Michele Hewitson interview: Meme Churton

By Michele Hewitson

The extraordinary memoir of an Italian-Chinese New Zealander is full of misery, miserliness and affairs. She arrived by flying boat in a land where houses smelled like mutton and cauliflower and women dressed badly.

At the age of 86, Meme Churton is still beautiful and exotic. Photo / Brett Phibbs
At the age of 86, Meme Churton is still beautiful and exotic. Photo / Brett Phibbs

On Wednesday morning, Meme Churton came to the door of her Mission Bay townhouse impeccably made up, exquisitely groomed and accessorised from head-to-elegantly clad toes. She is 86 and still beautiful.

She has always been beautiful, and exotic. She is half-Italian and half-Chinese and has lived, on and off, in New Zealand since the day she arrived here, by flying boat, at Evans Bay in Wellington, on December 21, 1950.

She might be just a tiny bit of a New Zealander now. She said, about two minutes after we arrived, "S***!", in a broad New Zealand accent and sat down abruptly. But I am getting ahead of myself here.

How to describe her life? She has done so in an extraordinary memoir - Meme: The Three Worlds of an Italian-Chinese New Zealander (David Ling, $39.99) - which she says she wrote because of "peer pressure".

People have been nagging her to write her story since, oh, about 1950, because they didn't understand quite a few things about her life. Such as how her Chinese father came to be living in Trieste.

"Long story."

And how she then ended up living in China with her Chinese mother who had bound feet and was not her biological mother. "Long story."

And how she came to be living in New Zealand married to a man called Jock Churton who ... No, let's save the very long story of the marriage until I've caught my breath, if I ever do.

She went on to manage one of Auckland's first dealer galleries and was friends with many artists who went on to become our most famous art names. She started one of the first coffee bars which didn't sell stale scones and soggy filled rolls and did sell proper coffee and gloriously European cakes. Despite not having a degree, she taught Italian at the University of Auckland for nearly 30 years.

Despite being about four foot (122cm) high (I did ask, but she just said she'd shrunk a bit), she has always been a larger-than-life character. And what she has never been, and was most certainly not, in 1950 when she arrived - and shortly afterwards went to a socialist party, where the menu was mutton birds and kegs of beer, wearing her Dior dress, leopard skin coat and pearls - was the sort of woman many New Zealand women of the time felt comfortable being around. She was a flirt, for one thing.

Was! She still is, if flirting means touching people (including women and so including me) and calling them "darling". She said, "Michele, darling, did you realise I've always had men friends in my life?"

She has a lovely gravelly smoker's voice and, still, a sometimes precarious and hilarious grasp of English.

She would be launching her book the night I went to see her (it has cost $25,000 to have it published but her great friend, philanthropist Gus Fisher, helped her out; she's never had a lot of money of her own, although she's always looked richer than most really rich New Zealand ladies).

We went and looked at her outfit for the launch: A pale grey silk Chinese tunic and black velvet trousers. Then she produced, with a flourish, a diamond and ruby brooch in the shape of a frangipani flower. "Is that nice?" It was quite something. "Very nice," she said, emphatically, agreeing with herself; she usually does. This was a gift from (I think; it's a bit tricky to sort out the many complicated relationships in her life) her goddaughter's mother; she had just been to visit them in Jakarta, where they live in an incredible "glass and marbles palace".

The brooch is very Meme. She must have looked amazing in 1950. When she arrived in New Zealand she must have been looked at as though she was an alien. She certainly looked upon New Zealanders as aliens. She said: "If I had landed on the moon I would have been less shocked." The houses smelt of mutton and cauliflower.

She writes about New Zealand women of the time who, mostly, "dressed abominably, with thick stockings and big cardigans (or 'cardies') as though they were trying to show they were mates with the blokes ... And there was a class of well-to-do ladies whose idea of dressing up was to look as much like the Queen (or the Queen Mother) as they could - long gloves, funny little hat, and a fur thing on the shoulders. And the same woman might well be carrying home a basket of cabbages!"

It would be fair to say that many of the women she met regarded her with a degree of suspicion. She wore all of these flamboyant things!

"Oh, yes. Not only that: I was flamboyant altogether." I already knew this about her. She is not exactly a household name, but she was something of a name in my family mythology. When the book arrived, I opened it and it fell open on page 127. I told her this when we arrived. And she said: "What is on page 127?"

This is: she arrives at Evans Bay to be met by, she thought, Jock Churton, whom she had met in Italy, during the war, and who had invited her to New Zealand. So, "I was greeted by not one, but two men ... a pale Anglo-Saxon with red hair and freckles on his face. The pale one came towards me and, to my surprise, greeted me in French. I replied in English, 'Oh, hello, Jock!' He said, 'Oh, no, no, I'm not Jock, I'm Les Edwards, Jock's best friend." Jock had had to go to Gisborne.

I recited this sequence of events back to her and she said, "That's right." Les Edwards, I told her, was my grandfather. This is what caused the "s***!" and the abrupt sitting down.

There is also a story about Les taking her home to stay with him, my grandmother, Pat, and their three young children in Ngaio and she walked through the door and asked where the servants were. I already knew this story. My grandmother told it for years. "Oh God! S***! These things are always happening to me! I was very, very close to Les. We loved each other dearly."

I knew that too. I already knew that she has always had men friends. She is supposed to have had a fling with my grandfather, but, alas, this does turn out to have been myth. What a shame.

"Ha, ha! I did not have an affair with Les. I'd be absolutely honest if I did. We could have, I suppose, because we really loved each other. Oh God! Oh s***! Oh wow!"

She learnt this swearing in English from people like my grandfather and his socialist, or commie mates, who swore all the time: "It was part of their rebellion, it was trendy within their group," she writes. "While my knowledge of English was still limited, I had a good ear, and so I soon picked up all those words ... I assumed this was the way New Zealanders spoke. As a consequence, during my first year in the country I swore like a trooper."

For some reason I still don't understand after having read the book, she stayed on and married Jock, whom she didn't seem to have ever liked very much; and he didn't seem to like her. They had a child, Sandra, despite her lack of maternal feeling.

She said: 'I feel guilty in many ways." Does she really? "No! I don't!" She and her daughter have a "beautiful relationship" now, she says, although Sandra is very religious and she certainly isn't. It might have been a bit difficult having her as a mother. "Yes, because I was so successful in everything I did. And people love me!" That was rather my point. New Zealand mothers do not, generally speaking, go around saying how successful they are and how everyone loves them!

"Of course not, but you see, I did not realise that! For example, we had amazing dinner parties, for 12, 20 people, enormous parties. And I've always been able to cook. Really, I can cook! Even at my age I can still produce a five course meal without any effort whatsoever!" Showing off. "Absolutely!"

She probably put garlic in things too. "Lots of garlic! Why do you think I'm so healthy?"

She says she is more Chinese these days, some days, than she is Italian although she likes her Italian self more - it is more fun. But she likes being pragmatic and philosophical, which she says she thinks is Chinese.

She believes in destiny (but not luck) and she reads the Tao, she said. I didn't know what that was and she said it was like me opening her book at random and finding my grandfather there, on the page.

She went and got the book of Tao and made me open it and it came up with something about not being gored by rhinos or torn apart by tigers, or something like that (it is about destiny, I think, but not luck). It all sounded rather good and I was quite pleased but she decided it was meant for her, and pinched it! "I know!"

Aah, well, she deserves a good bit of Tao. She didn't have much from her marriage and all of that is laid bare here: The misery and miserliness and the affairs. She says she has a very very long list of his affairs with women. Hers is shorter and, weirdly, despite everyone thinking she was a sex bomb, she says she wasn't ever very interested in sex.

But that isn't the really weird bit of her story, which is that one day in 1975 Jock came to her and said he had something to tell her and it was that he was homosexual. Your jaw may well drop when you read this, so imagine how she felt. She writes: "I said, 'But you must be bisexual. Come on, how could you have slept with all these women for so many years?"'

"'Oh', he said, 'it's because I made myself do it'."

This is completely nuts, I said, and she said, "It's all incongruous". But she doesn't seem to really think so; she just seems to regard it as mildly interesting. She has been good at shrugging things off and getting on, for years and years.

There is much more of this madness and drama, but we were out of time. I did want to know what on earth her family thought of the book and she said she gave it to Sandra who gave it back a week later, without comment. She says her grandchildren thanked her for writing it. Thanked her! For telling the world about their awful family!

She gave me a look, which may have been Chinese or may have been Italian or maybe just pure Meme, and said: "There were a lot of very strange genes in your family too, my darling!"

She said I must come back and she will cook me dinner and tell me all about my strange family. I'd go too. She's every bit as wonderful and naughty and as exotic as the myth.

- NZ Herald

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