Page 1: Biography
This biography, written by Manying Ip, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Van Chu-Lin was born, probably in 1893 or 1894, in Zengcheng county in south China, in a small village a short distance north-east of Canton (Guangzhou). The only daughter of an oil vendor, Van Poy Wah, and his wife, Ah Day, Chu-Lin was well known for her beauty. Her parents promised her to Chun Yee Hop, a store proprietor who had returned from New Zealand with the explicit aim of seeking a young secondary wife who could give him an heir. He was many years her senior. Van Chu-Lin was about 21 when she arrived in Wellington on 2 August 1915 on the Ulimaroa; the couple's marriage had been formally registered on 19 July after the ship docked in Sydney. Chu-Lin joined only about 120 women in New Zealand's small and marginalised Chinese community, which had been moulded by the highly restrictive immigration acts introduced since 1881.
Within several months of her arrival Chu-Lin faced a fierce legal battle, which moved from the Magistrate's Court to the Supreme Court, when she was charged with landing in New Zealand without having taken the reading test required by the Immigration Restriction Act 1908. It was said to be the first case of its kind in New Zealand and dragged on into the following year. Van Chu-Lin appears to have been a victim of circumstances: Chun Yee Hop had procured the naturalisation papers of another man and married Chu-Lin under the false name to ensure her entry into New Zealand. Both he and Chu-Lin were charged and convicted. They lost their appeal. In addition to fines and court costs Chu-Lin was required to pay another £100 poll-tax. During these traumatic early years her first-born child died and she also had a miscarriage.
Chu-Lin's life in Wellington centred around her home and her husband's Chinese supplies store; the Sing On Kee was a well-known shop, located first in Lambton Quay and then in Willis Street. Most of Chu-Lin's time and energy were taken up with having babies and rearing them. Household duties were so onerous that she had to make very heavy demands on her elder daughters. She seldom expressed her feelings, and communication was often in the form of basic commands. None of her children knew of the court case, nor the fact that their parents were married in Sydney. Few knew of her Chinese name, Chu-Lin (jade-lotus): she had adopted the name Mary Chun in New Zealand.
Chu-Lin had few friends and seldom attended social events. Her photographs show her at the few formal functions that she did attend, impeccably dressed in western-style suits, complete with hat and gloves and heeled shoes, defying anyone to see behind the facade of Chinese gentility. Chun Yee Hop, by contrast, was extremely active within the Chinese community. He was much revered as the long-time Wellington president of the Chee Kung Tong (Chinese Masonic Society), the overseas branch of the powerful Triad Society in China. This social and political organisation transcended the smaller clan associations. However, women were barred from most of the activities of this secret-sworn brotherhood.
In 1929 Chu-Lin, her husband and their 10 children sailed for China, where Chun Yee Hop's principal wife lived; perhaps they hoped that she would agree to look after the children and see to their education. The couple and their sons returned to New Zealand within a year. Two of the daughters returned in the early 1930s, the others only when they were forced from China by the Japanese invasion. Chu-Lin was to bear eight more children. Doctors eventually insisted that she deliver in hospital rather than at home, where she would be back at work hours after giving birth. She came to enjoy her hospital stays, the only break from work she ever had.
Chu-Lin gradually took over many heavy jobs for the family business as her husband aged. Even with the help of her children, she was weighed down by the sheer load of drudgery. Her ambition of saving £100 for her parents to buy an adopted heir to take her place never materialised. She died at Wellington on 12 November 1946, survived by 11 daughters, 7 sons and her husband.
Chu-Lin's life encapsulates the plight of the immigrant Chinese woman. She endured not only the eternal bondage to childbearing and family chores, but also the institutionalised prejudice which stigmatised her as an undesirable alien.