Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Chinatown idea misses point

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Is it really a good reason for Auckland Council to rush in and hang paper lanterns from every lamppost and declare the rundown shopping strip in mid-Dominion Rd, from this day forth, Chinatown? File photo / NZ Herald
Is it really a good reason for Auckland Council to rush in and hang paper lanterns from every lamppost and declare the rundown shopping strip in mid-Dominion Rd, from this day forth, Chinatown? File photo / NZ Herald

Here we go again. Another call to designate an enclave of Auckland "Chinatown" and watch the dollars flow as tourists flock in.

This time it's Massey University sociology professor Paul Spoonley, who says "there's not a major tourist destination around the world that doesn't have a Chinatown, Auckland being an exception".

For all I know, he's right about the pervasiveness of the Chinatown phenomenon. Even Singapore has one, and a Little India for good measure.

But is that really a good reason for Auckland Council to rush in and hang paper lanterns from every lamppost and declare the rundown shopping strip in mid-Dominion Rd, from this day forth, Chinatown?

It reeks of Disneyland fakery. Sure, the ethnic eateries of Dominion Rd offer some of the tastes of Chinatowns elsewhere, but there's absolutely none of the history and atmosphere of the genuine article, neighbourhoods rooted in their 19th century origins as ghettoes for new migrants in strange and often hostile cities.

Because of New Zealand's historic racist immigration policies, the city's Chinese population until recently was tiny.

In 1909, when Thomas Humlog's laundry was demolished to make way for the Town Hall, he was one of just 155 Chinese citywide. Chinatown amounted to the bottom of Greys Ave and the odd place in nearby Hobson St.

Most of the mainly male Chinese either grew or hawked vegetables and fruit, or washed clothes. Grey St, as it was then known, was home because rents were low and it was next to the city markets. Over the years a few Chinese boarding houses developed, along with opium dens and gambling houses.

In 1947, many Chinatown properties were demolished to make way for state flats, then between 1959 and 1964 the rest was obliterated for the civic administration building.

It took the liberalisation of immigration rules in 1986 to see a real influx of Chinese into Auckland. There are now more than 100,000, working and living not in one single ghetto but widely dispersed, some grouped together in favoured suburbs, others in individual family units among the wider community. For Auckland Council to now single out mid-Dominion Rd as official Chinatown is to send out all sorts of bad signals.

As the newly appointed chairwoman of the council's ethnic panel, Camille Nakhid, warned, it could segregate a segment of the community, adding, "It's different if it happens naturally."

For the cluster of Chinese businesses that now outnumber the other enterprises in the chosen area, council-backed promotion might well prove advantageous to their turnover. But I can imagine rivals on the North Shore and Otahuhu and the southeast being very put out. To say nothing of the Chinese shopkeepers of New Lynn.

It's less than three years since then Waitakere Mayor Bob Harvey proposed renaming New Lynn as Chinatown. It was all about cash.

"New Lynn is dreary and sluggish and there's no good reason to go there if you're not a local," he said.

"I believe Chinatown, with festivals, exhibitions and weekend events is perfect ... Chinatowns are significant drawcards for cities all over the world."

I cringed at the time, pointing out that anyone who hadn't walked down Queen St for 20 years would think the CBD was Chinatown, what with the language school students, $2 shops, lunch bars and shops full of China-made goodies. Not that I was complaining. Just suggesting people should try to keep up and accept that creating ethnic ghettoes is so last century, if not much earlier.

Professor Spoonley talks of ethnic precincts like Dominion Rd helping migrants maintain their cultural identities, but that's not a reason to freeze it in time and space. Naming his study "Halfway House", he was presumably alluding to these shops being a temporary resting spot.

The Chinese occupation of this strip is only 20 years old. When I moved to Ponsonby more than 30 years ago it was Polynesia town. My brown neighbours have since moved en masse to the south and west and places in between. A few remain, but what's mostly left are the churches and the old hibiscus bushes.

If history is any guide, Dominion Rd will experience a similar story.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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