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Mao’s Māori Cloak Coming Soon To Te Papa

Kahu huruhuru (feather cloak), woven about 1950, gifted to Chairman Mao Zedong by Korokī, the 5th Māori King of Aotearoa New Zealand. Courtesy of National Museum of China, 2012
Kahu huruhuru (feather cloak), woven about 1950, gifted to Chairman Mao Zedong by Korokī, the 5th Māori King of Aotearoa New Zealand. Courtesy of National Museum of China, 2012

NZCFS has formed a partnership collaboration with Te Papa in their cooperation project with the National Museum of China to loan the historic Chairman Mao cloak for research and display in Te Papa from June to October 2013. New Zealanders will have an opportunity to see it and learn more about the connections and context to its gifting.

The National Museum of China has displayed the cloak in association with the Te Papa touring exhibitions Kura Pounamu and Brian Brake: Lens on China, which opened on 31 October 2012. The exhibitions were part of the celebrations to mark the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and New Zealand.


Cloak presented to Chairman Mao – 1957

On 23 April 1957 Ron Mason, President of the Auckland branch of NZCFS (and later NZCFS first National President) received the following telegram from the Director of the Chinese Peoples’ Association for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries: “Invite you and four friends visit China one month anytime July to October travelling our cost”.  Ron cabled acceptance and chose four members of the Society including Ramai and Rudall Hayward, film-makers.  During the journey Ron planned to concentrate on the making of a documentary as the most telling way to make their report. (From “Poet Triumphant: the life and writings of RAK Mason (1905-1971)” by “Asclepius” (John Caselburg), Steele Roberts, 2004.)

Ramai making "Inside Red China"
Ramai making “Inside Red China”

The distinction of being the first English speaking foreigners to film unfettered in communist China was significant. Rudall, born in England, had a family background in theatre and cinema and his wife Ramai, of Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngaitahu descent, were pioneer New Zealand film-makers.  A spirited, independent woman, Ramai had her own photography studio by the time she was 19 years old.  Later, she was a leading actress in Rudall’s early movies and became a talented cinematographer with her husband, producing travel, education and feature films.

They filmed in Canton, Shanghai, Peking (Beijing) and Wuhan. It was a small window of opportunity for Westerners to gaze on a country that was largely a mystery to the outside world since 1949.  The unfortunate irony was that two of the documentaries, Wonders of China and Inside Red China, were considered to be communist propaganda, and were not distributed outside of New Zealand.  Only Children of China, written and directed by Ramai, managed to be sold around the world.

“Inside Red China”

is a fascinating short film that covers the Hayward’s experiences of China.  It includes the National Day activities, a highlight being Ramai presenting a beautiful Māori feather cloak to the founding leader of the People’s Republic of China, Chairman Mao Zedong.

Ramai’s recollection ….. “The smallest is as great as the largest.”

Ramai eloquently described the occasion in New Zealand Women In China, by Tom Newnham, 1995, Graphic Publications, Auckland-pages 94-100:

We knew that in the evening we would have an opportunity to present the cloak from King Korokī, as a gesture of goodwill from the Māori nation, so I was dressed in a piupiu that Princess Te Puea had given me. At the last moment we learned that we were going to be taken up to the top of the Tian An Men building.

As they were leaving their hotel room, Rudall, sensing the moment, grabbed his movie camera. Ramai said to him, “You can’t take that, Rudall.”  Rudall, a determined character, took no notice.  When they and Ron Mason reached the historic Tian An Men building, soldiers lined the steps all the way up.  Ramai was half expecting someone to confiscate Rudall’s camera, but no one did.  When they reached the top, there “were rows of VIP’s”, and Rudall by this time had his camera out and was filming.

Ramai continues, “Then someone came over and took Ron and me over to where Chairman Mao was standing with Premier Chou En Lai and indicated that I could present the cloak to Mao.  He had an interpreter, and I was standing barefooted with my interpreter right in front of him.

Mao Zedong wears the feather cloak from King Koroki in 1957
Mao Zedong wears the feather cloak from King Koroki in 1957

Mao greeted me, and then I put the cloak on his shoulders and tied it. I said it was a gift from our Maori king of Aotearoa-New Zealand, a gift of goodwill to the leaders of China. I said ‘We are the smallest nation in the world, giving this gift to the largest nation in the world.’

He smiled and said, reassuringly, ‘The smallest is as great as the largest.’  He turned the cloak over and looked at the weaving and wanted to know how the feathers were woven into it.  I was quite pleased because my grandmother and mother were great weavers and I was able to tell him. ………


In 2004 the New Zealand Ambassador to China, John McKinnon, having read Ramai’s account and having viewed this exceptional documentary, tried to find the cloak.  He wrote that staff of the New Zealand Embassy took over a year to track it down.  They found it stored in the National Museum of China, among other foreign gifts to China’s leaders.

Close up of cloak, chicken hackle feathers.
Image courtesy of the New Zealand Embassy, Beijing.

Cloak details

Te Papa is currently working with the National Museum of China and other agencies to piece together the full history of the cloak, as part of a broader cross-cultural programme sharing research and expertise.
The cloak kaupapa (foundation) and ties are wool. Hokimate Harwood, Te Papa bicultural science researcher, has identified the feathers as chicken, ring-necked pheasant, mallard duck, toroa (albatross), and pūkeko (purple swamp hen) from images taken by the NZ Embassy staff in Beijing .

The cloak’s symbolism today

The extraordinary circumstances of the cloak’s presentation from Ramai Hayward to Chairman Mao, on behalf of King Korokī, has particular resonance today, as we celebrate 40 years of New Zealand and China diplomatic relations, and 60 years of the New Zealand China Friendship Society Inc.  The fact that the cloak was gifted from King Korokī, the 5th Māori King, to Chairman Mao – from one great rangatira (chief) to another – gives the cloak immense prestige and significance.

As Ramai says, the cloak was a gift demonstrating goodwill between two nations.  Cloaks are important taonga, and have traditionally been given and exchanged to honour significant relationships, alliances and events.  The cloak today remains a tangible and powerful symbol of cultural understanding and engagement into the future.  How astute of King Korokī and Princess Te Puea at that time, to be honouring significant international relationships with such an exuberant and determined emissary as Ramai Hayward.

(Much of the above material came from the blog of Awhina Tamarapa, Te Papa Curator, Taonga Mäori: http://blog.tepapa.govt.nz/author/awhinatamarapa/)