Dame Claudia Orange launches 'Being Chinese' by Helene Wong

Kia ora tatau katoa – nga mihi mahana ki a koutou

I have much pleasure in launching this book and have loved reading it. Let me share a few thoughts about it:

Helene’s book may be titled Being Chinese but it is also about being a New Zealander. And – as she notes herself – it is about the search for one’s purpose and meaning in life, and that is a universal factor.

Not surprisingly, Helene has captured all the ambiguities in the search and in the resolution of what it is to be identified as different – and in her case, as Chinese.

Photo by Ken Chung.

But Being Chinese is so much more – rich in photographs it is a social history, full of detail on what New Zealand was like in the 1950s, 1960s and 70s, and beyond. It draws a picture of the embedded attitudes and the detail of everyday life in the home and in school and in the community. And yet at the same time it captures the international shifts that affected the country – Britain joining the EEC and New Zealand recognising Communist China.

This makes it more than a social history – it paints in the effects of changes for a country, changes that inevitably have their ongoing influences on people – and specifically on Helene and her identity. Being Chinese in the years of her life – the decades of the 1950s and onwards – had challenges that were different from those of many other New Zealanders. The book tells of a cultural life that was rich in New Zealand and her family and community, but also in what she found when she went to China and especially to those villages in Guangzhou from where her tupuna had come.

Being Chinese shows the reader what shocks could lie in wait for someone who was absolutely an New Zealander, but nevertheless visibly Chinese. A trans-Tasman trip highlights this: going to Australia in 1966 she had to get special sanction as a Chinese to get in – but equally shocking, there was a need to be vouched for on her return – all this despite being a born New Zealander and holding an New Zealand passport. Our laws were to change about that time, but the effect of that event carried with it a mark of the attitudes and biases that have been part of our growing up as a nation.

Helene’s capacity to write captures, in great detail, the personalities and intriguing stories that were part of the Chinese community. The formative influences in her life – as she notes – were dominated by the west rather than the east but the latter were influential in many ways.

The book is also a history of the political fortunes of countries – New Zealand and China. It is fascinating in the way Helene has woven in the history of mainland China and the struggle for power – the Kuomintang and the Communists – with the 1949 resolution that brought the latter to power and the retreat of the Kuomintang to Taiwan.

As a young person here in New Zealand she was barely aware of the tensions that must have been part of her parents’ lives as they watched and waited for an outcome, not knowing how their extended families in China were surviving.

The new world that emerged had New Zealand recognising China as New Zealand itself started to open up to increased migration from Asia and elsewhere – especially in the 1990s and later. And with that there would be new shifts in New Zealanders attitudes. Being recognisably different meant ongoing challenges that were often troublesome – at best amusing, but too often infuriating. Media had much to do with stimulating public opinion about fears of migration but migrants were now more ready to push back.

In a universal sense, Helene talks of acceptance as a person, that the development of tolerance in any society is a gradual matter and that tolerance is itself a fragile thing to be treasured as it grows and takes shape. She observes that for her it was easier to accept difference in people than it was for most New Zealanders – because being Chinese predisposed her to understand those groups in the country who were clearly different in their identity. And this included our own Maori people.

Aside from the 1966 re-entry problem with her Tasman crossing, she considers herself fortunate not to be a victim of serious prejudice or discrimination, when she was growing up, but she knew what it was like to ‘be on the margins’. It meant she was able to identify and empathise is special ways.

In the end I found that Being Chinese made me ask myself – who are we as New Zealanders? Who am I and what is my role in this world? Questions that she asked herself as her journey took her through life’s passages. And it is that universality and its searching questions that make this book a must for everyone to read.

Helene writes:

‘In parts of Auckland where the sheer number of cross-cultural encounters can lead as much to empathy as antipathy, young people of multiple shades of ethnicity are growing up together, working together and marrying one another.’ Her family – like many of us – have grandparents and relations with Irish, Scots, British, French, Dutch, German, and Pacific and Maori identities. Our social, cultural and national identify is rapidly evolving, and will continue to do so.

And Helene asks us:

‘Are we ready to move on in our attitudes toward difference, especially to racial difference?’ Just as she had to grow up in order to accept and integrate her multiple identities, she asks:

‘Do we in New Zealand – as individuals and as a country – have the maturity to do the same?’ It throws us a challenge!

Bridget Williams produces books that matter – and this one clearly is crucial to the country’s future. There is only one problem: you will find it hard to put down! I have much pleasure in declaring this book launched.

Claudia Orange
New Zealand Portrait Gallery, Wellington
8 May 2016