Setting the Scene: Early Chinese Immigration to New Zealand

Early Chinese immigration to New Zealand was part of a broad pattern of early Chinese migration to various immigration-based “New World” countries in the Pacific Rim (e.g., the USA, Canada and Australia) during the mid-nineteenth-century gold-rush period (Eng 2006a, b; Ip 1995; Skeldon

1996). This immigration was driven by push factors, such as China’s internal poverty, natural disasters and warfare, and pull factors exerted from New Zealand, where gold was found in the Otago region (Ng 1993; Ip 1995).

Early Chinese migrants to New Zealand in the mid-1860s entered mainly as itinerant gold miners and were mostly uneducated male peasants from rural Southern China, especially Guangdong. In Australia, a “White Australia” policy was officially sanctioned, but New Zealand never had an explicitly anti-Chinese policy. However, legislative discrimination against the Chinese also happened there and ensured that the Chinese population remained at just a couple of thousand (Ip 1995). The Chinese Immigrants Act of 1881 introduced a “Poll Tax” of NZ?10 aimed at restricting Chinese entry. The act imposed a restriction on ship passengers: one Chinese passenger per 10 tons of cargo. In 1896 the ratio was reduced to one passenger per 200 tons of cargo, and the poll tax was increased to NZ?100. The rationale for this was New Zealand’s settlement policy, which aimed to create a “fairer Britain of the South Seas.” In such a nation, non-white migrants would be undesirable (Murphy 2003).

Besides the poll tax a series of anti-Chinese laws were passed. The “Reading Test” in 1907 required the Chinese to read 100 English words picked at random. The 1920 Immigration Restriction Amendment Act required every aspiring immigrant (other than people of British and Irish descent) to apply for a special permit which, in effect, severely restricted the number of Chinese. Applicants not admitted were given no reason (Ip 1995, 1996). Legislation discriminating against Chinese also affected those already in the country. In 1908, naturalization of Chinese stopped, and it did not resume until 1952. Chinese women seldom immigrated to New Zealand before World War II and the sex ratio of the early Chinese community was extremely unbalanced (Ip 2002b). Chinese male migrants immigrated to New Zealand primarily for reasons of economic survival. They were “sojourners”—a word used of overseas Chinese in the gold- rush years. They made a living overseas and earned income to support their families in China as long-term laborers without permanent residence, expecting an eventual return (Yang 2000).

Despite these official barriers, the Chinese still managed to develop their community, especially during World War II. With China’s fight against Japanese, wives and children of Chinese men were allowed temporary entry to New Zealand for humanistic reasons in 1939. This bolstered the number of Chinese there, and the Chinese community got the chance to sink roots. In 1947 the New Zealand government granted permanent residence to migrants’ wives and children. These changes eventually turned the “sojourner” paradigm into a “settler” model (Ip 2006a).

The depletion of the goldfields in the late 1880s resulted in Chinese drifting from rural areas to towns and cities looking for work. Like Chinese in other countries, many of those in New Zealand worked in fruit shops, laundries and stores. They also found a niche in market gardening, starting in the late 1920s (Ip 1995,2008). During the post-war period, the Chinese community remained largely self-contained and low key. The label “model minority” describes the marginalized social status and painful assimilation of early Chinese migrants (Ip 1995, 1996). The local-born descendants were educated in New Zealand, and some climbed into the professions. In general, the descendants of early Chinese migrants were lawful, hardworking, rarely lived on welfare and were invisible. The “model minority” label sounds positive but it is a tool of social control created by the dominant white supremacy through racial profiling.

Alongside natural increase, the community grew through chain migration. The period from the 1950s through to the 1980s is viewed as the assimilation phase (Ip 1995; Ng 1993). Connections with China loosened, mainly because China’s isolation from the West and the Cold War mentality that prevented the Chinese nationals from emigrating until the 1980s. The ten-year Cultural Revolution further isolated the PRC from the rest of the world and prevented Chinese descendants in New Zealand from staying in touch with China.

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