COMMENT:

A photographic history of Chinese New Zealanders is now on display at the Museum of Waitangi. Curator Phoebe H. Li says the location is 'hugely significant'.

1 Where did you get the idea for this exhibition of 100 photographs of Chinese New Zealanders?

I met John Turner, one of New Zealand's best photo historians, at Auckland University where I was researching Chinese migration. He'd been taking photos of New Zealand's Chinese community and suggested we do a project together. I was too busy at the time but we ran into each other again in Beijing where a new Overseas Chinese History Museum had just been built. Very little is known about the history of New Zealand Chinese outside this country, so I submitted a proposal and they liked it.

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2 How much work was involved in gathering the photos for the Beijing exhibition?

It took me two years. Being an independent curator is unusual in China. If I'd known how difficult it would be I may not have started. I'm grateful for the support of New Zealand ambassador John McKinnon. I got some of the photos from museums and libraries, some from photographers and some from ordinary people. There was a lot of travel because I had to see the actual photos to ensure they were high enough quality and talk to the people about the stories behind them. Many photos were damaged and decayed. John worked closely with technicians in Beijing to restore them to crystal clear quality.

3 Of the 10,000 photos you saw, how did you select just 100 for the exhibition?

There have been several small scale exhibitions about New Zealand Chinese, but not one providing the full 170-year history. I wanted to show that Chinese have been here for generations: they're part of New Zealand. Each period is represented - you don't want too many from the gold mining period because people already know those. It was harder to find ones from the 30s, 40s and 50s. Many had never been seen before. John helped me to make the final decisions based on artistic merit.

4 Of the many stories people told you during your research, which was your favourite?

Peter Chin came from a poor war refugee family. His parents ran a laundry and then a fish and chip shop. While other children played football, Peter peeled potatoes. But in the end, he became the Mayor of Dunedin. His office was right across the road from the family fish and chip shop. It was a very touching story. History feels more alive in Otago because you've had families there for several generations so it's part of their memory whereas in Auckland over 40 per cent are migrants.

5 What did you enjoy most about undertaking this project?

Everyone I wrote to replied with such kindness and support. That says something about New Zealand; the warmth and lack of hierarchy. I couldn't believe it when I walked into Auckland Museum and asked for photos of Chinese in this country: they provided me with everything I needed. That would be impossible in China. You have to know someone at the top or at least an insider.

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6 You then brought the exhibition from Beijing to Auckland Museum. How was it received?

It was very popular. Over 200,000 people visited during the year it was on display until January 2018. The museum staff told me they'd wanted to do an exhibition on this topic for a while because Auckland's population is now 10 per cent Chinese, so it was good timing. They commissioned contemporary Chinese artists to respond to the photos and had the layout specially designed. We chose a Chinese window design because every photo is like a window into a particular history that you can delve further into.

7 You didn't focus heavily on the poll tax in this exhibition – why not?

One always remembers the origin of a significant scar. However, living in pain and grief impedes healing and recovery. I wanted to create a positively balanced narrative. The poll tax was an important chapter of our history. It was effectively lifted during WWII. The government officially apologised in 2002 and set up the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust. As a historian, I'm optimistic about a brighter future for New Zealand without carrying too much baggage.

8 The exhibition is now at the Museum of Waitangi. What is the significance of Chinese New Zealand history being exhibited there on Waitangi Day?

To me it's very symbolic. The Waitangi Treaty Ground is an iconic place, a special venue where New Zealand's stories are told. The fact they want to present Chinese New Zealand stories during Waitangi Day is hugely significant. It shows recognition and acceptance of the Chinese in New Zealand. Times have changed and people's attitudes have changed.

9 As well as Waitangi Day, this week also marks the Chinese New Year. How are you celebrating?

As a northern Chinese, I always eat home-made dumplings. My husband is English but he makes excellent dumpling pastry for me to put tasty fillings in. New Year's Eve is also a time to catch up with friends and family. In the past I'd post greeting cards to China, but these days I use WeChat. In the 18 years I've lived in Auckland I've noticed an increasing festival atmosphere for Chinese New Year. It's wonderful because the Christmas holidays seem to extend for a month.

10 Why did you immigrate to New Zealand?

I'd done a master's degree in Melbourne but had to leave Australia to lodge my migration application. New Zealand was close and during the 18 month wait, it became home. China doesn't allow dual citizenship so I'm a New Zealand citizen. I love this country but I still have feelings towards China where I have family and friends.

11 What are you working on now?

I've been commissioned by the Poll Tax Heritage Trust to write a book on New Zealand Chinese merchants. A lot of the early migrants were funded with merchants' help to start a business and send the money back to China. They didn't trust banks so many merchants functioned as banks for their own people.

12 Your PhD thesis investigated the Chinese media in New Zealand. Do you think the Chinese government has an influence on the media here?

The Chinese media in New Zealand are all private businesses, so their priority is making money. Also, they're set up to cater for new migrants who have limited English and a strong attachment to China. So most of their content comes from China news websites and broadcasting, which are government controlled. Newcomers tend to rely on whatever information comes from China; they live in a media sphere similar to a virtual Chinatown. But once their social network widens, they move out. That's why it's a mistake to think all Chinese New Zealanders think alike.

TE KŌNGAHU MUSEUM OF WAITANGI