A Lunar New Year art project by Talia Pua explores the turbulent history of Chinese immigration to New Zealand. 

Chinese immigrants first arrived in New Zealand from as early as the 1860s to rework the goldfields in Otago that were abandoned by European miners. Later, as the gold ran out, they moved into other occupations, mainly as market gardeners, laundrymen and fruiterers. These immigrants were predominantly men, referred to as ⼭客 “Gum Sarn Haak” or “Gold Mountain Men”. They came to New Zealand solely to work and send money to support their families back in China, in the hope that they could eventually return home with a fortune.

Much of this changed due to war and political and civil unrest in China in the 1930s and 1940s. As the second Sino-Japanese war wreaked havoc in large parts of China including Guangdong, the local Chinese male community was galvanised to petition the government to allow their wives and children to escape the war and join them in New Zealand.

In February 1939, the New Zealand Government approved a concession permitting 256 wives and 244 children of Chinese men who held permanent residence in New Zealand before 1926  to take refuge here on two-year temporary permits. While this meant the safe reunion of these families, their temporary permits prevented the wives and children from making New Zealand their home. For a period of eight years their temporary permits continued to be extended and this significant group of refugee women and children, along with any children subsequently born in New Zealand, faced the uncertainty of deportation. It was only after July 1947, when the Government approved permanent residency, that these families were finally able to put down roots in New Zealand. No longer were they simply Chinese in New Zealand, they were now Chinese New Zealanders.

To mark the Lunar New Year at Britomart, artist Talia Pua looks back on this transformative period for Chinese New Zealanders and the country as a whole by interviewing six of their descendants (who have been photographed by John Rata) about their memories of their ancestors. This project was developed with the support of refugee descendant Lily Lee, author of a new book “Farewell Guangdong”. The interviews appear in the post below and, during February 2022, as large panels on the side of the buildings on Britomart's Te Ara Tahuhu. They're accompanied by large flags that Talia also designed as part of the project. 

Allan Lawgun 吳振洪 (above left) is the eldest son of Low Yuk King 劉鈺 (above right), who arrived in Wellington on October 8 1939 on the Maunganui. Low Yuk King came from China to join her husband Charles Lawgun, a fruiterer at 280 Dominion Road, Mt Eden. Their son Allan inherited his parents' passion and expertise in Chinese cuisine, along with his five younger siblings. Allan and his wife Barbara are proud parents of two, and grandparents of four. 

TALIA PUA Allan, tell me a little bit about the journey your mother took to come to New Zealand.

ALLAN LAWGUN In 1939, mum came over after escaping the Japanese. It took her about a year before they got into Hong Kong because they had to wait for my Dad and Grandad to send money to pay the fare. Even then they had to wait until there was space on the boat. Then it was a six-week journey to New Zealand. They could only move around at night-time in the war. But they made it.

TP What is one of your fondest memories of your mother growing up?

AL One of my fondest memories of my mother is cooking lessons. Back in the old days mum and dad used to work six to seven days a week at the fruit shop. So the first thing she did when I got to about 10-years-old was that she taught me how to cook. And honestly, by 11 I could cook a three-course meal.

TP What was one the greatest lessons your mother taught you?

AL The greatest lesson my mother taught me was fairness and respect. Our family is very multicultural and Mum always treated every member fairly and as an equal. She also always emphasised, “Before you make any decisions on anything, make sure to ask the rest of the family.” It’s something that I have always tried to adhere to.

Leanne Carpendale 連愛 (above left) is the granddaughter of Wong Yue Dang 黄耀燈 (above right), who arrived in Wellington on October 8 1939 on the Maunganui to join her husband at 36 Victoria Street, Onehunga where they worked side-by-side in the market garden. They had seven children in New Zealand. Leanne is one of 21 grandchildren. She's a Teacher Aide at Hillsborough Primary School and mother of two boys.

TALIA PUA What was one of your fondest memories of your Por Por, your grandmother?

LEANNE CARPENDALE One of my fondest memories of my Por Por was having half-language conversations with each other. We used to really challenge ourselves - me having broken Chinese and my Por Por having broken English. We used to have lots of laughs as we tried to understand each other.

TP What was one of the greatest lessons your Por Por taught you?

LC My Por Por taught me how important family gatherings are. It seemed like every weekend we’d gather at Por Por’s house for dinner. Food was plentiful and there were lots of flavoursome traditional Chinese dishes. I’m really close with my cousins because we spent so much time together at my Por Por’s house.

TP How has being a Chinese refugee descendant influenced your worldview?

LC I’m second generation born in New Zealand. Being half-Chinese, half-Maori, I personally see every individual as unique, but the same, and we should accept everyone for who they are. I’ve taught my two sons, Nathan and Hayden, it doesn’t matter what you look like or where you come from, we’re all different but we need to treat each other with respect and kindness.

Adrienne Wong 黄麗嫦 (above left) is the granddaughter of Chang Chan She 鐘陳氏 (above right, with her son Johnnie in the 1930s), who arrived in Auckland on November 27 1939 on the Aorangi with her two sons to join her husband, Chang Way Klin, who owned a fruit shop on Karangahape Road. Adrienne’s mother, Mary, worked in the fruit shop and later at Smith and Caughey in the accounts department. Adrienne is an artist, graphic designer, and mother of two boys.

TALIA PUA So you’re a graphic designer, have you always had a creative streak?

ADRIENNE WONG I remember drawing from a really early age, and my dad taught me how to draw. My sister and I grew up with different opportunities than our parents. Mum’s side of the family ran a fruit shop on K’Road and my dad worked at a dairy company for almost 40 years; so a lot of hard manual labour. But our parents always encouraged our creativity, which I am very grateful for. 

TP Could you tell me a little bit about your grandmother?

AW My grandparents on my mother’s side passed away before I was born, so I never actually met them. But despite that, I feel a very strong connection to them through my parents. I grew up hearing stories about them. I tell my kids these stories. Telling these stories allows us to have a connection when people have passed on. 

TP How has being a Chinese refugee descendant shaped your worldview?

AW I used to live overseas, and experienced what it's like to move to different countries, and adjust to New Zealand after being away. So I can empathise with someone who is moving to New Zealand for the first time - how much harder it would be with cultural and language differences. I think about that all the time and wonder what it was like for my grandmother. I walk around the same area where she used to live, so I feel a strong connection that way.

Connie Kum (née Gin) 吳甄惠玲 MNZM (above left) is the youngest daughter of Yong See Oi 翁瑞愛 (above right with her baby King Ming Gin in 1930), who arrived in Auckland on January 22 1940 on the Aorangi. Yong See Oi and her ten year old son, Raymond (King Ming) joined her husband Gin Ming Wood. Growing up, Connie and her family lived and worked in Ming Sung Laundry in Pitt Street. In 2011, Connie was awarded the MNZM for 50 years of services to the Chinese Community and local organisations in Auckland. She attributes this award to the values her parents instilled in her.

TALIA PUA Could you tell me a little bit more about your mother?

CONNIE KUM Our mother was very resourceful. In those days, 1944-1945, there weren’t any knitting patterns. You couldn’t buy patterns for making trousers, shirts and blouses. She wanted to make some trousers for the boys, so she unpicked a pair of pants and cut out a pattern. Then she sewed it back up and made many more pants. She was very clever like that.

TP What was it like growing up above your family’s laundry shop?

CK It was quite crowded with six children. Living conditions at 40 Pitt Street were less primitive to what Mum was used to in Toi Shan, which had no running water, but similar in that there was no electricity nor a bathroom. Meals were cooked over a coal range, and the cast-iron irons were heated on the sides of the pot-belly stove; the room also served as a lounge, dining area and bathroom. 

TP What was one of the greatest lessons your mother taught you?

CK My mother taught us tolerance and respect. If you work at home, you work for love to help the family. With six children, she taught us how to work together, how to live together, how to play together - and I believe we have subconsciously taken those values into our own families.

Joyce Fung (née Wong) 黃艷來 (above left) is the daughter of Young Shee 楊氏 (above right), who arrived in Auckland on October 22 1940 on the Mariposa. Joyce arrived in New Zealand as a five-month-old baby, along with her 10-year-old brother, Shar War (William). Her father was a market gardener in Ambury Road, Māngere. Joyce worked as a shorthand typist. Joyce is a mother of three and grandmother of two. Joyce is one of the last remaining refugees who arrived during 1939-1941.

TALIA PUA Tell me a little bit about what it was like for your mother coming to New Zealand? 

JOYCE FUNG When mum came out on the Mariposa with me (below left) and my brother (below right), I was only tiny! It was such a big change from China. It wasn’t easy, it was work, work, work. All of a sudden there were different people and all sorts of different cultures. It wouldn’t have been the same if she was back home. Here there were lots of opportunities for us kids to further our education. In the end this country was home because her family was here.

TP So your family originally had a market garden in Māngere and then later on the North Shore. What was it like growing up in the market garden?

JF I remember being the only one allowed out in the garden because I was old enough. I don’t know what I was doing though. I couldn’t have been much help as I was only tiny. My father was a hawker so he would go around with a horse and cart to sell his vegetables. We used to load the veggies for him. I remember those days, it was really hard.

TP Can you tell me a little bit more about your mum?

JF Mum was a very tough person, she was very hot on respect. And of course, not knowing much about the New Zealand way of living, she was quite tough on all of us but I admire the way she brought us up.

Rose Luey (née Fong) 呂鄺瑞梅 (above left) is the daughter of Fong Wong Ven Ho 鄺黄换好 (above right, with her husband Fong Nai Jing and their daughter Marie), who arrived in Wellington on December 17 1940 on the Maunganui. Fong Wong Ven Ho was 21 when she arrived in New Zealand with her husband, Fong Nai Jing, who had returned to China to accompany her. They had eight children in New Zealand and the family ran a laundry business at 240 Dominion Road. Rose trained as a primary school teacher at the old Mt Eden College. Rose has two children and four grandchildren.

TALIA PUA Could you tell me a little bit about your mother?

ROSE LUEY I was very close to my mother, I talked to her about everything. She wasn’t a huge talker, but she’d sometimes tell me about her best friends growing up and all the mischief she’d get up to in China. She had a lot of inner strength. Her outward demeanour was that she was gentle and easy going but she had a mind of her own. She made us all proud to be Chinese. Growing up, I never felt like I didn’t want to be Chinese. My mother was also well known for being an avid mahjong player with her friends. She was invited to various friends’ houses to make up the foursome. For 10 year after she passed away, I would meet new faces at our community centre activities, to find that my mother had been to their place or that they had been to my mother’s home for a game.

TP What do you do to celebrate Chinese New Year?

RL Nowadays, to celebrate Chinese New Year, my husband Kai helps organise all these Chinese dinners for the community. Now my daughter has decided she’s going to invite us round for Chinese New Year dinner. I think it’s her way of reconnecting with her Chinese heritage.

Talia Pua spoke to these six descendants over the phone during October 2021 whilst Auckland was in level 4 lockdown.  John Rata photographed the descendants outside their homes and at a local park. The works they created are on display in Britomart's Te Ara Tahuhu for Lunar New Year. You can read an interview with Talia about the creation of the project and her Whale Tail for the WWF at Britomart at this link

“To Grow Roots Where They Land” is made with the support of historian and refugee descendant, Lily Lee. To learn more about the Chinese refugees, you can order Lily Lee’s new book, ‘Farewell Guangdong 别廣東’: Refugee Wives and Children Arrive in Aotearoa New Zealand, 1939-1941’ commissioned by the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust. This book researches the stories of the Chinese wives and children who fled the Sino-Japanese War during the invasion and occupation of their South China homeland from 1937 to 1945.

To order a copy of the book ($60), please email Connie at cojay@xtra.co.nz, or visit the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust facebook page for the order form here.