library Ref. C-012470-F)

Earlier this month, Wellington student and poet Cadence Chung tweeted that she and a friend were writing to NZQA to complain about the inclusion of a poem by Terry in this year’s NCEA Level 2 History exam. The subject of one of the questions was Seacliff Asylum, near Dunedin, which housed thousands of patients between 1884 and 1988, most notably Janet Frame, who was treated there in the 1940s after being wrongly diagnosed with schizophrenia. The question asked students to examine perspectives on “the way patients were treated and/or responded to treatment at Seacliff Asylum”.

Terry is included as one of the sources for this question, although the context provided for his poem only tells part of the story about why he was held at Seacliff:

Lionel Terry was incarcerated in various psychiatric institutions in New Zealand after murdering Chinese Immigrant Joe Kum Yung, in Wellington, New Zealand in 1905. He was widely known for his views on immigration and racial segregation. He wrote this poem while he was a patient at Seacliff in 1907.

This note steps around the reason for Terry’s incarceration and fails to acknowledge the motive behind his murder of Joe Kum Yung. Although Terry was originally sentenced to death, his sentence was then commuted (on obscure grounds) to life incarceration in psychiatric institutions. Students could read between the lines and make a connection between his incarceration for murder and his “views on immigration and segregation”, but it’s irresponsible to quietly omit the fact that Terry deliberately murdered Joe Kum Yung in cold blood to make a point about immigration. Terry’s incarceration, and his inclusion in an exam question about Seacliff Asylum, perpetuates the irresponsible and harmful fallacy that the most violent forms of racism and xenophobia can be linked to mental illness.

Nurses in front of the Seacliff Asylum, 1890 (Archives New Zealand)

There’s also the fact that the poem NZQA chose to include is, frankly, shit. It’s nothing more than a racist rant that rhymes and has about as much literary merit as a bigoted uncle’s unhinged Facebook posts, and I refuse to give it any more exposure by quoting from it.

In their complaint to NZQA, Chung and her friend wrote: “We feel that [Terry’s] poem wasn’t appropriate in the context of mental asylums, as it extended sympathy to him despite his xenophobic attitudes and acts. We also feel that the inclusion of his story in this narrative excused his actions under the pretence that he was ‘mad’, which disregards his blatant racism.”

I asked Chung if her class had studied Terry during their school year. Because this was an unfamiliar sources exam, they had no warning what the exam topic or accompanying material would be. The inclusion of a white supremacist’s writing in the context of an exam question about Seacliff Asylum and mental illness was shocking to say the least, she told me. “I remember exchanging looks with my classmates when we came across the poem. It just felt like such a strange choice, and I felt that if you didn’t already know who he was, you wouldn’t realise the gravity of his actions and views.”

In its response to Chung and her friend, NZQA wrote:

I would like to commend you for your wide knowledge of historical events and the people connected with these. Lionel Terry was a murderer and a white supremacist, albeit a little-known one in New Zealand.

A key aspect of any History course is a focus on reliability and usefulness of evidence. The question asked for different perspectives of patients in Seacliff Hospital and the resource booklet needed to include a range of different resources to enable students to respond appropriately. Students could argue that Terry was an unreliable witness. There was certainly no intention to portray him sympathetically and we did not imply this in the examination.

Here’s why I found NZQA’s response unsatisfactory:

  1. You can’t state in the exam booklet that he was “widely known for his views on immigration and racial segregation” and also claim he was “a little-known [murderer and white supremacist] in New Zealand”. Which is it?
  2. The minimising of Terry as “little-known” diminishes the severity of his crime and its effect on the Chinese community at the time, and is a flippant dismissal of the original complaint.
  3. Given the many people who have written or spoken about being a patient or staff member at Seacliff Asylum, it’s mind-boggling that someone at NZQA thought Lionel Terry was the best choice.
  4. As Chung noted in one of her tweets about NZQA’s response, you could argue that Terry was a indeed a reliable source as a first-hand account about being a patient in an asylum, but the poem NZQA chose to include is less about what it was like to be a patient than it is a defence of his actions and a claim that he was misdiagnosed.
  5. I don’t doubt there was “no intention to portray him sympathetically”, but there is a moral responsibility associated with providing a platform to a known murder and white supremacist, even if it’s just in a high school exam paper. Terry wrote his propaganda to be read, and NZQA gave him an unsuspecting audience.

As others I’ve spoken to about this have noted, there are situations where including Terry in a history curriculum or exam setting would be appropriate – for example, in a discussion about racism or xenophobia. In fact, I’ve spoken at high schools and to students who have been studying Terry and Joe Kum Yung. Whether he was little-known or not is beside the point – the fact that he was a white supremacist at all requires even more care and scrutiny about where we reproduce his writing, and in which contexts. It doesn’t excuse the fact that NZQA and the examiners have drawn a link between Terry’s racism and mental illness, and opened up a source of trauma for the Chinese community.

A plaque on Haining St, Wellington, marking the place where Joe Kum Yung was murdered.

In an email exchange with me about the exam, writer and paediatrician Renee Liang said this incident “proves the case so well made by Māori and Pacific scholars that it’s essential to have a multi-faceted, inclusive approach to the education system in general and the history curriculum specifically. [NZQA has] managed not only to rip a wound open for our community but also offended the mental health community and literary community, and this is through not listening.” Richard Leung, national president of the New Zealand Chinese Association, agrees: “This is an example of a systematic lack of diversity of thought and understanding of communities in the public service, and how such decisions can affect these communities adversely.”

One would assume exam papers are reviewed by many people before they are signed-off and printed. Did no one raise any red flags about Terry’s inclusion? If not, it’s a concern, suggesting that NZQA needs to review how it selects material so deeply linked to historical violence and harm, and how it consults with communities about sensitive material.

“You have to remember that Chinese New Zealand history is marked by racial violence,” Leung says. “Of course raising the Joe Kum Yung murder is going to be triggering for students, especially when the narrative centres the murderer. To be honest, the whole framing of the context seems lazy and insensitive. It talks about the murderer being incarcerated after he killed a Chinese immigrant. Actually, it was the murderer who was the real new immigrant. He’d only been in New Zealand a few years, compared with Joe Kum Yung’s 25 years. That in itself says a lot about assumptions of who is an accepted New Zealander and who isn’t.”

Self-portrait of Lionel Terry (Hocken Library, 74/174). This highly idealised self-portrait was produced in Seacliff Mental Hospital near Dunedin, where Terry was confined between 1914 and 1952.

In January 2019, I was approached to read at an event at Te Papa as part of its exhibition of the Terracotta Warriors. Rather than write something new, I decided I would read from How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes. It’d been a few years since I’d read from it in public, and there were some common themes in both my book and the exhibition – Chinese beliefs and rituals around death and the afterlife – that, to me, felt appropriate for the event. The reading took place on 23 March, a week after the Christchurch mosque shootings. I’ve read from How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes many times and have joked how bleak it can be to read about a hate crime for 15 minutes, but that reading at Te Papa was the toughest I’ve ever had to give.

After publishing How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes, I naively hoped that its subject matter would become a spectre of the past and eventually lose its relevance. Sadly, the poems have taken on further resonance since the shootings. When I see the parallels between what happened on Haining Street in 1905 and in Christchurch in 2019, I can’t help but feel we’re slipping backwards. Given these horrific recent events, and the conflict that arises when anyone dares to talk publicly about race and racism in Aotearoa, it’s even more inappropriate that NZQA decided to include a white supremacist’s writings in an exam question, regardless of context.

History favours those who record it, reinforcing and perpetuating a power imbalance that dismisses or erases the experiences of those who are not represented. But we don’t have to fall back on the loudest voices, particularly when they are the source of harms that continue to echo through time. We can’t not face the difficult parts of history, but Aotearoa still has a long way to go in how we talk about the pain and injustices of our past.

On this occasion, the first step for NZQA is to listen, learn and accept responsibility for how its decisions can harm others, no matter how well-intentioned it might have been. It’s exhausting for vulnerable communities to constantly take on the heavy lifting of education and explanation. It’s time for NZQA and other public sector organisations to demonstrate that they are learning from these mistakes.

Chris Tse is The Spinoff’s poetry editor.

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