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Vol. 73/No. 30      August 10, 2009

Conference discusses Chinese
legacy in New Zealand, world
(front page)
AUCKLAND, New Zealand—Some 320 people took part in a July 17-19 international conference here that explored the history of Chinese-New Zealanders and the Chinese diaspora around the globe over the last two centuries. The majority of participants were New Zealand citizens of Chinese heritage, joined by many other residents of New Zealand and individuals from other countries.

The Auckland branch of the Chinese Association of New Zealand organized the conference, along with the International Society for the Study of Chinese Overseas (ISSCO), an association of individuals engaged in research and teaching on Chinese overseas in countries throughout the world.

Almost half the 70 speakers at the conference were from countries other than New Zealand. Most came from Asia, with others from the Americas, Australia, Europe, and Russia.

Several plenary talks in a large lecture hall at the University of Auckland business school focused on the stories of Chinese-New Zealanders who are involved in business, the arts, and sports. Other plenary talks discussed the changing patterns of Chinese immigration around the world. At a session entitled “Yellow Peril—Early Chinese in New Zealand,” two New Zealand historians described the racist violence and many forms of discrimination faced by the Chinese and other Asian immigrants here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Dozens of participants attended talks at “break-out” sessions organized by ISSCO. These panels addressed topics as diverse as “Indian and Chinese Indentured Schemes in South Africa,” presented by Karen Harris of the University of Pretoria; “Chinese Immigrants and Local Interaction in Equatorial Guinea,” presented by Mario Esteban of the Autonomous University of Madrid; and “Corporate Interests and Environmental Racism in a Community Struggle for Immigrant Adult Education in San Francisco’s Chinatown,” describing the recent success of a 30-year fight to get a Chinatown extension of San Francisco City College, presented by Ling-chi Wang of the University of California, Berkeley.

A talk on the “Unique History of Chinese in Cuba” by Mary-Alice Waters, the editor of Our History Is Still Being Written: The Story of Three Chinese-Cuban Generals in the Cuban Revolution, was presented at another of the ISSCO panels. That same panel also discussed “Chinese in the Late 19th Century Colonial Cape [South Africa],” presented by Karen Harris, and “New Zealand History and the Chinese 18th Century Paradigm,” presented by Lewis Mayo of the University of Melbourne. Waters’s talk is printed in this issue.

Such ISSCO-organized sessions brought an added dimension to the gathering, which was the latest of the conferences initiated five years ago by the Chinese Association of New Zealand. With the exception of 2008, conferences have been held annually since 2005.

Three years prior to the first of these gatherings, New Zealand’s then Labour Party prime minister Helen Clark had publicly apologized for the “poll tax” imposed by the 1881 Chinese Immigrants Act. That law required every Chinese immigrant entering New Zealand to pay a poll tax of 10 pounds. In 1896 the tax was raised to 100 pounds, a very large amount in 19th century New Zealand.

The tax was collected until 1934. It was not officially abolished for another decade, when the wartime alliance between China’s Nationalist Party and the imperialist governments fighting Tokyo also led to the repeal of such anti-Chinese measures in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere.

The 2005 conference celebrated the prime minister’s apology and expressed solidarity with a campaign in Canada for a government apology and compensation for a similar tax—there called a “head tax”—imposed between 1885 and 1923. In 2006 the Canadian government issued an apology and promised “symbolic” compensation.

At this year’s conference, Manying Ip, a leader of the Chinese Association of New Zealand and Oceania Director of ISSCO, explained, “The xenophobia and anti-immigrant outcry of the 1990s awakened a sense of déją vu among Chinese.”

She was referring to the response by right-wing forces to the increased immigration from Asia that followed the New Zealand government’s introduction in 1991 of new entry criteria, designed to supply capitalists here with needed skilled labor. The subsequent influx of immigrants was dubbed an “Asian invasion” by the rightist New Zealand First Party led by former National Party cabinet minister Winston Peters.

From the outset, these Chinese Association-organized gatherings in New Zealand have been known as the “Going Bananas” conferences. This year’s event, for example, adopted the banner, “Rising Dragons, Soaring Bananas.”

The conference Web site explains that “Bananas” is historically “a pejorative term to describe Asian people born outside of Asia who have assumed Western cultural characteristics: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Reclaimed in recent times, it has become a symbol that identifies those living outside of Asia who celebrate and embrace a blend of Eastern and Western cultures and influences.”

The conferences have affirmed the Chinese-New Zealand community’s identity in the face of discrimination and pressure to be invisible. Chinese Association president Kai Luey, for example, told the New Zealand Herald in April that the image people in New Zealand “have of the Chinese is not necessarily as good as we’d like it to be, and we’re really hoping that this year’s conference will help improve that or at least help better the understanding we have of China and the Chinese.”

At the same time, conference organizers and speakers frequently refer to such discrimination as belonging mostly to the past and echo the nationalism of the capitalist rulers here, who seek to play up the country’s “multicultural diversity” in order to cloak sharpening class inequalities and New Zealand imperialism’s ongoing plunder of the fruits of labor of working people at home, throughout the Pacific and Asia, and beyond.

In the April New Zealand Herald article, for example, Luey emphasized that the association speaks for those “born in New Zealand [whose] loyalty is to New Zealand” and that “we are primarily Western people, which is also why we call ourselves ‘bananas’.”

Closing the conference, Manying Ip noted that the conference this year was younger than previous events and involved a larger number of newer migrants from China.

This more recent influx from China and other parts of Asia is transforming society and the working class in New Zealand. In a keynote address to the conference, ISSCO president Leo Suryadinata, director of the Chinese Heritage Center in Singapore, noted that the proportion of new Chinese immigrants in the total New Zealand population has risen from just over 1 percent in 1990 to 3.6 percent in 2006.

This immigration is also being registered in other imperialist countries, as more Chinese move overseas to find work, with relatively fewer than in the past going to Southeast Asia—still by far the biggest home for emigrant Chinese.

Today some 10 percent of the population of New Zealand identify themselves as being from an Asian country, and in Auckland, the number is nearly double that. In 2006 some 22 percent of New Zealand residents were born overseas. From 1996 to 2004 China was the single biggest source of new immigrants.
Related articles:
Unique history of Chinese in Cuba: what a socialist revolution makes possible  
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