Among other achievements, Jennifer was instrumental in establishing the Auckland and Wellington Diwali festivals and the Auckland and Christchurch Lantern festivals. Her work with the festivals saw her travel to far-flung places in China and India, sourcing lanterns and meeting performers, as well as many hours at the festivals themselves, taking photographs, managing officials and coralling performers. In 2012, Jennifer was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) for services to the Asian community. In this article, Jennifer looks back on her time at the Foundation and reflects on some of the highlights.
Asia New Zealand Foundation staff from 1995/1996 with Jennifer seated middle
What was it like for you when you first joined the Foundation back in 1994?
It was an exciting time. I’d been away from New Zealand for such a long time, working in journalism in Hong Kong, China and Australia so it was a bit of a culture shock coming back. New Zealand was only just starting to realise the importance of Asia.
The Foundation advertised a job for a media and culture programme manager and as soon as I saw that I knew it was the one job in New Zealand that I wanted.
I came into the office and met then executive director Peter Harris who’d previously been with the Ford Foundation in Beijing.
I said: “I’ve come back with a container load of old Chinese furniture” and he laughed and said he’d got a container of old Chinese furniture too. I’ve sometimes wondered if that’s what got me the job.
Peter told me at the time that I had the plum job, and he was right. From the very beginning the great thing about the job was that you could make it up and experiment with ideas as you went along, because it was all new territory. There aren’t many chances in life to do that.
The first national Festival of Asia in 1997 was a huge challenge but it taught me the value of partnerships at all levels both within New Zealand and internationally. If you can get enough people and organisations to share the same vision, I believe anything is possible.
Do you have a favourite story from your time at the Foundation?
There are so many stories.
I’ve loved sourcing performers for the festivals in India and China. Over the years we have brought in acrobats, artists, musicians, dancers, ventriloquists, rock bands, stilt walkers, drummers, magicians, puppeteers, craftspeople of all sorts and a sand sculptor – you name it.
Jennifer visiting China in 2009 to explore opportunities for residencies and other cultural exchanges
There were the Japanese performers who inadvertently flooded a floor of the hotel, the Chinese rock band who threw furniture out of the window, the Kalbelia gypsy dancer with malaria and her uncle the snake charmer, the Singaporean dragon dancers who came within inches of dropping their dragon lantern pole onto Prime Minister Helen Clark’s head.
But I also remember the kathak dancer from Varanasi wading trance-like out into the sea at Mission Bay, her pink sari floating around her; the child acrobats from a dry inland province of China rolling in amazed delight down the grassy slopes at Bastion Point; and the bhangra performers breaking into spontaneous dance on the black sands at Piha.
What has been your proudest accomplishment at the Foundation?
I guess I’d have to say developing the festivals has been my proudest accomplishment, and now the Foundation is stepping back from hands-on involvement, I am proud that the Lantern and Diwali festivals have a life of their own in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
A photo of Jennifer's of young performers at the 2016 Lantern Festival in Auckland
But I am also proud of the work the Foundation has done in the cultural sector generally, helping New Zealand artists to feel confident in Asia, share ideas and develop new perspectives in their work.
Cultural exchange underpins ties between New Zealand and the countries of Asia. The more we understand the way others think, the better prepared we are to form strong, trusting relationships to the benefit of us all.
What is your fondest memory from your time at the Foundation?
I remember in 2000 standing in Albert Park around midnight at the end of the first Auckland Lantern Festival knowing that something special had just occurred, something that had touched a chord in thousands of people and brought them together.
It’s hard to describe the feeling – it was a mixture of gratitude to all the people who had held the faith and worked so hard, and an indefinable sense of being at the heart of something much bigger than yourself.
We wish Jennifer all the best and look forward to hearing of her future adventures.