Wairarapa link in Chinese Kiwi's book

By Alisa Yong alisa.yong@age.co.nz -
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Helene Wong, author of Being Chinese: A New Zealander's Story. PHOTO/BRUCE FOSTER
Helene Wong, author of Being Chinese: A New Zealander's Story. PHOTO/BRUCE FOSTER

A woman with family links to Wairarapa has written a memoir exploring what it means to be a Chinese New Zealander.

Writer, actor and Listener film critic Helene Wong's new book Being Chinese: A New Zealander's Story tells the story of the greengrocer's daughter who traces her family history back to places like Pahiatua, Taihape and finally a small village in southern China.

The book follows the journeys of Ms Wong's family, including her maternal grandfather, Chin Ting, who in 1890 may have been the first Chinese to open a shop in Carterton before later settling in Pahiatua.

Ms Wong said a trip to her father's home village in 1980 had sparked a "life-long quest" to learn more about her heritage.

"I've been collecting information and doing research over the years in-between my other jobs. It's not something that has come out of nothing, really -- it kind of grew from my 1980 trip that I paid to the village and it's always been in the back of my mind to find out more about my past, and it got caught up with the issue of my own identity as a Chinese and as a New Zealander."

Experiencing China first-hand changed the way she felt about her own identity, she said.

"It made me being Chinese real for the first time. Here I was in this totally foreign environment and yet it wasn't just the fact that I had relations there, that didn't mean quite so much, as there was this place that I had a connection to.

"I think why I had such an emotional reaction to it and why it reverberated for so many years was because here was this place miles away from my life that I was connected to.

"It just blew my mind completely -- from being someone from these little tiny islands out in the Pacific to being part of the world. I started to see myself as a citizen of the world, not in any grandiose sense, but there was more to me and my family and our history than just being New Zealanders from Wellington."

Researching her family history and discovering reports about her grandfather in the Wairarapa Daily Times, including one from 1890 which described him falling from his horse in Main St, Greytown, had given her a better understanding of an otherwise distant grandfather, she said.

"It was a nice surprise to humanise him really, instead of this stranger that I'd come to know it sort of turned him into a young man feeling his own way."

Now 66, she said she finally felt confident enough to tackle the subject as a book, which had taken about two years to write.

"I think I felt confident in my writing and to know how to deal with it. Writing is not just about putting words together, it's also about finding a good narrative structure to make it an interesting read."

She hoped the book would help dispel some commonly-held ideas about Chinese.

"I felt that I needed to get past all the myths and the stereotypes and the attitudes to the Chinese and tell a full, real story that goes beyond the stereotypes and tells what it's like being Chinese and being Chinese in New Zealand," she said.

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