WORD: Being Chinese / White / Other, with Helene Wong and Alice Canton

Event_Being-ChineseWhiteOtherBeing Chinese / White / Other is the fullest session I’ve been in so far, and began with the fullest Maori greeting I’ve heard so far this festival. Alice Canton was born on the West Coast, grew up in Canterbury, and has spent much of her life battling being ‘othered.’ Helene Wong was born in Taihape, and grew up in Lower Hutt. She has worked in social policy, and is currently a full-time writer and occasional actor. We are talking today about Helene’s book Being Chinese, and the session is sold out.

The book is looking not only at the notion of Chinese as an ethnic group – but that of being Chinese in New Zealand. What is it to be a Chinese New Zealander? Helene says, “The same thing as it is for everybody else – about shared values we try to practise.” Most relevant to settlers is the idea of a fair go, not only in fair play, but in giving things a go too – rolling up your sleeves and just doing things.

Helene was born in New Zealand in the 1950’s. Her family assimilated as kiwis – Helene was brought up as a New Zealander. And New Zealand allowed it through the 1970’s: she was being cast in plays as a daughter within a white family; as a French princess. She went into the 80’s feeling pretty relaxed about her Chineseness. And then came the 90’s, when the new immigrants came in. She suddenly became Chinese again: that is when she realised that she needed to write this book. She is wondering whether we have to go through this all again: do we have to turn it upside-down again? Helene then went back and examined the history. There is a cycle of racism that has gone up and down, and back up again.

NZ has, right now, stopped giving immigrants a fair go. Chinese have been set aside and othered more than once before: New Zealanders need, now, to monitor ourselves through our commentary to bring us back into the equilibrium we would like to have. The fact that Alice is again encountering what Helene encountered trying to work in theatre 30 years ago, is disturbing and wrong.

What role does the media have to play in moving this discourse forward around equality? Helene sees the media playing negative role at times, shown in the way that stories are presented and written with all sorts of insinuations – eg. The ‘Chinese Real Estate Agent’ that wrote what Winston Peters wanted to hear. “Anybody who read that letter could smell a dead fish. Yet the NZ Herald got the ‘Agent’ to write an opinion piece.”

And the equality issue isn’t only about race, it’s about gender. The stereotypes of women and vixens, prostitutes, grumpy mothers, tiger mothers, oversexualised bookish nerds, are still being perpetuated. And the race issue is overarching – a role for a Chinese person must be specifically for them. There is no such thing as colour blind casting at the moment in New Zealand.

Alice and Helene discussed the trouble of how to talk about racism without drawing negative attention to yourselves – it is easier to try to be invisible, but that allows it to continue unchecked. I am horrified to see this growing again – every time I see a new media editorial about immigrants being responsible for the insane Auckland housing market, I flinch. It seems xenophobia is alive and well and living in New Zealand. Helene says, “It’s scary speaking up in this world.”

Another side of being Chinese in New Zealand is trying to recognise your own Chinese-ness as valuable. In 1980, Helene went to her parents’ “home” village, and it was utterly alien. She describes the effect it had on her in Being Chinese. The shock of realising where she might have ended up, and realising also that she was part of this world – her world was much bigger than she had considered, was hugely emotional and physical. Alice has also travelled to Borneo, to her mother’s home. She never learned to speak her mother tongue so she was confronted with people who undeniably looked like her, were part of her, but whom she felt had to make an effort in communicating with her.

In writing the book, Helene recognised that her primary identity now is as a New Zealander. But she’s no longer ashamed of being a Chinese person ancestrally. “I see my identity as a pie chart, with wedges that represent certain part of your identity. I no longer step tentatively into my Chinese wedge.”

Helene’s response to this time in NZ history is that we all need to accept it is time to make something new. “There is no one superior culture. I have always seen culture as sky and clouds. Once, all the clouds were non-white, with the white culture as the sky. She now sees the white culture as just another cloud. When you butt up against one another yes there is conflict, but in the collision of two quite different things is creativity.” When artists bring their different interests together, they will come up with something unique, which reflects the unique NZ identity.

Alice ended by talking a little about the word ‘diversity’. She sees it on a page and automatically replaces it with inclusivity. “We don’t want to all go for the same goal – it is the difference that is the most joyful part of that inclusivity.”

This session has forced me to take a look at how I can help a change in New Zealand culture happen. Like one of the audience members who asked the question how do I reach out to these new Chinese immigrants, I am considering this myself, in the context of how I read the world. I bought the book.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Being Chinese / White / Other, with Helene Wong and Alice Canton
Friday 26 August, 12.45 – 1.45pm

Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s Story
by Helene Wong
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947492380


Book Review: Being Chinese – A New Zealander’s Story, by Helene Wong


cv_being_chineseAvailable at bookshops nationwide.

At many times while reading this very human account of finding a place in the world and an authentic identity, I found myself thinking how universal this search is. At one point I was comparing Helene’s feelings on meeting relatives in China with those of an adoptee on meeting birth relatives, when Helene, herself, made the same comparison. The title of the book conveys Helene’s sense that she is and has always been a New Zealander, and this is emphasised throughout the narrative.

Born into a family where both parents immigrated from China, and whose determined purpose was to fit in and not make waves, Helene considered herself no different to her school friends and neighbours. It was a shock when she was targeted with racist abuse as a schoolgirl and she began to resent the attention her different appearance brought on her, whether it was meant kindly or otherwise. New Zealand’s history regarding the Chinese who came here as immigrants and workers, is abysmal. I was surprised to learn that discrimination at the highest levels of government still existed into the 1960s and beyond.

Born in New Zealand with a passport that stated she was a New Zealand citizen, Helene discovered that, for the purpose of trans-Tasman travel, she was not considered to be one at all. Selected to go to Australia to join an international group of youngsters at a Moral Re-Armament conference she, unlike her white and brown compatriots who had the right of unrestricted entry, had to obtain a passport and a visa from the Australian High Commission allowing entry on a two-week visa. Then on her return, she had to obtain a re-entry permit to come back into her own country. In her own words -” it confronted me with the truth that despite all my efforts at assimilation, I had not become invisible. I was still thought of as Chinese.”

Intelligent and self-aware, Helene examined her life as she lived it, continually asking herself how her desires and actions fitted with both her personality and her dual culture. She became an adviser to Robert Muldoon as a member of his think tank during his tenure as prime minister, tasked with the Social Affairs portfolio. Media attention focused on her gender, not her race. And while working with Māori, she found their open displays of emotion liberating. Her interest in theatre and experiences as an actor enabled her to see that differences in appearance were not always a handicap. Often the difference was not even noticed or commented on. Digging into family history, Helene found that older relatives had traveled similar journeys to her own. Discovering these relatives as real people rather than just photographs or memories of them as old and reclusive, enabled Helene to feel connected to them as part of her lineage.

Helene’s struggle to find her identity, both as a person and as one with a culturally different background, resonates on many levels with the path that all humans have to walk. This is a well written account of one person’s life and one that I enjoyed reading. At a time when discrimination is unfortunately becoming more strident here in New Zealand, it is a book that should be read by many more.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Being Chinese – A New Zealander’s Story
by Helene Wong
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947492380