The ‘Asian experience’
For many non-Chinese New Zealanders, interacting with the local Chinese is often their first Asian experience, whether it be sampling dim-sims, joining a t’ai-chi (taiji) class, or watching a lion-dance during Chinese New Year. The emergence of a vibrant local Chinese culture has, however, been a relatively recent phenomenon.
Until the 1980s China seemed far away and exotic, largely because of New Zealand’s geographical isolation, Eurocentric culture, British connections and unwillingness to see itself as an Asia–Pacific nation. In the 1960s, Chinese festivals were hardly observed. By the 1970s, most Chinese were on the way to assimilation, and there was a possibility that their culture would become totally submerged.
However, successive waves of new immigrants from the early 1990s reinvigorated many traditions. Chinese New Year and the mid-autumn festival, for example, have become popular celebrations drawing huge crowds of Chinese and other New Zealanders. Some events, like the lantern festival and the dragon boat race, are now widely popular among other New Zealanders, especially the young.
The Double Tenth
The biggest gathering of Chinese New Zealanders occurs annually during Easter, when Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin take turns to organise a sports tournament. The Double Tenth tournament usually lasts several days, with social events and cultural performances in the evenings.
The tradition started in 1948 in Wellington, when it was decided to organise a nationwide event on 10 October (hence ‘Double Tenth’), the national day of the Republic of China. The tournament has recently taken place at Easter. This change makes it less political and more practical, as it coincides with a public holiday.
Since the goldfield days, the Chinese have organised clan and regional associations, and larger quasi-political groups for mutual support. When times were hard, the associations lent money to the destitute and the sick (the Chinese were excluded from many social benefits), and helped to repatriate them to China. A 19th-century Dunedin benevolent society, the Cheong Shing Tong, organised the repatriation of dead bodies and exhumed bones. Since most Chinese immigrants had no family in New Zealand, the associations would also undertake the annual tomb-sweeping ceremonies for their deceased.
In recent decades, new immigrants have also formed numerous associations. Many of these are organised along country-of-origin groupings, and some are professional groups.
A divergent population
The Chinese community is now made up of many sub-groups, divided by language and dialect. Its members come from very different countries with distinct political systems. Many of the locally born young Chinese are trying to reconnect with their cultural roots, some by learning Chinese, and some by visiting China. More recent immigrants have set up Chinese schools to help maintain their children’s heritage language skills, while many parents study English and retrain for a New Zealand qualification.
Parents today are more relaxed about their children’s choice of professions. In the 1960s children were encouraged to train for a ‘secure’ profession, and to become doctors, lawyers, engineers and architects, but the 21st century has witnessed the emergence of young Chinese artists, writers, musicians and poets.