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Review: Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s Story

Being Chinese final cover lrHelene Wong, Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s Story, Bridget Williams Books, 2016, ISBN 978 0 947492 38 0

Melissa Kennedy

Michael King’s famous memoir discussions of New Zealand identity, Being Pakeha and Being Pakeha Now came out in 1985 and 1999 respectively. It has taken nearly twenty years for a New Zealander of another ethnicity to publish her biography in a similar sustained search to understand the role of race in her identity. The title of Helene Wong’s memoir sums up her difficulty: Wong feels like a Kiwi, thus offers “a New Zealander’s Story,” but from the outside she looks Chinese; hence, “Being Chinese.” Although she does not know much about the country behind her ethnicity, she feels compelled to find out more about China. This sets the scene for a lively history of twentieth-century New Zealand, from early immigration during the gold rushes to post-World War Two, small-town, middle-class complacency, and more recently, the outward turn to embrace globalisation. In her search for her ancestors in historical records and old newspapers, Wong shows how discrimination and racism has plagued the Chinese throughout that history, the nation’s oldest non-European immigrant community. From the overt penalisation of the Poll Tax of the early-1900s to the more insidious racial slurs about the ‘Asian invasion’ contained in modern-day newspaper journalism, the kind of casual racism that Wong is subjected to is a constant reminder of New Zealand’s uneasy position towards its own multiculturalism.

All family histories are fascinating to those concerned. The trick with memoir, though, is to make it interesting to others, usually through a frame that readers might connect with. The inside story of Chinese in New Zealand works this way for Wong. Her later chapters track her ancestry through her mother’s and father’s families, which offer fascinating insight into the extensive mobility of Cantonese well before the trendy ideas of globalisation and cosmopolitanism were even invented. Her mother was born in Wellington in 1911, her father moved to New Zealand from Canton as a seven-year-old, yet they were married in their ancestral village in Guangdong as young adults before coming back to settle in the central North Island. Wong opens her book by recounting her parents visiting their village again in 1980. Such to-ing and fro-ing suggests a rich relationship between the two nations and their people, which has yet to be captured in New Zealand literature and film. As Wong was brought up speaking only English in a more or less assimilationist environment, she can only gesture towards some of this complexity. Most striking in her memoir is how utterly typical of the baby-boomer generation her life is. In the 1950s, there are Saturday-night dances, home-sewn dresses, raffle tickets, day trips to the country, and fish-and-chips on Fridays, followed in the seventies by going flatting, university antics, and in the eighties, the Big OE. Wong is aware of a few mysterious rituals and values held by the Chinese community, but her strongest association of what it means to be Chinese is enjoying the food at the many celebrations held by the Chinese community in Wellington, though she rarely knows anything about the reasons behind those celebrations. For example, Wong is about fifty and has already lost her father before she finds out from historical research why they always celebrated the “Double Tenth”: the date relates to the founding of the Republic of China. The reader can feel Wong’s frustration at not knowing how to live up to expectations of difference when she is teased and taunted by the kids at school, or later asked to act a Chinese character in theatre or to speak from the ‘Chinese perspective’ on various issues. Indeed, the book’s title may well have been a question: how can one be Chinese when one identifies as a New Zealander?

Despite working in several roles that give Wong the opportunity to explore the experience of the Chinese-New Zealanders, including in the public service, government, theatre and film, and television broadcasting, she fails to get any projects off the ground, which is again a source of frustration to her. Her difficulty reveals the strength of the monocultural shroud of Kiwi-ness that has been such a hard nut to crack. It is not until the mid-1990s that her search really picks up pace, with the confidence of middle-age coinciding with the national sea-change of open immigration. Media representation today may be dominated by the sensationalist and reductionist headlines of triads, immigrants pushing up housing prices, and draconian educational expectations of undefined ‘Asian’ parents, but Wong’s constant presence in theatre and television, along with scholars such as Manying Ip, James Ng, and Tze Ming Mok, form the base line on which the story of Chinese New Zealanders becomes visible and valuable. One hopes that more such stories come to light to further knowledge and understanding of this very visible but little-known minority.

Worrying about identity is a very Kiwi thing to do, in part encouraged by the search for recognition and value in cultural difference demonstrated by the Maori renaissance and biculturalism. Similarly, interest in tracing ancestry is particularly acute in ex-colonies where the past was, quite literally, a different place. When these tendencies generate memoirs such as Helene Wong’s, we are reminded of the incredible energy that went into the making of New Zealand and of the kaleidoscope of backgrounds and experiences that are today contained in all of us, just your average New Zealander.

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Melissa Kennedy is an external lecturer in literature and culture studies at the University of Vienna and at the University of Passau. She writes on New Zealand Maori fiction and postcolonial studies of economic inequality. She has recently finished writing a book called Postcolonial Economics: Reading Inequality in Colonial, Neocolonial, and Neoliberal Capitalism.