The total number of ethnic Chinese in New Zealand was about 171,411 in 2013 – up from about 105,000 in 2001. This was about 4% of the national population, making the Chinese the largest non-European, non-Polynesian minority group. Within this group, three-quarters were immigrants and only one-quarter were locally born. The foreign-born proportion was made up of those from China (51%), Malaysia (6%), Taiwan (5%), Hong Kong (4%), and other countries (6%).
Among the immigrant Chinese, many (over 69%) were recent arrivals who came within 10 years of the 2001 census. The increase in arrivals is a new phenomenon, made possible only by the introduction of an even-handed immigration policy in 1987. This overturned New Zealand’s longstanding preference for immigrants from the United Kingdom and Ireland. From the late 1980s, any person who met the stringent educational, professional, business, age and asset requirements could gain a residence visa. Ethnic Chinese who met the criteria could now enter New Zealand in large numbers.
The Chinese in New Zealand today are generally high achievers, with significant skills and substantial savings. Yet while both locally born and immigrant Chinese are very well educated, their income level and participation in the labour force are below the national average.
A large number of new arrivals remain unemployed, partly because their qualifications are not recognised, and partly because of residual prejudice. Both now and in the past, Chinese have come to New Zealand in search of better opportunities. But for many, these opportunities remain out of reach.
In the 19th century, New Zealand’s settlement policy aimed to create a ‘fairer Britain of the South Seas’. Chinese, or any non-white migrants, were regarded as undesirable in this nation-building enterprise.
At least one Chinese man settled in the decade after British annexation. Wong Ahpoo Hock Ting, better known as Appo Hocton (a corruption of his given name), arrived in Nelson in 1842. By 1852 he was naturalised and had established a cartage business.
But any plans for organised Chinese settlement were scuttled by 1853. Edward Gibbon Wakefield, known for his success in settling the colony with British small farmers, formulated detailed plans to bring in Chinese to provide valuable labour as servants, shepherds, stock-keepers, mechanics and manual workers. But he had to drop this idea when opponents labelled his scheme a conspiracy to overrun the colony with ‘Coolie-slaves’ who were ‘ignorant, slavish, and treacherous’. 1
Meanwhile, South China was beset by overpopulation, land shortages, famine, drought, banditry, and peasant revolts. A steady stream of able-bodied young men sought their fortunes overseas, first in South-East Asia and then further afield in the Pacific Rim countries. The discovery of gold in California, Canada and Australasia swelled this exodus. Rather than settling permanently in other lands, these men usually intended to make their fortunes and then return to China.
In New Zealand, the Otago goldfields attracted the first batch of organised Chinese migrant workers. They were recruited by the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce when European miners left Otago for the newly discovered West Coast goldfields. There were particular reasons for choosing Chinese people: they were thought to be hardworking, inoffensive, and willing to rework abandoned claims, and they preferred to return eventually to their homeland. In 1866, the first 12 men arrived from Victoria, Australia. By late 1869 over 2,000 Chinese men had come to the land they would call the ‘New Gold Mountain’.
Early immigrants came from the Pearl River delta area in Guangdong province. Most (67%) were from Panyu county; the rest were from Siyi, Zengcheng, Dongguan and Zhongshan. These counties are located around the city of Canton (Guangzhou).
Although most men were married, their wives remained at home to look after the men’s parents. Chinese women seldom migrated to New Zealand and the sex ratio of the community was extremely unbalanced. For example, there were only nine women to 4,995 men in 1881 – the year that saw the highest numbers of Chinese in New Zealand prior to the Second World War.
The plight of the Chinese miners was dire. Few struck it rich, and most remained in enforced bachelorhood, poverty-stricken and stranded in a strange land.
Although Chinese miners had been welcomed when there was a shortage of labour, anti-Chinese prejudice soon resurfaced. By 1871 there were calls for Chinese immigration to be restricted. Like the other British colonies of Canada and Australia, New Zealand imposed an entry tax on Chinese immigrants. The Chinese Immigrants Act of 1881 introduced a ‘poll tax’ of £10. The act also imposed a restriction on ships’ passengers – one Chinese passenger per 10 tons of cargo. In 1896 the ratio was reduced to one passenger per 200 tons of cargo, and the poll tax was increased to £100.
Chinese immigrants arrived under the credit ticket system, by which a guarantor – commonly a relative, village elder or prospective employer – advanced the fare and also the poll tax. It usually took immigrants some years to repay the debt. Although the tax was waived by the minister of customs from 1934, it was not repealed until 1944. By then other countries had abandoned it. In 2002 the New Zealand government officially apologised to the Chinese for the suffering caused by the poll tax; it was the first nation to do so.
The poll tax was the most notorious in a long list of anti-Chinese measures, which included the following restrictions:
The Chinese protested against these injustices, petitioning Parliament for just treatment and legal reform.
Following the depletion of the goldfields in the late 1880s, the Chinese drifted to towns and cities looking for work. Many worked in fruit shops, laundries and commodity stores. They also found a niche in the market gardening trade, especially from the late 1920s. Growing vegetables was extremely labour intensive, requiring long hours but comparatively small capital outlay. The Chinese often leased land from Māori, and worked side by side with them, making a modest living.
By Chinese convention, the family name (surname) should always go first. Many New Zealand Chinese families lost their real surnames. They had to use their pioneer ancestor’s given names instead when customs officials mistook these for surnames.
For example, the Sew Hoy family (of Dunedin) should be the Choie family. Their pioneer was Choie Sew Hoy, famous for his goldmining business. Similarly, the Ah Chee family (of Auckland) should be the Chan family. Their ancestor was Chan Dar Chee, fruiterer.
The Chinese community in New Zealand was predominantly male until after the Second World War. As most Chinese men could not afford the £100 poll tax for their wives, the norm was for them to make home visits every few years. Later on, many would try to send for their sons, brothers and nephews, particularly when they needed help in the gardens or shops. Some married European or Māori women.
Many of these men sought solace in opium and gambling, and districts such as Wellington’s Haining Street became notorious. Anti-Chinese prejudice exaggerated and distorted the effects of these activities.
Organisations such as the Anti-Chinese Association, the Anti-Chinese League, the Anti-Asiatic League and the White New Zealand League agitated against Chinese immigration during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
One of the worst consequences of anti-Chinese propaganda was seen in 1905 when an elderly former gold miner, Joe Kum Yung, was murdered in Haining Street. The murderer, Lionel Terry, wanted to draw public attention to the alleged dangers of Chinese immigration.
China’s fight against the Japanese in the Second World War did much to influence public opinion in favour of the Chinese. Moreover, their contribution on the home front was appreciated. The national importance of market gardening was reflected in its classification as an ‘essential industry’. In 1941 the Dominion Federation of New Zealand Chinese Commercial Growers was formed to help boost vegetable production.
After 1939 wives and children of Chinese men in New Zealand were allowed temporary entry as refugees from war-torn China. Rather than indicating a fundamental change of immigration policy, the more liberal residence requirements that were introduced in 1947 were prompted by humanitarian concern about adverse conditions in China. Those granted permanent residence included wives and children who had arrived as refugees after 1939, New Zealand-born babies of the wives, and Chinese temporary residents and students who had been in New Zealand for over five years. They came to a modest total of 1,323 Chinese.
This was the low-key beginning of a significant change, hastened by the Communist victory in China and the realisation among New Zealand Chinese that return to their homeland was no longer possible. From then on, a real Chinese community, consisting of families, could sink roots.
Greater security and standing in the community enabled families to prosper. By the 1960s many offspring had become successful professionals. This rise in socio-economic status, however, came at the same time as the community was rapidly losing its ‘Chineseness’. The most noticeable sign was the loss of heritage languages, and the increasing use of English as the primary language.
The arrival of new Chinese immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s has resulted in radical changes in the community. The contrast in the community’s profile between the 19th and 21st centuries could not be greater. Now there is a much higher ratio of females to males, as many of the working-age men have returned to earn better money in the booming Asian economies.
These immigrants have different reasons for coming to New Zealand. They also come from different places: most now migrate from highly developed urban centres inside and outside China. Many are ‘re-migrants’ from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore or Malaysia.
They are generally well-educated professionals or business people with internationally transferable skills. Many have chosen to come because they want to raise their children in a less competitive educational environment, or because they want a more leisurely lifestyle and new employment opportunities.
In contrast to the pioneers of a century ago, the new Chinese migrants tend to be well informed and articulate, and therefore less likely to tolerate discrimination. Their desire for recognition and integration has also made them active in philanthropy and politics.
This group has not anticipated job market difficulties. When satisfactory employment is unavailable, they become return-migrants and visit their families in New Zealand by regular commuting. Because they are frequently airborne, they have been labelled ‘astronauts’ by the media. Their sense of commitment to their country of adoption has been queried, as they are so often absent. This trans-nationalism has fuelled public misunderstanding, which has been inflamed by populist politicians during election campaigns.
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 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.
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.
The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in China or associated territories.
In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.
Ip, Manying. Home away from home: life stories of Chinese women in New Zealand. Auckland: New Women's Press, 1990.
Ip, Manying. Unfolding history, evolving identity: the Chinese in New Zealand. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003.
McKinnon, Malcolm. Immigrants and citizens: New Zealanders and Asian immigration in historical context. Wellington: Institute of Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, 1996.
Murphy, Nigel. A guide to laws and policies relating to the Chinese in New Zealand, 1871–1996. Wellington: New Zealand Chinese Association, 2002.
Murphy, Nigel. The poll-tax in New Zealand: a research paper commissioned by the New Zealand Chinese Association. Wellington: Office of External Affairs, 1994.
Ng, James. Windows on a Chinese past. 4 vols. Dunedin: Otago Heritage Books, 1993–1999.