In a new book writer and curator Emma Ng says Chinese people have been here since the gold rushes of the 1860s - but wonders what will it take for them to be fully accepted as New Zealanders. She talked to Lincoln Tan.

Asians are driving up house prices.

Chinese market gardeners have undercut prices of other farmers by working too many hours for too little.

They're a danger on the roads and they're introducing organised crime to this country.


Stop us if you've heard any of this before. Emma Ng has certainly heard it all before - and more.

"Asians in New Zealand are subject to scrutiny in a way that Pakeha are not," Ng says.

"They are the subject of generalisations that have cast them as scapegoats for a variety of societal problems."

Ng, whose Cantonese grandparents moved here from China's rural Guangdong region, has written a book titled Old Asian, New Asian.

Born in Auckland to New Zealand-born parents, Emma Ng feels every bit a Kiwi.
But the writer and curator says "lingering attitudes towards Asians in New Zealand" means she will always be considered an outsider to many.

English test

In 1995, when Ng started at Victoria Avenue School in Remuera, neighbouring school Epsom Normal Primary introduced an English test to restrict the enrolment of immigrant children.

It seems extraordinary that people who have been moving here for more than 150 years were subjected to such treatment in recent times. It also opened up a new rift in how immigrants were viewed.

"The incident spurred debates around immigration at that time, as well as revealing growing tensions between 'old Asian' residents and 'new Asian' migrants," Ng says. That gave her the title of her book, which is released on Monday.


Today there are more than 171,000 Chinese living in New Zealand - about 4 per cent of the population.

People from Asian countries make up about 12 per cent of the total population. Chinese are the largest group within that number.

Yet, Ng says, there remains an underlying and misguided belief that Kiwi and Asian identities are mutually exclusive.

She describes it as an "insidious, fleeting racism which catches you when you least expect it".

"Each time a stranger greets me with 'konichawa' or 'ni hao', or asks me where I'm from, I know they're seeing me as Asian first - my New Zealandness doesn't enter the equation."

Emma in her second year of school, with dad Charlie Ng. Photo / Supplied
Emma in her second year of school, with dad Charlie Ng. Photo / Supplied

A chapter in Ng's book looks specifically at this "casual" or "benign" racism often by "otherwise well-meaning people".

In 2014, during a media interview, Ng said she was told by her interviewer: "You speak English very well."

The journalist, Ng says, claimed she meant that in comparison to "our hick" or White New Zealand.

At the end of the interview, Ng says she was also told by the writer "you're quite Westernised, aren't you".

"As a second-generation Chinese New Zealander this was offensive and alienating," she says.

"Couched as a compliment, her friendly discrimination both caught me off guard and made me feel it would be unreasonable to tell her what I thought."

Ng says she was shocked at what had been said and that it drove a wedge between the "Chinese" and "New Zealand" parts of her identity.

"To be Asian [in New Zealand] is to have it repeatedly pointed out to you that you are different and don't belong quite like others," Ng says.

"Over a lifetime, the cumulative experience of racism can be exhausting."

'Chinese' surnames

Ng's father's family settled in Auckland, where they had a fruit shop across from the ferry terminal at the bottom of Queen St.

Her mother's side planted their roots in Dunedin, where they ran the Shanghai Restaurant on George St.

The book was born out of the backlash that came after a 2015 Labour Party release of data showing a high number of house buyers here with "Chinese" surnames.

Emma Ng with her Grandma. Photo / Supplied
Emma Ng with her Grandma. Photo / Supplied

The crude methodology looked at house sales to people named, for example, Wang, Zhang and Chen, and drew the conclusion that foreign Chinese were buying lots of properties. Labour later backtracked from the exercise.

"The event generated a lot of steam on social media and in the comment sections of news websites, with many feeling they now had the licence to espouse long-held anti-Asian sentiments," Ng says.

"Fiery blog posts were composed. There was backlash, and backlash to the backlash."

She says the responses made her feel frustrated and that many were missing the point. The "stubborn exclusion" of Asians in the shared vision of "New Zealandness" was perpetuating casual racism.

She believes such sentiments and attitudes have been around for a long time.

"I don't think you can characterise the whole country as racist, but a persistent anti-Asian sentiment has been around for many decades," Ng says.

The first ethnic Chinese in New Zealand on record arrived in the 1850s from - like her grandparents - the Guangdong province.

"It is striking that, given this long history, the New Zealand Government has yet to establish a formal multicultural strategy," Ng says.

She says the Labour Party release was "deliberately misleading" and an "insensitive conflation of ethnicity with non-residency" that implied Chinese names and New Zealand residency were mutually exclusive.

Of course, the 26-year-old has experienced the sharper end of racism.

"Frustration that Asian people are seen to be taking houses from other New Zealanders may result in me being yelled at by a stranger, 'Go back to where you came from!' even though I've lived here my entire life and can't afford to buy a house," Ng says.

"During my lifetime, I have felt the punch of being made to feel that I do not belong."

'Old Asian' v 'new Asian'

Ng, born in 1990, said she came of age during the second great wave of Asian migration to the country.

She recalled her school years with a growing number of Asian classmates.
Many were first-generation New Zealanders, and others were migrants who had come from China or elsewhere in Asia.

"I always had a lot of Asian classmates, and it was interesting because at that time I wasn't able to articulate that there was a perceived difference at being an 'old Asian' and 'new Asian'," she said.

"But I was kind of aware that there was this kind of danger of being perceived as more Asian than I wanted to be.

"It made me very self conscious at a very young age, even though I wasn't sure where that came from."

A 2010 Human Rights Commission report found Asians here experienced higher levels of discrimination than any other minority group.

Last month, the commission launched its new Give Nothing to Racism campaign, which has the backing of famous faces across New Zealand including musician Tiki Taane, actors Taika Waititi and Sam Neill, and Sonny Bill Williams.

The commission says a third of complaints it receives are about racism and warns "it isn't new and it's growing".

Ng claims that race has become a "clumsy way" of pointing to a more specific set of circumstances.

"The danger of such generalisations is that often reactions to these fears are expressed indiscriminately at an individual level," she says.

Ng tells the Herald on Sunday from New York, where she now lives, that she hopes the book will "stir up" debate on the issue.

"With the book I'm threading together some history and contemporary events to identify the fact there is a persistent streak of anti-Asian sentiment in New Zealand," she says.

"So often we speak about issues to do with race and ethnicity through other issues, like immigration, so we don't often get the chance to speak directly to the root of the discontent."

Ng has been to China twice and is now in the United States to undertake her master's degree in design research at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
But she says it is impossible for her to find a sense of identity anywhere other than New Zealand.

"More than anything, these experiences have revealed to me the deep-rootedness of my identity as a New Zealander - and the impossibility of locating my turangawaewae anywhere else," Ng says.

She thinks a "great first step" towards constructing the new shared identity is to view biculturalism as a relationship between tangata whenua and tauiwi, rather than between Maori and Pakeha.

Her dream, printed on the book's cover, is: "Perhaps at some point we will no longer be asked to justify our presence or prove our worth."

Old Asian, New Asian by K. Emma Ng is published on Monday by Bridget Williams Books (RRP $14.99)