Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Zeng Dazheng – White Ghosts, Yellow Peril: China and New Zealand 1790-1950

White Ghosts Yellow Peril cover

White Ghosts, Yellow Peril: China and New Zealand 1790-1950
by Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Zeng Dazheng
Dunedin: OUP (2014).
RRP: $55.
ISBN: 9781877578655.

Reviewed by Matthew Hughes.

As a child growing up in Auckland in the 1980s, I remember when our fish and chip shop down the road was taken over by a Chinese family. The standard greasies were still served, but now the menu exploded with what seemed to be the exotic: spring rolls and wontons, fried rice and noodle dishes, plastic containers bulging with the vegetables at which I otherwise balked when my mother served them nightly as three veg with meat – vegetables I now relished in their rich spicy sauces. So impressed were we as a family with the new fare that my mother even bought a wok and attempted her own versions of the meals, but it wasn’t the same. I have dim childhood memories of being at the local library poring over books about ancient civilisations, including ones with dreamy images of a Great Wall snaking through jagged misty mountains, armies of hair-knotted horsemen armed with bows and pikes, silk-robed eunuchs and square-hatted, wide-sleeved Confucian scholars gliding through a forbidden city to serve their emperor’s bidding. I came to know this civilisation as the origin of paper and money and gunpowder, that it was the exemplar of sophistication when Europe was a collection of hovels. However it was that food at the corner takeaways, albeit dulled somewhat I know now for Kiwi palates, which first marked me with an indelibly exotic sense of China.

As the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, the numbers of those distinctive Chinese faces around me grew. The immigrants’ children showed up at our schools. Something quite novel also started happening: the children of the newly wealthy in Communist China, beneficiaries of the Special Economic Zones allowing foreign investment and manufacturing in their coastal cities, started to show up by themselves, sent unsupervised to Aotearoa/New Zealand for their education. They revelled in an unfamiliar freedom, and their luxury houses, designer clothes and fast cars bred resentment amongst some of the middle-class Pakeha kids. The term ‘Asian invasion’ gained currency, as did crass assertions about poor driving abilities. But as the ‘export education’ sector grew rapidly, the wealthy were joined by those less so, their families back home sacrificing much for their one-child’s Western education. A suite of Chinese traits became manifest that also perversely bred occasional resentment; the Chinese families and their children here since the early 1980s, and most of the more recent arrivals here for school and university, worked hard, were diligent and disciplined, abstemious and respectful.

Studying history at school, I learnt of the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists, the successful revolution of the latter and final victory in 1949, the madness of Mao’s reign, the famines and purges, re-education camps and the social chaos of the Cultural evolution. On the television news in mid-1989 I saw images of vast crowds of students and others occupying Tiananmen Square, the iconic tank-man in shirt sleeves with briefcase in hand blocking a line of tanks in an act of wrenching bravery, and hazy footage of the brutal crackdown. The following year a Kiwi girl in my class, whose photographer father had been in the square at the time, showed me his book of compiled images depicting the horror of unrecognisable bodies crushed beneath tank tracks, their brains and innards smeared across the dark cobbles. Many years later, when I had the opportunity to visit Beijing for work, I visited Tiananmen Square several times and paid quiet homage to those who died there.

I offer this personal history of my engagement with things Chinese because I am sure many fellow New Zealanders will relate to it, and because it provides a snapshot of the complexity that is China, both in our imaginations and in reality. An ancient and great civilisation that has profoundly influenced the world; a culture that respects education and family, and excels in the beauty of its traditional material culture; a history of emperors and dictators, wars and brutality, of millions sacrificed to powerful ambitions and zealous ideology; more recently an economic behemoth and regional hegemon, whose ambitions lead it to literally create strategic islands in the South China Sea. China is Aotearoa/New Zealand’s second biggest importer of goods after Australia, and is projected to become our biggest tourist market in coming years. In recent times the Chinese have become the focus of disquiet over purchasing dairy farms and the Auckland property market. In short, China looms large over our country.

As for the earlier history of Chinese people themselves in Aotearoa New Zealand, I knew of early arrivals during the nineteenth century gold rushes, captured so vividly in Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, but knew little else. However, in their excellent White Ghosts and Yellow Peril – China and New Zealand 1790-1950, Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Zeng Dazheng reveal a history longer, richer and more complex than I could have imagined. The first chapter Fur and Tea, 1790-1840 paints a picture of the Chinese and British Empires at the time, and highlights that Aotearoa New Zealand’s connection with China goes back to the first European sealers who arrived on our shores to conduct mass pinniped slaughter, and ship the skins to China where they were sought-after luxury items. As the early settler population grew, trade increasingly flowed the other way as ships loaded with tea arrived to meet the insatiable British demand for their cuppa, and luxury goods such as silk and porcelain also made their way to the young colony

In the chapter Coolies from China? 1840-1860, we learn of the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing that ended conflict between China and Britain, and from which a system of treaty ports was established where British ships could trade freely. In later years and into the twentieth century, these bustling hubs such as Shanghai would lure New Zealand merchants and bankers, and continue to receive goods from Aotearoa New Zealand. The scene is also set for the racial tensions and xenophobia that were to grow here and be echoed throughout the twentieth century and today. Chinese were caught up in the increasing antagonism between capital and labour, between the new landed gentry and the working classes. As the wealthy land holders and capitalists sought cheap labour for their farms and industries, they looked to importing Chinese workers. Working-class British immigrants, fearful of downward pressure on wages, reacted strongly, their anxieties manifested in racist vituperation of the ‘coolies’. This was not unique to Aotearoa/New Zealand, with similar dynamics in North America and Australia. Although in British Imperial terms the Chinese were considered ‘aliens’, London and Beijing had signed a treaty allowing free movement between the empires. With the discovery of gold in Otago this free movement led to an increase in immigrant gold hunters, as described in the chapter New Gold Mountain 1860-80. Here we learn of the ‘push’factors in the Chinese homeland, young men sent by their impoverished rural families to a far-off place to seek their fortune so they could eventually return home to improve the lot of their kin. Many did return home, some did not.

In White New Zealand 1880-1910, we learn of the official and institutionalised racism that saw the imposition in 1881 of a poll tax on Chinese immigrants because of their arriving in big groups, and legal controls were also imposed on Croats, Indians and Arabs. These restrictions were occurring all over the British Empire. Why was this? As Eldred-Grigg and Dazheng write: “… racism was a living thing evolving in its own right, like religion or philosophy … racist language among white people seems to have been scant and sketchy during the early colonial period but far-reaching and strong towards the end of the nineteenth century. Working people who opposed the importation of coolie labour on economic rounds were now willing to speak the language of race struggle.” The middle classes were gripped by pseudoscientific Social Darwinism, where “every race was struggling against all others to climb to the top of the ladder of history … races must be kept from breeding with lesser races, for by doing so they would lose their ‘race purity’ and, in turn, the competition to become the master race”. These racist forces were strong in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The final chapters An Old House Fallen, 1910-30 and Hot War, Cold War, 1930-50 take us through the global political turmoil and wars of the first half of the twentieth century. This includes the revolutions and wars within China itself, as seen through the eyes of New Zealanders there at the time; business people, missionaries, doctors and teachers. With the Japanese attack on the United States in 1941, in a classic example of my enemy’s enemy being a friend, the Chinese yellow peril became a vital ally in breaking the Japanese Empire. We also learn of the growing ethnic Chinese population in Aotearoa/New Zealand and their struggles for equality and acceptance, of the development of the New Zealand Chinese Association and its internal ructions, and how the Chinese community was engaging with the wider culture of Aotearoa/New Zealand, particularly in sport. Mixed marriages were also becoming more common. As we come to 1949 and the final victory of the Communists over the Nationalists in their brutal civil war, the establishment of the People’s Republic again raised the spectre of the yellow peril, but this time tinged red in the light of the Cold War. As Eldred-Grigg and Dazheng write: “New Zealanders were now being driven out of the People’s Republic. Bankers and traders who had thrived at the treaty ports had no part to play in a socialist economy and were among the first to go. Volunteers, teachers, doctors, nurses and missionaries followed, many of whom had given the whole of their working life to China.”

White Ghosts and Yellow Peril is well-written in an engaging manner. The book is a high-quality production replete with illustrations and photographs, posters and newspaper cartoons from the times discussed. Eldred-Grigg and Dazheng acknowledge that the book is a summary and synthesis of earlier work by the few writers who have looked at Chinese New Zealand, but they have produced a valuable new work that weaves together the histories of two very different worlds, and that encompasses both sweeping geopolitical patterns and the minutiae of people’s lives. I hope a companion work is planned to address the history from 1950 to modern times. White Ghosts and Yellow Peril should be in every public and school library in Aotearoa New Zealand, and on the bookshelf of anyone who professes interest in our national history. It should also be read by anyone who has an opinion on China its impacts on Aotearoa New Zealand, as it will provide important context to some of the fevered rhetoric that sometimes arises here. Finally, it should be read by Chinese people who come to find a new life for themselves and their families in Aotearoa New Zealand; they may find some solace and inspiration from the perseverance and successes of previous generations, and realise they have a cultural connection to here deeper than they could have known.

Matthew HughesDr. Matthew Hughes is an Earth and Environmental Scientist (Canterbury Earthquake Geospatial Research Fellow in the Department of Civil and Natural Resources Engineering, University of Canterbury). A voracious reader, Matthew is also a volunteer fire fighter in his local community of Sumner.

First published takahe 87
August 2016