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History of Chinese People in New Zealand – Helen Wong & Bill Willmott

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Ken Chan (hands clasped) arrived in 1939.  Behind him, his aunt points at his father whom ken is about to meet for the first time.  To the left are his grandmother and mother.  Image: NZ Herald
Ken Chan (hands clasped) arrived in 1939. Behind him, his aunt points at his father whom ken is about to meet for the first time. To the left are his grandmother and mother.  Image: NZ Herald

In the NZ Herald recently there was a story about a Chinese man who arrived as a refugee from war-torn China in 1939.  The story is a heart-warming tale of how refugee, Ken Chan, and some of his family fled Canton [Guangzhou] as the Japanese were taking over that part of China.  He was only 7 years old at the time (see the accompanying image, and, for why they were so smartly dressed, read the NZ Herald article!) but he settled well into the Kiwi way and made a life for himself and his family here. 

But Ken was only one of many Chinese people who, since the 1800s, have travelled to New Zealand.  They were often harshly treated with the intolerant poll tax being levied (1881-1934) and living unforgiving lives – but finally made a go of it.    

The first Chinese man, Appo Hocton, arrived in New Zealand  in 1853  and was naturalised.   In the 1860s, Chinese immigrants were invited to New Zealand by the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce to replace the western goldminers who had followed the gold-fever to Australia.  However, prejudice against the Chinese eventually led to calls for restrictions on immigration.  Following the example of anti-Chinese poll taxes enacted by California in 1852 and by Australian states in the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s, John Hall‘s government passed the Chinese Immigration Act in 1881. This imposed a £10 tax per Chinese person entering New Zealand, and permitted only one Chinese immigrant for every 10 tons of cargo.  Richard Seddon‘s government increased the tax to £100 per head in 1896, and tightened the immigration restriction to only one Chinese immigrant for every 200 tons of cargo.

The poll tax was waived in 1934 by the Minister of Customs, following Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, and the Act was finally repealed in 1944.

Those days are hopefully now over.  In 2002, at Chinese New Year celebrations at Parliament in a formal process of reconciliation, Helen Clark offered the Government’s apology for this racist restriction.  Further, in compensation, the Government also spent NZ$5 million in 2005 to establish a Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust to sponsor various events.  Click here for more details.

As a consequence of those early haphazard entries into New Zealand, many second and third generation Chinese descendants have desired to search for further details of their roots in their ancestral home of China.  Helen Wong, a second-generation, NZ-born Chinese has researched and assisted many people to discover their Chinese roots, roots that were hard to access until the 1980s. 

Some early immigrants made that initial decision to come to New Zealand by jumping ship when conditions as a seaman became too hard to bear, with the result that they left no record of where they came from.  These people often heard of the goldfields and knew they could make a living there and send money home to the family in China.  Later they founded businesses such as fruiterers, market gardeners and restaurants often from the knowledge they had learnt from their families back home in China.  These types of work were often their only recourse, as pakeha Kiwis worried that the Chinese may take over and push out those already in settled occupations (such as farming ) and so they created difficulties for the Chinese.   

Another aspect that weighed heavily on the minds of these early immigrants was their desire, when they died, that their remains should be returned to be buried in their ancestral homeland.  The driving force behind overseas Chinese burial practice is the belief that after death, the soul of the deceased hovers over the grave.  If a Chinese man were to die in a foreign country, his soul would be homeless and therefore unable to rest until his body was shipped back to China and buried in his home village.  After the allotted period of reverence, the deceased spirit would then become an ancestor.  Overseas, this was not possible.

This gave rise to an industry in shipping bodies back to China and the SS Ventnor was one of several ships engaged for that task.  In 1902, this one unfortunately sank on the West coast of North Island, at Hokianga, and several stories and plays have been written about the tragedy.

Helen recently gave a talk to Hibiscus Coast branch and told of her accompanying a number of present-day Chinese New Zealanders  on successful trips back to China to find their roots.   For that search, Helen Wong lists several clues that descendants may not realise they still possess – such as:

  • What dialect did their ancestor speak?
  • What was their occupation?
  • What organisation did they belong to? [Wellington organisations were the Tung Jung Association and the Poon Fah Association (These associations united into one, the Chinese Association, in 1934).   There was also the Chinese Masonic Lodge, as well as the Chinese churches – Presbyterian and Anglican.]

Her successes include helping an American lady trace her ancestral villages in China, a Canadian man who traced his grandfather’s village culminating in a family reunion in 2010, and assisting a third-generation Kiwi trace their paternal grandfather and grandmother’s three villages, resulting in a joint visit to China in 2012. 

Helen says she gets a great sense of achievement in helping these people and she has also contributed research for publications, co-authored and self-published books (see below) and recorded family stories.  “All of the stories are fascinating“, she says.  “I am currently researching Auckland Chinese fruit shops and may do research covering the rest of New Zealand”.

Helen’s booklets provide lots of information for people trying to find their ancestors from cemetery websites to history museums, all of great value to prospective genealogists.  One is a real eye-opener about the attitude in which the Chinese immigrants were regarded and some quite offensive articles were written about them in the newspapers of that time – some that would be described as offensively racist today.   

One of her booklets has an evocative photo of her own ancestors on the front page, both women carefully posed in beautiful traditional dress.  The back page shows the same family in the 1980s, but with a new generation in modern clothes visiting relatives in China.  

As Helen says, ”Life in China is changing rapidly, cities gradually encroaching villages. Before too long, the old folk will have passed on and the next generation unable to help.  Take the opportunity now to start your search for the roots that link you to the past.  Journey back to your ancestral land and discover who created your heritage and influenced your life.”

References (Helen Wong): 

1) Beginners Guide to Chinese Resources in New Zealand (an oral presentation to Auckland Central Library, 30 Sep 2009).  Revised 10 Jul 2013.

2) New Zealand Chinese Celebrating New Year Past and Present (an oral presentation to Auckland Central Library, 16 Feb 2011) 36pp, © Helen Wong, 2013

3) In the Mountain’s Shadow. A Century of Chinese in Taranaki 1870-1970 75pp, © Helen Wong, 2010.  ISBN 978-0-473-17508-5.  Helen has just had this book reprinted and it costs $25 incl. p&p.

4) Second Burial – New Zealand Chinese Experience 1883 and 1902 36pp, © Helen Wong, 2013.  ISBN 978-0-473-24298-5.

Helen Wong can be contacted at:  helen.familytree@gmail.com

‘Kiwi Dragon’ by Prof. Bill Willmott

In 2009, Bill Willmott, well-known former President of the NZCFS, gave a Centennial lecture to the Quakers (The Religious Society of Friends) in Wellington.  It concerned the history of the Chinese in New  Zealand.  It has since been published and named ‘Kiwi Dragon’.

Bill’s work, like that of Helen Wong, also traces the history of Chinese settlement in New Zealand, from the first Chinese man to arrive to the present day, along with many fascinating details, some from his personal life, some from his experiences in China and of the Chinese people he has met along the way. 

The booklet also comments on racism in New Zealand and the description of ‘Asian’ peoples which gives an interesting take on this word.  During the early decades, the Chinese community was somewhat separate from the majority Anglo-New Zealand population.  As one Chinese woman commented, ”All my life I felt like a minority.  Even though I was born here, I had few European friends.”

Chinese views of history and society differ markedly from European ones, as do Chinese attitudes towards family and education.  The essay discusses significant aspects of traditional Chinese culture that continue to influence the thinking of Chinese today.  Bill argues that the acceptance of a multicultural identity and a better understanding of Chinese culture enriches New Zealand society to the benefit of all.

It is recommended for anyone wishing to delve into the Chinese psyche.

References (Bill Willmott):

1)  Kiwi DragonThe Chinese in Aotearoa New Zealand – History, Culture, Hope (2009).  Bill Willmott. 48pp. The Religious Society of Friends Te Haahi Tuahauwiri. ISBN 978-0-473-15234-5. © Bill Willmott, 2009.  It has an extensive reference list.

2)   To access a pdf of ‘Kiwi Dragon‘, click HERE 

Teri France, April 2014