The Chinese are one of the few non-European peoples to have made a home in New Zealand. During the 1850s a few came into the country, probably from Australia, where they had first of all been introduced to provide cheap labour. With the discovery of gold they had poured into Victoria and later into New South Wales. It was gold, too, that brought them in numbers to New Zealand, and in 1867 it was estimated that there were 1,219 in the colony, 1,185 being in Otago. By 1874, the number had reached 4,816, including two women. Fears of a “yellow peril” led to protests throughout the country, and Parliament was petitioned and asked to impose restrictions on Chinese entry. A Select Committee of the House heard exhaustive evidence, but reported favourably on the Chinese, stating that they were sober, hardworking, industrious, and inoffensive. Their presence in a district did not mean additional police, while as gold miners they were capable of making a living from ground already worked over. It appeared unlikely that they would become permanent settlers, for when they had made a reasonable amount they returned home. Apparently encouraged by the report, the English firm of Brogden and Sons, then engaged in railway construction, sounded out the provincial governments on Chinese immigration. There was little antagonism, but at the same time no enthusiasm and the idea was dropped.
During 1878 West Coast members in Parliament made an attack on the Chinese and demanded a Bill to restrict entry. The Premier, Sir George Grey, followed this with a memorandum on Chinese immigration, stating that the immigration of even a few Chinese would be “prolific of disasters in New Zealand”, and instanced leprosy, labour problems, and lower standards of living. The Chinese problem had also to be faced in Australia. In Queensland royal assent had been refused for a restrictive Act in 1876 though a similar Act became law a year later. At an Inter-colonial Conference of 1880–81, uniform legislation was agreed on and passed by the eastern states. New Zealand followed suit with the Chinese Immigrants Restriction Act of 1881, which imposed a poll tax of £10 and limited the number of Chinese that could be brought by any one ship to one for every 10 tons burden.
Agitation against the Chinese continued, particularly in Parliament, where several attempts were made to increase the severity of the restrictions. In 1889 a Bill to do this met with strong opposition in the Legislative Council. It became law only after several months of disagreement between the two Houses, one of the proposed disabilities being removed at the insistence of the Council. It did, however, increase the penalties for breaches of the Act and reduce the number permitted entry in any vessel to one for every 100 tons burden.
This Act was intended as a stop-gap measure until the Asiatic Restriction Act, which extended these restrictions to all Asiatics other than British subjects and refused naturalisation to Chinese, received the royal assent. When the matter was considered at the Colonial Conference of 1897 it was stated that the Imperial Government “objected to any exclusion of immigrants on the grounds of race and colour as contrary to the traditions of the British Empire”, and would not approve of any such measure. A quasi-education test was recommended and this was adopted in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1899, which prohibited the immigration of the insane, the criminal, and diseased, and required all non-British to undergo an “education” test. Chinese had to satisfy these restrictions and pay the poll tax, while from 1907 they had to be able to read 100 words in English.
At this time the Chinese population was actually falling. It had reached a maximum in 1881, when there were 5,004, including nine women, in the colony. With the decline in gold mining, Chinese were forced into the towns, where they entered the fruit and vegetable trade, ran laundries, or into market gardening, where their patient industry found its reward. By the 1901 census the number had fallen to 2,936 (78 women), and reached its lowest in 1916 with 2,147 (130 women). Among the people generally there was considerable antipathy to the Chinese, fostered by such organisations as the White New Zealand League and the Anti-Asiatic Society, which aimed at prohibiting Asiatic immigration and keeping New Zealand completely white. The shooting of a harmless elderly Chinaman in a Wellington street by Lionel Terry during 1905 highlighted the agitation. Terry wrote to the Governor stating that the “yellow peril” was a danger and, as a protest, he deemed it advisable to put a Chinaman to death.
In Parliament total prohibition was favoured, but any Act doing so would not have received royal assent. Nor would the raising of the poll tax to £500 have been any more effective. The importation was financed by syndicates; hence the Chinese would have had to remain almost indefinitely before making repayment of such a large amount.
The anti-Chinese agitation faded during the war years, but when it was over there was a considerable increase in the number of Chinese seeking entry. This was one of the factors leading to the Immigration Restriction Act of 1920 which introduced the permit system to control the immigration of all aliens, but retained the poll tax on Chinese. Only a limited number of permits for the entry of Chinese for permanent residence were issued; in 1926 it was decided to issue no more. Temporary permits continued, but authority for permanent residents to bring in wives was no longer given. Under the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1927 the police could at any time enter the home of a Chinese, without a warrant, if the presence of opium was suspected. From 1930 Chinese students were allowed to enter New Zealand for education, while in 1934 the poll tax was temporarily waived. A change in this attitude to the Chinese came with the Labour Government in 1936. For the first time the old age pension was payable to those who were not British subjects and, from the beginning of the Social Security Scheme, benefits were available to all who contributed. And in 1944 the poll tax and the ships' tonnage limitations were legally ended.
In 1935 it was estimated that there were less than 100 Chinese families in New Zealand, but the Japanese invasion of China led many men in New Zealand to request the right to bring their families to New Zealand for safety. In 1939 permission was given for Chinese permanently resident to bring wives and children under 16 for a temporary visit of two years under a bond of £500. About 250 wives and 250 children entered, but by the time the two years was up the war with Japan made return impossible. Even when the war ended, return continued to be difficult and, eventually, 1,408 persons, mainly wives and children, were allowed to take up permanent residence. A more lenient and humane attitude has been adopted towards the Chinese since the war and it has been recognised that they should be able to live normal lives in this country. This has been assisted by the reluctance of the Communist Government in China to issue exit permits, and the fact that the Chinese have begun to regard New Zealand as their home, particularly by those who were born or educated in this country. Between 1884 and 1907, when Cabinet decided that naturalisation of Chinese should cease, there were about 17 naturalised each year. After considerable discussion, naturalisation recommenced in 1952. One of the difficulties in the past had been that adoption of British nationality did not mean the loss of Chinese nationality, for this is acquired by descent. Now encouragement is given to those Chinese whose outlook is generally that of a New Zealander, especially where there are children growing up as New Zealanders, to be naturalised, provided that at the same time they renounce their Chinese nationality. From its minimum in 1916 the number of Chinese began to rise again. In 1921 it was 3,266 (including 156 women), but fell again to 2,943 (363 women) in 1936. Up to this time the disparity in numbers between men and women had been most marked, but the change of policy in 1939 brought a better balance in the figures for 1945, 4,373 (1,254). The latest figures are those for 1956, 6,167 (2,676) and 1961, 7,697 (3,232). There were, in addition, 500 and 636 respectively of mixed blood. In the younger age groups there is probably a better balance between the sexes than the figures would indicate.
In their humble way the Chinese have been good citizens. They have committed few serious crimes; indeed, the crimes for which they are usually in the Courts, pakapoo, gaming, or opium smoking, are not ones they regard as serious. Industrious and intelligent as they usually are, they have not taken any prominent part in public life. Only on two occasions have they shown the way. In Taranaki, Chew Chong, the fungus exporter, established the first dairy factory, while in Otago Sew Hoy helped in the development of alluvial gold mining.