5:00AM Monday August 06, 2007 By Lincoln Tan
A press release announcing "Make Way for the New Mainstream" landed in my inbox last week. I thought it was about Don Brash starting a new political party.
Instead it was about the Banana Conference next weekend. For the third consecutive year, the New Zealand Chinese Association is organising a forum to bring Chinese communities in New Zealand together to talk about identity.
The release said: "The Chinese have a long association with New Zealand. This dates back to the 19th century. Our vision is to see local and overseas Chinese communities connecting in New Zealand without barriers and borders."
This vision statement sounds grand. But even calling it ambitious would be an understatement. It is probably closer to mission impossible.
Just before I moved from Christchurch to Auckland last year, a Pakeha friend, after a barrage of anti-Auckland sentiments, told me that it was a move for the better. "There are a lot more Chinese there," he said. His assumption was that by being surrounded by fellow Chinese, we would feel at home in Auckland. Oh, how wrong he was.
Although often lumped together as one, the 100,000-plus Chinese community in Auckland is far from that. It is an agglomeration of many fragmented communities, from the New Zealand-born "Bananas" (see definition below), to the immigrant Chinese communities from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. The groups are as different as chalk and won tons.
For me, the first hint of being different from the majority of the Chinese here came when I started writing for the Herald. "You are from Singapore, stop calling yourself Chinese," was one of the first emails I got from a Chinese reader. For describing myself as Peranakan (a Singapore Straits-born Chinese), I was called a "liar" by another Chinese reader who asserted there was no such thing as a Peranakan clan in China.
That was topped by several Chinese journalists who wrote a petition to the Herald asking for me to be removed as a columnist because I was not representative of the Chinese community.
Neither do I fully fit in with the Bananas. Although ethnically Chinese, the fact that I was born in Singapore and don't speak Mandarin or Cantonese accentuates my feeling of being different.
This was reinforced when I recently went out with a New Zealand-born Banana Chinese friend for drinks and dinner. While he was expertly sipping his wine and describing what matches what, I struggled to even tell the difference between a chardonnay and a pinot noir. I did not appreciate the Western fish dish he ordered which he said was "superb and excellent". I found the dish, well, fanciful looking but bland.
I said to him that I would far rather have had a plate of char kwey teow (fried rice noodles) with ice lemon tea. He shook his head and said that I was still a long way from becoming Kiwi. So I could hardly call myself a Banana.
In some places, calling someone a Banana is not something you would do in polite conversation. In my school days, it was a title conferred on those who tried to be too Western in their ways or regarded everything Western as superior, an insult for their lack of pride in being Asian.
However, the NZCA press release said the term is used here to describe Chinese living outside Asia who celebrate and embrace a blend of Eastern and Western cultures and influences.
There exists a strong disconnect and feelings of disparity between the New Zealand-born Chinese and new immigrants, and being somewhere in between, I hear stories from both sides.
"The Chinese migrants are just show-offs and keep to themselves," say my local Chinese friends.
"They don't know their roots and can't even speak guo yu [China's language]," counter the Chinese new immigrants.
One of my first assignments as a journalist in Auckland was to attend the launch of a Chinese film festival. When I asked the organisers if the NZCA, which comprised mainly New Zealand-born Chinese, was part of it, his reply was: "No, because they're not real Chinese."
The differences between the Chinese communities in New Zealand are huge, and I truly doubt there will ever be a time when they can connect without barriers or borders, as hoped by the conference organisers.
But I think the Banana Conference plays an important role in bringing the different Chinese communities, who would otherwise have little to do with each other, together, to talk about these barriers and borders.
For those wanting a glimpse of the fascinating complexities within the New Zealand Chinese communities, go to this conference. Rarely will you get a chance to attend something so Chinese - conducted fully in English.