Story: Ethnic and religious intolerance

Page 3. Intolerance towards Asians

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The intolerance of colonial New Zealanders was most obviously directed at migrants from Asia.

Anti-Chinese hostility

Chinese miners were invited into the goldfields of Otago from the late 1860s, and by 1886 their numbers had reached 5,000 (although they subsequently decreased). Their presence provoked significant racial intolerance. In 1857, Nelson set up an anti-Chinese committee. In the 1880s these were joined by groups such as the White Race League and the Anti-Asiatic League.

Chinese were considered racially inferior to white people, and their culture was seen as a threat. Their ability to work hard and save money was seen to threaten the livelihood of whites. Many Chinese men had no wives in New Zealand and were suspected of having immoral designs on the women of the colony. Their habits were viewed as strange, and they were seen as ‘drug-besotten sin-begotten fiends’1. The Liberal politician William Pember Reeves described the Chinese as ‘dirty, miserly, ignorant, a shirker of social duty, and a danger to public health’.2

Anti-Chinese acts were passed.

  • In 1881 a £10 poll tax was placed on each Chinese immigrant, and their numbers were restricted to one person for every 10 tons of ship’s cargo. These figures were raised in 1896 to £100 poll tax and 200 tons of cargo.
  • In 1892 naturalisation as New Zealand citizens became free for all except Chinese. The naturalisation of Chinese was abolished in 1908 and did not resume until 1952.
  • In 1907 a reading test in English was imposed for Chinese immigrants.

Chinese were specifically excluded from the old-age pension (1898), widow’s pension (1911) and family allowances (1926). The effect was discrimination against the small local Chinese community from the 1880s through to the 1950s. The 1935–49 Labour government lifted some of the discriminatory legislation and policy, but the ‘white’ New Zealand immigration framework – which favoured immigrants from Europe – only disappeared when immigration policy was reviewed and changed in 1986 and 1987.

Selective violence

Apart from Māori, Chinese were the only people to be the victims of deliberate acts of violence. In the goldfields town of Naseby in 1868 Ah Pack was stripped of his clothes, put into a barrel and rolled about town. In 1905 in Haining Street, the centre of Wellington’s Chinese community, Lionel Terry shot Joe Kum Yung to draw attention to the ‘yellow peril’.


Until the First World War there were fewer than 200 Indians in New Zealand, but this did not prevent some hostility towards them. Indians were considered (like the Lebanese) to be ‘Assyrian hawkers’. Premier Richard Seddon wanted stern measures, but Indians were citizens of the British Empire. The Immigration Restriction Act 1899 tried to circumvent this by requiring those not of ‘British parentage’ to make their immigration application in a European language. Immediately after the First World War Indian migration increased. The Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1920 required all those not of British parentage to apply for a permit. Indians were excluded from this definition, despite being British subjects.

White New Zealand League

By 1921 there were 671 Indians in New Zealand. They attracted growing antagonism, especially in the market-gardening area of Pukekohe, where other growers campaigned against them. In 1926 the White New Zealand League was set up in Pukekohe to restrict Asian immigration and rights. The league wrote to all 200 local bodies in New Zealand, asking them to endorse a ‘white New Zealand’ policy on the basis of the supposed low morals of Asians. They received positive responses from 160 of the local bodies and strong support from the media. Prime Minister Gordon Coates was also supportive.

Indians, like Chinese, could not receive state pensions until 1936. In Pukekohe they continued to be excluded from barbers’ shops, private bars and balcony seats in the local cinema until the 1950s.

  1. Lionel Terry, ‘The shadow.’ (last accessed 18 May 2010) Back
  2. William Pember Reeves, State experiments in Australia and New Zealand, vol. 3. London: Grant Richards, 1902, p. 354. Back
How to cite this page:

Paul Spoonley, 'Ethnic and religious intolerance - Intolerance towards Asians', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 April 2024)

Story by Paul Spoonley, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 7 Jun 2018