New Zealand has a long and ignominious history of suspicion and hostility towards people of Asian descent which - as recent sneering comments about Chinese property investors reveal - has never quite disappeared. Indeed, anti-Asian sentiment is one of the few forms of prejudice that still manifests itself quite openly in the public domain - so much so that one political party that claims to put New Zealand first is again tapping this seam in an effort to garner votes for the forthcoming election.

The roots of this specific branch of racism in New Zealand reach back to goldfields in the 19th century, where fears of being overrun by the "Coolie-slaves" were openly voiced, and when the Government responded, in 1881, with the passage of the Chinese Immigrants Act, through which a poll tax was imposed on each Chinese person arriving in the country. Evidently, the irony of one recent immigrant group penalising another group on the basis that they were, well, immigrants, was lost on legislators.

By the end of the 19th century, Chinese were popularly portrayed as being both somehow inferior, yet at the same time threatening to overwhelm the country economically (members of the public were free to choose which stereotype they preferred). Either way, the ubiquitous image of the "Yellow Peril" promoted by numerous Goebbelsesque posters depicting caricatures of avaricious Asians, melded into the popular imagination in the period and stuck there.

The situation in the early 20th century was in some ways even worse. By the 1920s, the glower of anti-Asian racism had shifted to the market gardens just south of Auckland, where there were burgeoning Chinese and Indian communities.


In 1929, Apirana Ngata went as far as to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate the "problem" of Maori women working in market gardens with "Asiatics".

The press, for its part, both reflected and agitated public sentiment on this issue. In August the same year, the Auckland Star claimed that economic circumstances drove Maori women to "perform menial tasks for Chinese masters", while other newspapers referred to liaisons between Maori women and Chinese men as "disgusting", and urged an end to this "vicious state of affairs". It was only a short step to the formation of groups such as the White New Zealand League and the White Race League, which targeted Asians as the root of the country's economic and social ills.

And if you think that we live in more enlightened times now, think again. Whenever the issue of foreign ownership of New Zealand property is raised, which ethnicities are focused on, both in text and pictures? Certainly, the absence of any precise statistics on the ethnicity of property purchasers has done nothing to derail this prejudice. The resuscitated fear of an Asian "invasion" is an appetite that keeps growing with the eating.

How quickly all the old apprehensions and stereotypes are recycled, particularly if there is some political mileage to be had from it, and as the election approaches, already flourishes of anti-Asian opinion are reappearing. Yes, the racism in the language is disguised so as not to break any law, but there is no mistaking the sentiment behind it, nor the prejudices it appeals to.

If the notion that "we're all New Zealanders" is to amount to anything more than the vapid slogan of European assimilationists in the country, then surely the sort of race-baiting that is beginning to seep out from some parties needs to cease immediately. As a nation, we should be better than this.

Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at AUT University.