A new artwork by Talia Pua brings the Whale Tales Art Trail into the heart of Britomart, weaving in stories of the oceans Chinese migrants crossed to reach New Zealand as part of it. 

For WWF's Whale Tales Art Trail 2022, artist Talia Pua has painted a fibreglass 'whale tail' for Britomart that weaves in stories of the history of Chinese migration to New Zealand and the ocean that those migrants crossed to get here. Here, she talks to Jeremy Hansen about the process of creating this work and an associated exhibition on Britomart's Pavilions celebrating the Lunar New Year. 

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JEREMY HANSEN Talia, you’ve painted the Whale Tail in the Atrium on Takutai for the Whale Tales exhibition that’s going on all over the city. What inspired your design for it?

TALIA PUA The whale tale that I've designed for Britomart is called 新金山 or Sun Gum Saan, which means New Gold Mountain. New Gold Mountain was the name that the Chinese gave New Zealand, and also Australia. The original gold mountain was California with its goldfields, and then because New Zealand and Australia came next, they were the new gold mountains. Thematically, I love the name and how evocative it is of the hopes and dreams that the Chinese had when coming to New Zealand. They saw this place as a land of promise where they could find their fortune, where their problems would be solved. But in reality it was a lot of hard work and many didn't always succeed. So the Whale Tale design has that symbolic gold mountain at the very top, which symbolizes New Zealand and a golden path leading up to it. The path represents the migration journey and also this romanticized ‘highway to prosperity’. When I started to design the exhibition for Britomart, it evolved to also represent the connections between the generations, and the flow-on effect of those dreams onto the next generation.

On the tail itself, we have  pigs. In Chinese culture the pig is a lucky symbol for wealth and fortune. In this design I use the pigs to represent the hundreds of men who came to New Zealand in search of their fortune. But the pig also has a dual meaning, because from 1896 the Chinese had to pay a £100 poll tax to the New Zealand government to come here. The Chinese called this 賣猪仔 Maaih jyū jái, The Pig Trade, because they believed paying £100 was like selling yourself like a pig. So there’s this tension between prosperity and sacrifice.

There’s also a wave motif in your design.

Yes, so one of the provocations for the Whale Tail design was migration stories. So the wave motif ties really nicely into the actual shape of the sculpture, a whale, and it links to how the early Chinese arrived in New Zealand by boat.

Your work on the whale tail is part of a larger project you’ve done in Britomart for Lunar New Year which features descendants of Chinese refugees who came to New Zealand. You’ve worked with the historian Lily Lee to contact these people and tell some of their stories. What sparked this project for you?

I first met Lily as part of a play that I wrote last year. The play was called Pork and Poll Taxes and it follows a Chinese family split across China and New Zealand during the 1890s, when the father decides to settle in New Zealand. Lily was one of my historical consultants and she told me she was working on a new book about the Chinese refugee wives and children during the second Sino-Japanese war. My play was focused on the early Chinese immigrant story, which is a very male-dominated story, so I was fascinated with the female-centric part of New Zealand Chinese history, which hasn’t had as much spotlight. Chinese New Year is a time for families to be together, so I felt the arrival of the Chinese refugee wives and children was very fitting. 

In many ways, your exhibition project is a happy story of family reunification – and the eventual gaining of citizenship and the establishment of a genuine Chinese community rather than a transitory Chinese community in New Zealand. But in the background, as you alluded to before, there's a lot of hardship and a lot of prejudice. Could talk a little bit about the legal obstacles these migrants faced when it came to trying to settle here permanently?

It was very, very difficult for Chinese to settle here permanently. If we go back to the 1860s, when the Chinese first arrived, there was a lot of anti-Chinese prejudice at the time, which then went into the legislation. The British saw New Zealand as a “fairer Britain of the South Seas” and they wanted to keep it pure. The Opium Wars had really tainted their perspective of the Chinese. They saw them as a disease-carrying race, as parasites who carried pagan practices, and they didn't want them ruining this ideal image of New Zealand. It didn’t help that the Chinese arrived in New Zealand in large numbers during the gold discoveries of the 1860s and 1870s, so the general public felt very threatened by them.

Like in the other British colonies, this spike in anti-Chinese prejudice led to the poll tax being put in place for any Chinese person  who came to New Zealand. It started off with the Chinese paying £10 to come to New Zealand, but climbed to £100, which was worth a year’s earnings in today’s standards. It's important to note that this legislation was solely targeted on the grounds of race: the Chinese were the only ethnicity that had to pay this poll tax. The poll tax was only one of many anti-Chinese pieces of legislation that was imposed on the Chinese. 

And part of the background of this is also that China, as a country, was much less politically powerful then than it is now.

Yes. The Opium Wars really crippled China at the time. And there was overpopulation, flooding and droughts and poverty which led to a lot of civil unrest. So for many, leaving China for work became the only option. It’s also important to note that the Chinese, when they came to New Zealand, didn’t plan to settle here. The goal was always to return home. For some, this took many, many years. They would be away from their families for eight to 10 years. Some people didn't even return home because they weren't able to bring back a fortune. The £100 cost of the poll tax, if they’d been able to save it and take it home, would essentially set them up for life. Many of them couldn’t face returning with nothing, as there was a lot of shame in that. There were men who stayed and grew old and died here, and there were others who returned and would then send their sons or nephews to New Zealand to be the next generation to work for the family. Some of them stayed in New Zealand and married European or Māori women.

These later generations would not have had the opportunity to mine for gold, so what did they do?

By the 1930s very few gold miners remained on the goldfields. Many moved away to other centres and sought some other means of employment: they worked in businesses for themselves in laundries, fruit shops and market gardens.

Given the racism of the time you’ve described, what made the Chinese men at the time successful in lobbying for the rights of their wives and children to join them in New Zealand?

I think much credit goes to the New Zealand Chinese Association, the Chinese Consul Wang Feng and Vice-Consul Yue Jackson who petitioned the first Labour Government to allow them to bring their wives and children over. The Sino-Japanese war was causing immense hardship in China and women and children were fleeing surrounding villages in Guangzhou which were being bombed, invaded and occupied by the Japanese. So you could see why Chinese men working in New Zealand would've wanted their wives to join them. So during the mid to late 1930s there was a softening in attitude towards the Chinese, partly due to the change in government with the first Labour Government. It’s interesting because New Zealand was the only Western country to accept refugees from China. But while they let these refugees come in, it was only a two-year permit and they were supposed to go back, including any children born here.

Later on, these refugees were actually granted residency. What changed the government’s mind on that?

In 1941, New Zealand became involved in World War II so it became impossible for the Chinese wives and children to return to China. During that time the Chinese families had to continually apply for the two-year permits to be extended. World War II also played a part in changing New Zealanders' perspective of the Chinese as they became allies in the war against the Japanese. During the war, these families contributed a lot to the war effort. For example, the market gardens supplied a lot of vegetables to New Zealand and for the American troops in the Pacific. And a number of New Zealand-born Chinese joined the New Zealand forces to serve their country. After the war ended in 1945, shipping shortages further delayed the return of women and children to China due to lack of transport. 

Then when the civil war in China broke out between the Nationalist and Communist party, the Chinese community leaders in New Zealand felt it was unsafe for the families to return to China. Chinese families along with NZCA and the Presbyterian church lobbied the government to allow the Chinese to remain in New Zealand rather than break these families apart. By this point the Chinese wives had been in New Zealand for almost seven or eight years and had children here too. So it became a matter of conscience and an awkward situation for the government, in which there was no easy solution but to grant the Chinese women and children permanent residence. This was around 1947 or 1948. A total of 1,408 Chinese were granted permanent residence.

Is there any connection there with your own family history?

No, there isn't. My family comes from Malaysia, but my ancestors are from China. My sisters and I were born here, so as a Chinese New Zealander, realising that the Chinese have been in New Zealand for a long time and have made significant contributions to New Zealand helped me to ground myself in my Kiwi Chinese identity. I think COVID has brought up a lot of similar anti-Asian hate to what the Chinese faced when they first came here. Back then people were afraid that the Chinese would take all their jobs or that they would lower the working standards, which is similar to people being angry at migrants coming here taking jobs, taking homes. It relates not just to Chinese experience but all migrant experiences. It is very tricky coming to a country and having to work and earn your place here.

How does it feel to be able to present these people’s stories in this context?

It's very humbling and there's a lot of responsibility to get it right.

We’ve talked about this art and social history project, and your whale tail, and your play. How would you describe your creative practice?

I graduated with a Bachelor of Creative Technologies at AUT, a multidisciplinary degree. I specialised in interaction and play design. My day job is at a startup game-design company, where I work on game design and project management for making educational and community-based games. And then the other part of my work is theatre. I enjoy working between those two worlds, and there is a nice crossover with how they both use play as a key source for creation and discovery.  

Talia Pua's Whale Tail is on display in Britomart as part of WWF's Whale Tales Art Trail from 20 January 2022 until 18 April 2022. Find out more about the trail at this link