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OPINIONSocietySeptember 30, 2022

A collection of thoughts on New Zealand Chinese Language Week


Chris Tse collects thoughts from those within New Zealand’s Chinese communities of their relationship to, and memories growing up with, their Chinese language.

My own history with Cantonese can be summarised in one word: shame. At school, I was teased and taunted with racist remarks whenever classmates caught me speaking in my other tongue. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in me favouring English and being cautious about speaking Cantonese in public. Throughout my teenage and adult years, my fluency began to diminish but I could still hold conversations with my 婆婆 (maternal grandmother), which is something I’m eternally grateful for. 

As a teenager, I spent my weekday afternoons and weekends at my parents’ grocery store. It was patronised by the local Chinese community who spoke in a broad range of languages. I did my best to keep up with the Cantonese speakers and used what little perfunctory Mandarin I knew to complete some transactions. Something that always amused and annoyed me in equal measure was when the Cantonese speakers assumed I couldn’t understand them and talked about how I was a bad Chinese boy for not being able to speak my mother tongue. I loved being able to prove them wrong, but it still stung to be criticised and chastised by members of my own community.

My Cantonese is better than I probably give myself credit for – at a recent screening of In The Mood For Love I was surprised by how much I could understand without relying on the subtitles. Nonetheless, this feeling of not being “Chinese enough” because of my language proficiency (or assumed lack thereof) has been a constant in my life, but it’s exacerbated every year when New Zealand Chinese Language Week (NZCLW) rolls around. 

This year there has been some public backlash to the annual language week that seeks to “increase Chinese language learning in New Zealand”. According to the New Zealand Chinese Language Week Trust, the definition of “Chinese language” is limited to Mandarin and excludes all the other Chinese languages that are spoken in Aotearoa.

An opinion piece by Trust chair Jo Coughlan titled “What is New Zealand Chinese Language Week?” acknowledges that “There are many languages within China” but notes that “Mandarin is the one taught in New Zealand schools and universities”. Coughlan continues: “This doesn’t mean we don’t recognise other Chinese languages – for example, on our website there are videos of support in Cantonese.”

I watched all 35 of the videos of support on the NZCLW homepage. Only one is solely in Cantonese and another two include one Cantonese greeting each among Mandarin phrases (there is one other video focused on Hokkien). I guess non-Mandarin speakers should be grateful for this minuscule representation.

Jo Coughlan (Image: supplied)

The timing of Coughlan’s piece is curious – it was published on Wednesday night after two critical articles by Stuff reporter Eda Tang and comments on Twitter that questioned the purpose of NZCLW and highlighted the Trust’s years-long resistance to recognising and promoting languages other than Mandarin. Former president of the New Zealand Chinese Association Richard Leung told me about the battle with the Trust to include an essay by historian Nigel Murphy about the history of Chinese language in Aotearoa (specifically, Cantonese) on the NZCLW website.

It would appear Coughlan and the Trust are in damage control mode to address the criticism, but it’s not like they couldn’t see it coming: for years, members of the Chinese community have provided feedback in writing, on social media and in face-to-face meetings about making NZCLW more inclusive.

You might be thinking, let’s call a spade and spade and rename the week “Mandarin Language Week”. However, we know why the organisers have opted for “Chinese” over “Mandarin” – it’s a political decision to reduce the risk of offending an important trade partner. Also, renaming the week to focus on Mandarin would be a disservice to Mandarin speakers, some of whom have a complicated relationship with the language through their own heritage.

Unlike other language weeks celebrated in Aotearoa, NZCLW does little to involve and empower the community it should be representing. Imagine if a group of Pākehā organised something called Pasifika Language Week for a primarily non-Pasifika audience but only focused on Sāmoan and sidelined all other languages because not enough people speak them or because they have no business or economic value. That’s what NZCLW feels like to some Chinese New Zealanders, many of whom are descendents of the first Chinese to arrive in Aotearoa, who were Cantonese speakers.

Reporters Eda Tang and Justin Wong asked the organisers why the week prioritises Mandarin over other languages. In response, Coughlan insisted NZCLW just wanted to encourage non-Chinese New Zealanders to learn Chinese in the New Zealand education system. This makes me wonder, then, whether it’s appropriate for the Ministry for Ethnic Communities to continue supporting NZCLW if it isn’t designed to benefit or uplift an ethnic community.

There’s a saying in Cantonese: 語言知識通往智慧 – knowledge of languages is the doorway to wisdom. I, like many others who have been critical of NZCLW, don’t begrudge people for wanting to learn Mandarin. We too value the learning of another language and recognise it has many benefits, including exposure to other ways of thinking and viewing the world. Unfortunately, NZCLW is imposing a very narrow view by choosing not to celebrate all Chinese languages equally. On RNZ’s The Detail podcast, Coughlan said, “We’re just trying to keep it simple.” Language and its connection to identity is not simple – it’s messy and can be a source of trauma for diaspora and indigenous populations. Coughlan’s comment just emphasises how little appreciation she has for why we have been fighting for a more inclusive NZCLW all these years. 

The theme of this year’s NZCLW is “Sharing our stories”, so I reached out to others for their thoughts on NZCLW and to talk about their relationship to, and memories growing up with, their Chinese language. They shared stories about Mandarin, Cantonese, Hainanese, Hokkien, and many other Chinese languages. As you’ll see, there are many complicated feelings associated with NZCLW as it currently stands. – Chris Tse

Vanessa Mei Crofksey (poet, artist, editor of The Pantograph Punch)

I learnt Mandarin at Wellington Chinese Language School from the ages of 5-18. I was the dunce of my class, absolutely unable to string together a sentence, surrounded by native speakers who actually knew how to speak properly. Language school, despite being the bane of my Saturdays for 13 long years, was the first place I was surrounded by other Chinese people, in a community that acted exactly as an extended family would. I was constantly at someone else’s house, raised by a pantheon of aunties who pinched and pulled at my body, or else I was found slumping around with the other kids playing our Nintendos under the yum char table. I daydream of Cantonese soap operas blaring out of someone’s lounge television, or overhearing my mum gossip to her sisters in loud and proud Hokkien. 

I never learnt Hokkien, otherwise known as min nan hua, so I never understood what she was saying. Nevertheless there’s a familiarity to the way Hokkien is spoken that makes me feel instantly comforted, and suddenly dozy. I’ve spent hours on Tiktok searching for Malaysian-born Chinese personalities who’ll talk to me in this language, that’s part of my earliest memories and oldest history, a language that I don’t at all understand. My wàipó chastises my mother for never teaching me – but then again, there aren’t that many Hokkien tutors around in Wellington. It’s not really incentivised as a Chinese language you should learn, and doesn’t do that much economically, despite it being the language of a community – my community.

Keith Ng (data journalist)

On my keyboard is a small sticker of an ambigram. It reads 香港 (Hong Kong), in a slightly odd way. But when turned 90 degrees, those same characters say 加油 (“gar yow”, which means “add oil”, but the sentiment is more like “go hard!”).

“香港加油” is what people shouted during the 2019-20 Hong Kong protests to spur each other on. In this ambigram, that message is hidden in itself, because that’s what it means to be a Hongkonger now. There is no place for this within China’s borders. Our identity, our solidarity – hell, our memories – are challenges to China’s claim over us; a claim that there’s only one Chinese people, one official Chinese language, and one true Chinese government. That claim should never have been brought to Aotearoa, and now it can’t sit unchallenged.

Amanda Grace Leo (actor)

When someone asks me what my mother tongue is, I feel like an uprooted tree. Answering people feels like someone is stretching me from the thinnest branch to my frailest root. I am Peranakan Singaporean Chinese, Tāmaki born and bred. When we moved back to Singapore when I was nine, I was told my mother tongue was Mandarin Chinese, even though neither of my parents can speak Mandarin well. 

In 1979, the PAP government under Lee Kwan Yew’s leadership campaigned to standardise Mandarin as a main language in Singapore, effectively suppressing the other common dialects among local Chinese such as Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Hainanese and Teo Chew. Even though learning to speak Mandarin under the Singaporean school system was hell, it has become a taonga to me, for it opened up a new world to my loving paternal grandmother. Where there used to be trails of broken English like biscuit crumbs, there were now full sentences, wrapping around us like mugs of warm milky tea. It wasn’t until the last few weeks of her life, when everyone whispered comforting Hainanese phrases in her dying ear, that I realised that Hainanese unlocks nuances of my grandmother’s experience I cannot access.

Gua di hai nam nang: I am Hainanese on my Dad’s side although I can barely understand it, let alone speak it. And then there is the lullaby Burung Kakak Tua that my mother sang to me as a child and the phrases of Malay I also cannot understand even though ibu saya nonya and let’s not even get into the stigma against Bahasa Melayu. 

Already as a Peranakan Singaporean Chinese, I am a diaspora upon diaspora – with roots to China, Indonesia and Malaysia. And now as an immigrant tauiwi on Māori whenua who is learning about tikanga and Te Reo Māori, I feel the roots of my own mother tongues I can’t speak tugging at me, reminding me of both my grandmothers. I hate that in my children’s generation, Hainanese will no longer be spoken at family gatherings for it is lost on my generation and they will never know the experience of sitting with the elders while they converse in this beautiful language. I hate that when I yum cha in Auckland, I can’t order in Cantonese, like my mother. I dislike that I am automatically more attracted to Asians who can speak their mother tongue. Amongst all these conflicting feelings, I have both suffered and benefited from being a Mandarin speaker. Mandarin is both the colonised and the colonising language. I suppose in a sense, a better metaphor doesn’t exist for the overseas Singaporean Chinese diasporic experience.

Lynette Shum (historian)

According to its website, NZCLW “is designed to increase Chinese language learning in New Zealand [and] seeks to bridge the cultural and linguistic knowledge gap between China and New Zealand by delivering fun and practical initiatives that assist Kiwis to learn Chinese”.

I remember that visiting my grandmother was a terrifying thing. Beyond reciting Cantonese birthday or new year greetings learnt by rote in return for a red packet, her disapproval that I could not converse with her in Chinese transcended the language barrier.  Now NZCLW reminds me to use what Chinese I have. This week, as on other occasions throughout the year, I will gather and talk with others with shared roots, but whose tongues haven’t been silenced by assimilationist strategies.  Who even dream in Cantonese.  Although my family’s beginnings in Aotearoa began nearly 150 years ago, I, too, yearn to bridge this cultural and linguistic knowledge gap between China and New Zealand, between my ancestors, my cousins who remain, and me. 

MPs submitted videos of support for NZCLW (Screenshot: NZCLW website)

Renee Liang MNZM (paediatrician, writer, theatre-maker)

Even though I was born in Aotearoa, Cantonese was my first language. As immigrants, connection to our home culture was essential for my parents to instil. At Chinese New Year we memorised stock phrases to shout at my deaf grandmother during $4/minute toll calls. I admit to a complex relationship with my mother tongue. My mother’s “only Cantonese in the house” rule stirred rebellion in the hearts of me and my sisters; we hid in dark corners to drop contraband English with each other.

But things changed in my twenties. I realised that some things could only be expressed in Cantonese. Using this idiomatic language was akin to speaking in technicolour comic strips.  By then I was ashamed of my Cantonese frozen at the toddler stage, my babyish handwriting and stock of 10 basic characters.

In my thirties, I visited Guangdong. I was shocked at the difference from 10 years earlier when I had last visited. Back then, I happily used my terrible Cantonese everywhere; now I got stared at for using a “peasant language” and people under 30 point blank refused to speak Cantonese with me. I had heard of the systematic erasure of Cantonese language by the “one China” policy makers; now here I was face to face with it.  

If Cantonese was being erased in its home base, then it needed to be kept alive in other places. I started using Cantonese in my writing, asking actors who spoke Cantonese to live-translate in place of my illiteracy. Something happened in my brain when they did. Long-forgotten images, the feel of my grandmother’s soft hands over mine, the smell of chicken congee in the morning. The words seeded and sprouted in soil that long ago had been prepared for them. I found others who were similarly rediscovering their reo, overcoming their shame, using their language. Now we sit in lit rooms to trade Cantonese with each other and laugh in wonder at the richness of our inheritance.

Angela Zhang (geotechnical engineer, poet)

I grew up speaking the Wuhan dialect — a form of Mandarin barely intelligible to a Standard Mandarin speaker – that emerged from south-bound immigrants during the Ming and Qing dynasties (approx. 1400-1800). The Wuhan dialect, together with other Southwestern Mandarin varieties is so distinct from Standard Mandarin that until 1955, it was considered a separate Chinese language, alongside Cantonese and Wu Chinese. The Wuhan dialect is full of slang and fun quirks. My favourite is a repetition of words that creates the amusing effect of calling a dog a “doggy” or a bag a “baggy”. I’d like to think the Wuhan dialect has a certain charm about it, in the same way that I’d imagine an American might find the New Zealand accent endearing.

It’s odd watching videos of toddler me talking in a thick accent, more so because I can’t speak the Wuhan dialect anymore. When I moved to New Zealand with my mum, she deliberately ensured that I only acquired Standard Mandarin, so that people wouldn’t think I was from some backwater village. There is grief in the loss of my childhood language, in the replacement of a vibrant dialect with a homogenous lingua franca in order to better fit in. My immediate family also speaks Cantonese and Hokkien. I speak English and Mandarin now, but I often wonder what it would have been like to stay in China and learn all of my family’s languages, and by extension, different ways of thinking and imagining.

Koreen Liew-Young (graphic designer)

New Zealand Chinese Language week is such a complicated beast and the name gives the wrong impression; it should really be called New Zealand Mandarin Language Week as it doesn’t include speakers of other Chinese languages/dialects. With Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, we see te reo championed by Māori and non-Māori alike. No matter your fluency, all are celebrated. And in the same manner, shouldn’t we as Chinese New Zealanders feel empowered and proud, during NZCLW? Shouldn’t I feel like I relate to those endorsing NZCLW and want to “buy into” it? But NZCLW doesn’t feel inclusive of the many Chinese New Zealanders like me who might still be trying to catch up with their language learning.  NZCLW’s focus, as quoted by Coughlan, is “to encourage non-Chinese New Zealanders to learn Chinese”. I cannot help but feel excluded from a campaign that I blatantly should be a part of. 

Julian Liew-Young (marketing manager)

When I first heard of Chinese Language Week, I thought it was a fantastic idea, and not only because it brought awareness to a growing Asian New Zealand community. I’m Malaysian Chinese (Hakka) but was not able to speak any Chinese language fluently. I studied at university and spoke a little with family. But everything changed when I went to Beijing to study Mandarin at a language school. It was the best time of my life; learning Mandarin and soaking up all that China has to offer grew me and my worldview. I would recommend everyone to do something like this.

I understand the criticisms towards NZCLW, I even have my own (why does this Chinese language week feature so few Chinese people?). But I don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bath water. The glass is half-full and in future, it could include the Chinese diaspora, the multitude of Chinese languages and feature more about New Zealand Chinese who are bringing positive change to New Zealand. It looks like lobbying has already resulted in some changes (for example, including some history of New Zealand Chinese). To me, this shows the week has the potential to make it what we always wanted rather than a thing to be embarrassed about. Because lord knows that the Chinese diaspora has enough of those when it comes to not being able to speak our own languages.

Jack Yan (author, brand strategist, typeface designer, publisher)

It’s disappointing that 180 years of hard work and whakapapa, not to mention our reo, are being swept under the carpet by Chinese Language Week. Beijing might get its kicks from telling kids at school that they can’t speak their own language and that Mandarin is superior – the sort of thing colonists did to Māori with English for a big part of our history – so it’s dangerous to see Communist Party policy replicated on our shores.

We shouldn’t need to kowtow (a word derived from Cantonese, incidentally) to Beijing. This is a sovereign nation, and Chinese New Zealanders have a valuable heritage – one which Chinese Language Week tells us is not valued or important.

Teaching non-Chinese some words to do business with Chinese people? It won’t make much sense if a Kiwi is going to Hong Kong or Shenzhen, or Malaysia, Taiwan, or the Philippines, to be armed with exclusively Mandarin. Just as it would be for someone to come here without at least some basic appreciation of te reo Māori, even if it’s just two words like kia ora.

Calling this Chinese Language Week is disingenuous. Call it Mandarin Language Week, I wouldn’t have a problem.

And if you want to equip non-Chinese or non-Chinese speakers with tools, then you actually need to recognise as many languages as possible. “Mandarin is useful in these circumstances, but if you’re doing business in city x, then you’ll really understand them if you speak some of this other language.”

Kirsten Wong (Chinese community advocate)

We all need to get better at understanding China and “Chinese”. But the organisers of New Zealand Chinese Language Week aren’t helping. Just by using “language” in the singular, they’ve taken a political stand. At the same time they’ve cut out all the rest of us Chinese whose heritage language isn’t Mandarin.

Yes, Mandarin is the national language of the People’s Republic of China. And we all understand why it’s important to learn the language of a leading trading partner. But organisers also need to be sensitive to community and political contexts. Not doing so results in what we’re seeing now.

Communities are right to want a stake in this. It’s alarming that so many New Zealanders automatically conflate ethnic Chinese-ness with the nation state of China. The rise in anti-Asian feeling during Covid, the ubiquitous assumption that if you look Chinese you’re not from Aotearoa – it all connects to a fundamental misunderstanding of what “Chinese” is and who Chinese New Zealanders are.

We need to get better at this.

The truth is that Chinese New Zealanders speak many languages – Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew and so many more. We’re diverse – the Chinese diaspora is so far reaching that we could literally be born anywhere in the world, including Aotearoa. And we want our languages to be acknowledged, not only because they’re at risk in their own homeland, but because they’re part of who we are.

Cameron Sang (historian)

When I first found out about “New Zealand Chinese Language Week”, I was quite excited: My interest in Wellington Chinese history had just been ignited, and I realised that trying to reconnect with Cantonese, my heritage language, would play a part. I had always had a complicated relationship with Cantonese – feeling ashamed when I did speak the few words I knew and feeling ashamed because I couldn’t speak it – so I had opted to learn German, Spanish and Finnish instead.

To say I was disappointed that “New Zealand Chinese Language Week” contained nothing in Cantonese, or any other Chinese language except Mandarin would be an understatement.  I understand the commercial, political, and social benefits of speaking Mandarin, but by excluding other Chinese languages that are also historically important to New Zealand Chinese communities, “New Zealand Chinese Language Week” is a misnomer.  I could connect to every single word in the name “New Zealand Chinese Language Week”, but I could not connect to anything that “New Zealand Chinese Language Week” offered. 

As corporates, workplaces, libraries, politicians and government agencies only promoted Mandarin during “New Zealand Chinese Language Week”, they were perpetuating that Mandarin is the only language spoken by Chinese people, and excluding Chinese in New Zealand from other linguistic backgrounds.  

There was the assumption that “New Zealand Chinese Language Week” was community driven, and that it had the support of Chinese communities in New Zealand, and those who I have spoken with are surprised that it isn’t. 

I don’t buy into the “Mandarin is the official language” line.  If this is the case, should “New Zealand Chinese Language Week” material only be produced in Mandarin, te Reo Māori and New Zealand Sign Language?

Chinese in New Zealand are often talked about but not talked with.  Random photos of us wearing facemasks are used in Covid19 articles, we’re singled out because of how our family names sound, we’re visible in the streets but not in policy, and now we’re being told which of our languages are valuable and which are not.

It’s saddening that the “New Zealand Chinese Language Week Charitable Trust” is resisting working with actual Chinese New Zealanders. 

Perhaps the biggest missing component of “New Zealand Chinese Language Week” is not the languages, but Chinese New Zealanders.


The increase in the population of non-English first language speakers highlighted a need for the teaching of English as a second language some years ago. Along with this there was an acknowledgement of community languages and the value of their maintenance. Indeed these were considerations to be included in a National Language Policy (still as yet to be achieved)

The first language of the long established Chinese community is Cantonese. When restrictions were lifted on the entry of Chinese to New Zealand, many migrants arrived from many other provinces apart from Guangdong, the ancestral province of Cantonese speakers. They too brought their language – examples being – Hokkien, Hakka, Shanghainese, to name just a few.

In recognising the languages of the various communities that are New Zealanders there is a need to be inclusive in recognising the value of culture and heritage to the enrichment of Aotearoa.

My language, my identity.

Keep going!