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Refugee hui inspires family discovery

Among the stories New Zealand’s refugee community shared at the 2017 Asia New Zealand Foundation Refugee Hui, Leadership Network member Wei-Wei Ng uncovered a piece of her own family history.

Wei-Wei Ng

A fourth-generation Chinese New Zealander, Wei-Wei knew that her great grandfather had arrived in Aotearoa at the tail end of the gold rush and set up shop as a market gardener in Wellington.

He had nine children - Wei-Wei’s maternal grandfather one of them.

However, Alec Young, Wei-Wei’s grandfather, wasn’t born in New Zealand. Wei-Wei knew he had arrived here as a small child, but she’d never known how this had eventuated.

He was of a generation that didn’t really talk about the past, she says.

At the refugee hui, which was held in November last year, historian Ann Beaglehole said it’s often assumed Polish children who travelled to New Zealand to escape war-torn Europe were this country’s first refugees. In fact, a boatload of women and children from China arrived even earlier, she said.

Amid the brutal Japanese invasion of Canton in the late 1930s, a group of Chinese men living in New Zealand petitioned the government, desperate to reunite with family members on safer shores.

Some 239 women and 244 children made their way to New Zealand as a result.

Ann’s history lesson resonated with Wei-Wei.

“I had a really close connection with my grandad, but was obviously too small to talk with him about his history.”

She went home and talked to her mum, who did a bit of digging. What they discovered surprised them both.

“He did actually come on that boat. He walked with his mother and younger sister from Canton, now Guangzhou, through the night to board a boat in Hong Kong and came here.”

The hui has shifted the way she perceives her whanau, Wei-Wei says. Her paternal grandfather also came to New Zealand from China as a five-year old refugee during the war.

“I realised it adds a whole other layer to my family and how far we’ve come - the struggle our ancestors had to come to New Zealand and give us a better life.”

And there’s no doubt Wei-Wei is making the most of her opportunities. A recipient of the 2017 Prime Minister’s Scholarship for Asia, Wei-Wei is set to study Mandarin for a year at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Wei-Wei Ng as a child sitting in her grandfather's back who is lying on the floor

Wei-Wei reckons there’s a growing need for Chinese language and cultural competency in her job as a solicitor at Auckland law firm Duncan Cotterill.

“I’ve realised it is an important skill I'm lacking.

“We just don’t have the connection anymore. It hasn’t really been a big part of our family gatherings. My grandmother grew up in Newmarket, she went to Epsom Girls. She didn’t speak Chinese to us grandkids.”

Alongside formal language education, Wei-Wei says she’s looking forward to immersing herself in contemporary Chinese culture.

“China’s obviously moved on so much since my grandparents were there."

By Kim Bowden

15 january 2018