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Interview: Frank Chan’s China to New Zealand legacy story

Journalist Keren Cook talks to New Zealand-born and Auckland-based lawyer Frank Chan about the historical, political and practical climate for those Chinese immigrants who first arrived in New Zealand between 1865 and 1900 during the gold rush.

Chan begins his story with his great grandfather’s struggles. Arriving in Otago alone in the late 1800s as a migrant worker. From the onset, life was difficult and culturally alienating.

Despite challenging conditions, Chan’s grandfather and uncle both developed laundry businesses in Wellington, “seeing opportunity”- this eventually paved the way for his family to immigrate to New Zealand.

One one hand, the Otago goldfields welcomed Chinese migrant workers. There were particular reasons for choosing Chinese people: they were hardworking, inoffensive, law abiding and preferred to return home eventually. By 1869 over 2,000 Chinese men arrived to the land they called the ‘New Gold Mountain’.

Like the political scene itself, all the early newspapers in New Zealand were of one mind on the issue of Chinese: they were not wanted. All agreed that New Zealand should be kept white. Hence, cartoons published as early as 1907 when Richard Goodall created his ‘Yellow Peril’ cartoon, is one of the most enduring images of the Chinese ‘menace’ to New Zealand.

'STILL THEY COME'  John Collis, Bloomfield, New Zealand Free Lance, 7 January 1905, C-27809-1/2. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand
John Collis, Bloomfield, New Zealand Free Lance, 7 January 1905, C-27809-1/2. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

Throughout its history, cartooning in New Zealand has reflected the feelings of New Zealanders towards Asians and has been a barometer of New Zealand’s anxieties about Asians and their impact on New Zealand and New Zealand’s identity.

Cartoons reflected the changing attitudes to Chinese in New Zealand. At first Chinese were seen as a harmless novelty but as feelings against the Chinese grew, the cartoons reflected the feelings expressed by the public. Chinese were economic competitors, their customs were different, they could not assimilate. The Chinese were increasingly demonised and dehumanised, portrayed as monsters, evil and subhuman.

The Chinese were the only ethnic group to be poll taxed in New Zealand history. Due to the heavy poll tax of 100 pounds per head imposed by the New Zealand Government, men left their wives and children back home in China. It was fiscally impossible to resettle a whole family. Therefore, Chinese women seldom migrated to New Zealand and the sex ratio of the community was extremely unbalanced. In 1881 there were only nine women to 4,995 men.

The situation has changed since 2002. Former Prime Minister Helen Clark made a formal apology for discriminatory laws imposed on Chinese immigrants in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. As part of the apology, New Zealand Government supported the establishment of the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust and later paid $5 million to help promoting the preservation and awareness of Chinese New Zealand history.

In 2003, ten Chinese gold rush sites were proposed to add to the Trust’s Register to make up for the shortcoming in the number of publicly recognised Chinese places; since then eight sites have been added to the register, taking the total to 12. Recent proposals include a Chinese Heritage Trail beginning from the Dunedin Chinese garden. Also the historic gateway to the Otago goldfield, was opened in September 2008.

Chan talks candidly about Chinese culture, values, and veneration of age. He likens some of the core values to that of Maori culture – as of a similar construct around extended family and respect for one’s elders.

“Feeling different” while growing up in New Zealand is a big part of Chan’s psyche. “Feeling that division” in celebrating different holidays, never being allowed to question his parents decisions, the strict routines around his study and education compared to the ‘Kiwi’ kids. Chan says “you can take the best of Chinese culture and the best aspects of Kiwi culture and install that”.

Chan talks about his identity as hybrid – both as Chinese and as a New Zealander. He shares why New Zealand is a destination of choice for Chinese and what the future could possibly hold for Chinese who choose to call New Zealand “home”.

Listen to the full interview below:

Keren Cook
Keren is currently working as a casual presenter at NZME and freelancing as a journalist and Director and voice over-artist. She recently project-managed New Zealand's Jewish Online Museum, and co-hosts a regular show at Planet FM.
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