Looking to the past to inform our future

Leadership Network member Emily Wilby says discrimination against Chinese New Zealanders has been a constant in this country ever since the first gold miners arrived in Otago in the 1860s. In this article she reflects on attending the network's Otago History Hui and looks at how racism and racist policies are impacting Chinese New Zealanders to this day.
Leadership Network members looking at an old cottage

On the Otago History Hui, Leadership Network members learned about the lives of the first Chinese to live Otago

Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua. I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on the past

I first came across this whakataukī earlier this year while conducting research for an assignment about my tūpuna. The whakataukī speaks to Māori perspectives of time - that the past is central to our present and future identities, and to truly know yourself, you need to know your ancestors.

This way of thinking resonated with me, as did the idea of identity as defined by the past, by our ancestors, by our whakapapa.

From the opening words of the Otago History Hui, which referenced this very same whakataukī, it was clear that as much as this hui would be about the history and experiences of the Chinese gold miners, it was also a hui about the present and the place of Chinese in the future of Aotearoa.

The Chinese gold miners were invited to Aotearoa following the initial Otago gold rush in the late 1860s. Gold production was running low and there was a need for replacement miners to rework abandoned claims and clean up the declining goldfields.

Much like today's expats, the Chinese gold miners were sojourners, not settlers, who travelled overseas to raise capital and take it home to China.

In part due to their intent not to settle, they remained as aliens in the country, and despite their reputation for being hard-working and law-abiding, were seen as undesirable and a threat to the unofficial white New Zealand policy. They endured ongoing racism, had no access to the most basic of rights, and were isolated from the outset.

Although my tūpuna migrated from Canton to Aotearoa several decades after the gold rush, their story parallels that of the Chinese gold miners.

Like early Chinese migrants, they came to Aotearoa with the hope of earning a living, to send back remittances to their families, and to eventually return home to China. They also experienced overt discrimination and racism, both in their day-to-day lives and from within New Zealand legislation.

The prohibitive poll tax and other discriminatory anti-Chinese immigration policies restricted the number of Chinese entering the country, and resulted in thousands of families being torn apart.

These policies, targeted only towards Chinese migrants, ensured they remained a small and isolated minority, reluctantly tolerated as a reward for towing the line.

While these laws are no longer in place and we'd like to think of Aotearoa as a multicultural and inclusive society, anti-Asian sentiment is still rife, albeit in more covert and insidious manner.

New Zealand-born Chinese are still treated as foreigners in their home country, subjected to everyday discrimination that begins with the, "Where are you from? But where are you really from?", to the absolute clanger, "Was it hard learning English when you came here?"

As a nation, we welcome Chinese tourism and investment, but double down when it comes to immigration. Whether new immigrants or multi-generational New Zealand Chinese, the Chinese are lumped into one group, which after over 180 years of contributing to New Zealand society are still being cast as foreigners and excluded from the bicultural Māori/Pākehā narrative of Aotearoa. Just have a look at the draft history curriculum, which simply relegates us to other.

What a slideshow of images from the Leadership Network's Otago History Hui

These are the stories of many early Chinese migrants, including the gold miners, market gardeners, grocers, and my own tūpuna.

They are also the present-day stories of my family, my friends and so many other New Zealand Chinese, who despite being in Aotearoa for generations, are still wondering when they will be fully accepted as New Zealanders.

The stories of the Chinese in Aotearoa are a legitimate part of our history, our present and our future identity. Let us look to and acknowledge the past, use it to understand the present and carry it forward with us into the future.

Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua.