Saturday, July 01, 2006

Charlie Wong

Candidly comparing the cultural kaleidoscope.
“For one person who dreams of making fifty thousand pounds, a hundred people dream of being left fifty thousand pounds.” - A. A. Milne Last week I went to Charlie Wong’s funeral. I have known Charlie for as far back as I can remember, but it wasn’t until he died that I found out his real name was Hoy Chung. The Chinese bow to European tradition pretty readily. Old Wong Nam, Charlies father, had a fruit and vegetable shop in Queen Street and the backyard of his store backed on to the backyard of my grandfather’s butcher’s shop in Lincoln Road. On a Friday night my mother would invariably take my sister and I to town to “do the shopping.” She would park the car in the alley behind the butcher’s shop and we would access Queen Street by walking through the back of Wong Nam’s shop. The Wong family lived and breathed that business, opening seven days a week, having all their meals there and only going home to sleep. Wong Nam had two sons, Charlie and Tommy, and they would always delight in telling me in later years how in 1938 when they came out with their mother from China to join their father he was too busy looking after the shop to go down to Wellington to pick them up off their slow boat from China. Dad’s brother offered to take my grandfather’s big Plymouth car and pick the boys and their mother up off the ship. My uncle Frank Long was six foot six and Tommy, who was eleven years younger than Charlie, was petrified at the sight of the towering European and wondered if he had come to live in a land of giants. Later on that year Frank joined the Royal Air force in England and was killed when the bomber he was piloting was shot down over Germany in March 1941. Back in those days Chinese immigrants were fleeing the Japanese invasion of their land. Tommy’s wife, Jenny, told me that as a young girl she and her classmates were herded into a school hall by the Japanese and gassed. She cheated death by covering her mouth and escaping. Later, many of those who survived the brutal Japanese occupation were then shot for being property owners by the Chinese communists who showed no mercy to the bourgeoisie. The whole country was purged in their senselessly sadistic cultural revolution. Once they got to New Zealand the Chinese settlers then had to pay the insidious poll tax. But they knew what they had to do to succeed in their adopted country. They needed to work hard, live frugally and invest in property; and they would encourage their children to become high educational achievers. Today the descendants of those original Masterton Chinese families are spread far and wide, operating in some of the world’s most respected financialand educational institutions where they are earning salaries their ancestors could only have dreamed of. A few years back Winston Peters was in full tirade against immigration policies that he reckoned would see Asians ending up owning half the country. Tommy Wong, who now had his own fruit and vege shop next to our meatmarket in Queen Street, (our radio advertising slogan was “Long’s, next to Wong’s”) took me out to the middle of the road in front of our shops early one morning and pointing up and down Queen Street identified all the commercial buildings that were owned by Chinese. The number was staggering. “Asians already own half “bruddy” New Zealand” he said, with an impish giggle. After Charlie was buried at Masterton’s Riverside cemetery we had great difficulty getting back to the funeral parlour on the other side of town for afternoon tea. This was the day of the Hikoi and access to Masterton’s main street was blocked off. I saw the angry young men with their red flags and in some cases covered faces and I compared them, somewhat unfavourably, with the community I was fellowshipping at the funeral with. Worse than that, the parallel with the marchers and the Red Guards was not too big a leap to make. That night Paul Holmes wondered out loud if we might be heading for a civil war. Perhaps I’m being unfair. There was genuine passion in this demonstration, but it seemed to me like wasted energy which would have been better channelled into wealth creation for their dispossessed communities. The cause they champion is unattainable given that an overwhelming majority of the people in our legislative chamber, both Maori and Pakeha, are not the least bit convinced that the original settlers in this land have some God-given right to ownership of the seabed and the foreshore. At the Hikoi’s culmination the next day at parliament we saw placards like “Go back to England” and “Welcome to Your New Landlords” and even a sign conveying the intention to boil and eat those expressing opposition to the Maori claim which were pretty intimidating if you took them seriously. Helen called the protesters haters and wreckers making Don Brash look like one of the tangata whenua. Charlie Wong’s funeral service took less than half an hour. As we had afternoon tea later I could sense most of the participants were eying their watches knowing they needed to get back to their places of production. A few weeks previous I went to the funeral of a dear Maori gentleman at the Te Ore Ore Marae. Thousands attended and the extempore eulogising extended the service to nearly four hours. Later, the mourning will have continued well into the night. Perhaps, in a concerted effort to share more in the wealth of this country, the Maori community need to initiate their own cultural revolution. I was reminded of the old Jewish merchant lying on his deathbed surrounded by his family. With his eyes closed he wantedto know who was at the bedside. “Are you there Mordacai?” “Yes Dad,” “Are you there Ikey?” “Yes Dad.” He went through the names of all of his children to determine their presence or otherwise. When it was clear his whole family had gathered, with a pained look on his face he asked: “Then who the heck is looking after the shop?” 12/5/2004

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