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August 11, 2008 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Good Ol’ Kiwi Racism

For much of New Zealand’s history, Chinese immigrants in New Zealand were treated appallingly by their host country. Facing discrimination from both the law and private citizens, and racism at every turn, Chinese were never made to feel welcome. But discriminatory restrictions were also made to regulate Chinese immigration, as though it were in itself a social ill – restrictions faced by no other race in the world. Salient Feature Writer Tania Sawicki Mead investigates.

It is an embarrassing fact that too many New Zealanders rarely, if ever, engage thoughtfully with the icky details of race relations within our country over the last two centuries. When we do, it is all too easy to fall into mild apologism; acknowledging that while indigenous rights are an ongoing blight on our country’s political record, we at least have no documented history of outright apartheid or slavery. While blatant ignorance of the Treaty of Waitangi and similar documents of a heavy nature is rampant, even more shameful is the silence on one of the most disgusting chapters of our colonial past. I’m referring to something that I am guilty of being completely ignorant about until very, very recently, (at least in my understanding of the gruesome details) – the poll tax on Chinese immigrants to New Zealand.

Anyone with a semi-evolved race-dar will be aware that pockets of our happily multicultural nation continue to harbour some serious race-based prejudices, particularly towards the Asian community. Tragically, this is no recent development owing to increasing levels of international students or looser immigration laws. In the dark days when the term ‘racial purity’ was bandied about with wanton disregard for its scientific inaccuracy, Chinese immigrants to New Zealand suffered the most.

It all began with the shiny allure of gold. Most of the Chinese who migrated to Pacific-rim countries such as New Zealand came from the Pearl River delta area in the province of Guangdong. The Californian gold rush in 1848 lured thousands of Chinese to the United States, and when gold was found in Australia and New Zealand, the migration continued to the Pacific. When New Zealand’s business activity in mining areas took a dive, the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce sought to bring Chinese miners living in Victoria to Otago. By 1869 there were over 2,000 Chinese miners living in the province of Otago, joined by immigrants coming directly from China.

But natural resources have a tendency to be finite. By the late 1880s many miners began to look for work outside of the Otago minefields. They moved up north to bigger towns and settlements, many of them making a living in fruit shops, market gardens, laundries and commodity stores. This increased visibility in public life fuelled the bigotry and ignorance that marked the Chinese experience in urban, colonial New Zealand.

Anti-Chinese prejudices in the West had continued to ferment with the expansion of the British Empire, and the quasi-religious fervour with which many British subjects viewed their racial and societal superiority. Prominent European intellectuals such as the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel claimed that the Chinese civilisation was retrogressing;

The history of China has shown no development, so that we cannot concern ourselves with it any further … we are faced with the oldest state in existence, and yet with one which has no past, but exists at the present time in exactly the way as we hear of it from antiquity… to this extent, China has no real history.

Nigel Murphy, a historian concerned with the anti-Chinese legislation, writes that the image of the Yellow Peril was the zenith of European racial hatred. It was fuelled by the fears of European leaders such as Lord Wolseley and Kaiser Wilheim II.

These people warned that China was a sleeping giant just waiting to be awakened by the guiding hand of some oriental Napoleon. The vision of hundreds of millions of Chinese sweeping down upon countries such as Australia and New Zealand was extremely potent in the nineteenth century mind.

Both the mining community and the working classes in Pacific nations were the most affected by the anti-Chinese paranoia, in part out of fear of competition for jobs in trades. While the middle classes baulked at the extremity of these views, they had sympathy for the cause, creating a powerful force of interests to keep Chinese immigrants at bay. To exacerbate the matter, the settlement of New Zealand was seen by some as a kind of holy mission to create a ‘more perfect Britain’ in the South Seas. Racial and religious purity were therefore integral to Keeping New Zealand Beautiful(ly White).

We can turn to a founding father to put this succinctly for us: George Grey, Premier and former Governor of New Zealand:

It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the future of the islands of the Pacific Ocean depends upon the inhabitants of New Zealand being true to themselves, and preserving uninjured and unmixed that Anglo-Saxon population which now inhabits it . . this can only be accomplished by New Zealand possessing a population of a superior character

The presence in this country of a large population of Chinese … would exercise a deteriorating effect upon its civilisation

(AJHR 1879 D-3 session 1)

And so we come to the poll tax. In order to keep the ‘heathens’ out, the Chinese Immigrants Act 1881 imposed a ten pound entry tax on Chinese immigrants, as well as a restriction on ships’ passengers – one Chinese passenger per ten tons of cargo. In 1896 the ratio was reduced to one passenger per 200 tons of cargo, and the tax was pushed to a hundred pounds. Immigrants arrived under the credit ticket system, where a guarantor (relative, village elder or prospective employer) advanced the fare and also the poll. Most immigrants took years to pay off the tax.

The prejudice did not stop there. After 1907 all Chinese arrivals were required to sit an English reading test. Naturalisation of Chinese was stopped in 1908 and did not resume again until 1951. Permanent residency was denied from 1926, and Chinese were denied the old age pension until 1936. In addition to specifically targeted laws, the Opium Act 1901 gave police the power to search any Chinese person’s home without a warrant if they believed the occupants were smoking opium. Naturally, if the occupants were non-Chinese, the police required a warrant. In 1910 it also became illegal to sell any opium preparation that could be made suitable for smoking to ‘any person of the Chinese race’.

As if institutionalised racism wasn’t enough, various Anti-Asiatic leagues began to form around New Zealand to protest against Chinese immigration in the late 19th century and into the 20th, including the Anti-Chinese Association, the Anti-Chinese League and the White New Zealand League.

The esteemed Sir Robert Stout, founder of this very University, was the President of the Anti- Chinese League during the passing of the Asiatic Restriction Act 1896. According to the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, Stout was “a man of commanding presence, natural dignity, and genuine kindliness of heart”. Except when it came to the Chinese, that is. During the debates on the Asiatic Restriction Act, he said “I am in favour – have always been in favour – of passing stringent laws against the Chinese … the reason I object to them is first, on racial grounds … and secondly, they have a lower civilisation, which, if introduced into the colony, is bound to affect our civilisation.” Interestingly, his wife Anna was infinitely less biased, telling the Lyttelton Times that Chinese immigrants were highly desirable on account of their “honesty, sobriety, industry, thrift and kindness”.

Sadly, measured voices such as that of Anna Stout did not win through. The poll tax was not waived by the Minister of Customs until 1934, and only completely repealed in 1944. Nigel Murphy believes that the Anti-Asiatic lobby groups would have convinced a sympathetic government to continue this persecution, were it not for New Zealand’s “constitutional straightjacket”. Britain still held the power of Royal Assent in matters pertaining to international affairs, and her treaties with China forbade a complete exclusion of Chinese from New Zealand. It really wasn’t until China and Britain fought together in the World War II that Western sentiments began to take a significant turn.

The Chinese community of New Zealand had to wait until 2002 for a formal apology from the government, finally made by Helen Clark at a function marking Chinese New Year at Parliament. She acknowledged the “considerable hardship” that the poll tax imposed on Chinese immigrants and their families, and that the actions are seen today as “unacceptable”. It was a long wait for such an admission, and it’ll be interesting to follow the outcomes of the government’s proposed contribution to the restoration of Chinese culture and heritage in New Zealand.

Knowing now the extent to which Chinese people were persecuted during the last two centuries in New Zealand, it is easier to understand some of the vitriolic claims that have been thrown at Salient recently, owing to our ‘provocative’ depictions of Hu Jintao amongst other things. While I still believe that both that image and the accompanying article were neither intentionally offensive nor racist, the link that some readers made between those provocations and historical blights such as the poll tax is genuine. When we criticise the Chinese government for its (significant) human rights abuses and repression of civil liberties, Chinese citizens in New Zealand have every right to cough about hypocrisy. It pains me to wonder if significant amounts of the debate surrounding the China Free Trade Agreement were thanks to the resilient strands of prejudice that still run through certain Kiwi communities (as opposed to genuine concerns about worker conditions in China, for example). It’s a timely reminder, in the run up to the much contested Beijing Olympics, that if we scratch at the surface of any seemingly harmonious society, history will reveal an unpleasantly lucid piece of bigoted legislation. Protesting about human rights in China is as relevant today as it ever was, but in pointing the finger ahead it can be easy to forget our once backward ways.


Murphy, Nigel The Poll-tax in NZ. Published by Office of Ethnic Affairs, Wellington.

Ip, Manying Dragons on the Long White Cloud. Tandem Press, Auckland.


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  1. “Protesting about human rights in China is as relevant today as it ever was, but in pointing the finger ahead it can be easy to forget our once backward ways.”

    Excellent summary, and something I’ve often heard as a retort from Chinese nationalists. Obviously we’ve toned down the ‘racial purity’ speeches in the last fifty years, but it still unnerves me how WInston Peters can poll so consistently on such poisonous rhetoric.

  2. Electrum Stardust says:

    A well-written and informative article.

    What people (especially in the West) largely fail to realise is that all these criticisms (justified or not) about China come from (at least) two different camps:

    On the one hand, there are basically well-meaning people genuinely concerned about (the still less-than-perfect) human rights situation in China. Many Chinese people would agree (in private, at least) with their concerns.

    But on the other hand, there are people jumping onto the Chinese-bashing bandwagon, who harbour a deep-rooted insecurity about the rise of a country about which they actually know little. Some of these people are, well, racist, in the true sense of the word. (Some people who belong to this camp may even be found at the ‘left’ end of the political spectrum.)

    What adds to the confusion is that these two groups often overlap, sometimes deliberately (so as to conceal their real agendas). For others, they may not even be consciously aware of their own less-than-honourable intentions.

  3. Rainbow Fire says:

    Excellent infomative article.

    However I disagree with the statement “restrictions faced by no other race in the world”. Although I do agree that the asian race were, and still are, discriminated against in this countryrestrictions faced by no other race in the world. They were not the only immmigrant race discriminated against by migratory restrictions.

    Do not forget about the masses of Samoan migrants who entered the country due to the shortage of service and industry workers in the early 1900’s only to be abruptly evicted via the notorious “Dawn Raids” which started in 1974. Although, an arguement for this may be that they were overstaying their visas. It is important to note that these visas only had a short lifespan of 3 months, shorter than the employment contracts many of these people were promised to lure them into the country.

  4. Electrum Stardust says:

    A Zen (Chan) koan (gong’an):

    “How many locks would a locksmith chuck, if Locksmith Wood could smash wood to smithereens?”

    Answer – ONE “stupid macaque peach”…


  5. tom appleton says:

    yes and no. racism is not even half the issue. i mean, it’s absolutely marginal. china today is a mess and new zealand needs to be very clear what kind of place it is dealing with. see for example —

    Children as victims of environmental pollution

    The province of Shanxi has the highest rate of birth disorders in China. In China, according to official data, a child with physical malformations is born every 30 seconds. Approximately 1.1 million children, altogether seven per cent of the newborn children in China per year, would come into the world with birth defects, said the deputy chief of the commission for family planning, Jiang fan, according to media reports.
 The number of children with deformations was constantly increasing both in rural and urban regions. In the opinion of the medical specialist Hu Yali of Nanjing university the causes for the birth defects are ” highly complicated”. Some ten per cent of the cases were owed to environmental pollution alone, with 25 to 30 per cent based on a genetic assessment. The remaining malformations are to be attributed according to Hu to both factors. Two thirds with illnesses of the respiratory system, 
 the highest rate of birth defects are found in the north Chinese province and coal and iron processing center of Shanxi, as reported by the “China Daily” newspaper. Also in other industrial zones a connection between environmental pollution and illnesses is recognizable. The large city Linfen, which is considered as the heart of China’s enormous and expanding coal industry, is according to the Blacksmith Institute the dirtiest city of China. Illegal mines and factories and 
not least the numerous illegal and uncontrolled mines, steel factories and tar refineries were polluting the air and the water in pestilential ways, reports the Blacksmith institute. According to media reports alone two thirds of all infants in Linfen already suffer from illnesses of the respiratory system, reducing their life expectancies according to statistics by up to ten years.

  6. tom appleton says:

    or take this:

    Government pro-smoking campaign sparks controversy
    Source: The Global Times [07:37 May 04 2009]Comments
    By Chen Yang

    A regulation urging civil servants to smoke local cigarettes has not been banned despite nationwide controversy, according to the local authority yesterday.

    Released by the Gong’an county government in Hubei Province last month, the regulation set standards for the number and brands of cigarettes to be bought and used by its officials.

    All local government agencies and institutions should aim to consume 230,000 packs of Hubei Province-produced cigarettes a year, or about 4 million yuan ($588,235). Departments which failed to consume sufficient cigarettes or consumed non-local brand cigarettes would be fined, Hubei-based Chutian Metropolis Daily reported.

    The regulation will boost the local economy via cigarette tax, said Chen Nianzu, a member of the cigarette market supervision team in Gong’an.

    The regulation included punishments but no offenders have been fined, said an unnamed spokesman at the county public relations department. The regulation is just a general guideline and does not target specific tobacco brands, an official at the county finance bureau who refused to give his name told the Global Times yesterday.

    The Hubei cigarette market is dominated by Hunan brands Furongwang, Baisha and the Yunan brand Ashima according to a Internet user allegedly from the same county. The measure will help the brand Huanghelou survive competition.

    The measure seems intended to boost the local economy but it in fact boosts the political careers of government officials, argued another former county resident on the Netease forum. In the long run, it boosts corruption and hurts the public interest, he said.

    The Hubei government is abusing its power by enforcing regional protectionism and encouraging smoking habits, an administration management professor at China Foreign Affairs University told the Global Times yesterday.

    “The central government has imposed a heavy tax on tobacco to protect public health and the environment,” said Wang Chunying.

    “The local government may benefit from the measure, but the country will pay for it in the end.”

    There are two ways to solve interest conflicts and strengthen cooperation between central and local authorities, she said.

    “The central government should add more indexes to the evaluation system for local officials, such as social fairness and environmental protection.

    “Furthermore, measures should be intensified to punish those who profit politically at the altar of public interest.”

    Jingzhou, another city in Hubei, also issued a similar regulation in 2007 to encourage locally produced cigarettes and boost tax revenue from the tobacco industry, according to a Southern Weekend report in 2007. The regulation was abandoned six months later.

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