Monday, October 26, 2009

In Chinatown, Sound of the Future Is Mandarin

He grew up playing in the narrow, crowded streets of Manhattan’s Chinatown. He has lived and worked there for all his 61 years. But as Wee Wong walks the neighborhood these days, he cannot understand half the Chinese conversations he hears.

Paul Lee, a longtime resident of Chinatown, near his home on Mott Street. He said that Cantonese “may be a dying language.”

Cantonese, a dialect from southern China that has dominated the Chinatowns of North America for decades, is being rapidly swept aside by Mandarin, the national language of China and the lingua franca of most of the latest Chinese immigrants.

The change can be heard in the neighborhood’s lively restaurants and solemn church services, in parks, street markets and language schools. It has been accelerated by Chinese-American parents, including many who speak Cantonese at home, as they press their children to learn Mandarin for the advantages it could bring as China’s influence grows in the world.

But the eclipse of Cantonese — in New York, China and around the world — has become a challenge for older people who speak only that dialect and face increasing isolation unless they learn Mandarin or English. Though Cantonese and Mandarin share nearly all the same written characters, the pronunciations are vastly different; when spoken, Mandarin may be incomprehensible to a Cantonese speaker, and vice versa.

Mr. Wong, a retired sign maker who speaks English, can still get by with his Cantonese, which remains the preferred language in his circle of friends and in Chinatown’s historic core. A bit defiantly, he said that if he enters a shop and finds the staff does not speak his dialect, “I go to another store.”

Like many others, however, he is resigned to the likelihood that Cantonese — and the people who speak it — will soon become just another facet of a polyglot neighborhood. “In 10 years,” Mr. Wong said, “it will be totally different.”

With Mandarin’s ascent has come a realignment of power in Chinese-American communities, where the recent immigrants are gaining economic and political clout, said Peter Kwong, a professor of Asian-American studies at Hunter College.

“The fact of the matter is that you have a whole generation switch, with very few people speaking only Cantonese,” he said. The Cantonese-speaking populace, he added, “is not the player anymore.”

The switch mirrors a sea change under way in China, where Mandarin, as the official language, is becoming the default tongue everywhere.

In North America, its rise also reflects a major shift in immigration. For much of the last century, most Chinese living in the United States and Canada traced their ancestry to a region in the Pearl River Delta that included the district of Taishan. They spoke the Taishanese dialect, which is derived from and somewhat similar to Cantonese.

Immigration reform in 1965 opened the door to a huge influx of Cantonese speakers from Hong Kong, and Cantonese became the dominant tongue. But since the 1990s, the vast majority of new Chinese immigrants have come from mainland China, especially Fujian Province, and tend to speak Mandarin along with their regional dialects.

In New York, many Mandarin speakers have flocked to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and Flushing, Queens, which now rivals Chinatown as a center of Chinese-American business and political might, as well as culture and cuisine. In Chinatown, most of the newer immigrants have settled outside the historic core west of the Bowery, clustering instead around East Broadway.

“I can’t even order food on East Broadway,” said Jan Lee, 44, a furniture designer who has lived all his life in Chinatown and speaks Cantonese. “They don’t speak English; I don’t speak Mandarin. I’m just as lost as everyone else.”

Now Mandarin is pushing into Chinatown’s heart.

For most of the 100 years that the New York Chinese School, on Mott Street, has offered language classes, nearly all have taught Cantonese. Last year, the numbers of Cantonese and Mandarin classes were roughly equal. And this year, Mandarin classes outnumber Cantonese three to one, even though most students are from homes where Cantonese is spoken, said the principal, Kin S. Wong.

Some Cantonese-speaking parents are deciding it is more important to point their children toward the future than the past — their family’s native dialect — even if that leaves them unable to communicate well with relatives in China.

“I figure if they have to acquire a language, I wanted them to have Mandarin because it makes it easier when they go into the workplace,” said Jennifer Ng, whose 5-year-old daughter studies Mandarin at the language school of the Church of the Transfiguration, a Roman Catholic parish on Mott Street where nearly half the classes are devoted to Mandarin. Her 8-year-old son takes Cantonese, but only because there is no English-speaking Mandarin teacher for his age group.
“Can I tell you the truth?” she said. “They hate it! But it’s important for the future.” Until recently, Sunday Masses at Transfiguration were said in Cantonese. The church now offers two in Mandarin and only one in Cantonese. And as the arrivals from mainland China become old-timers, “we are beginning to have Mandarin funerals,” said the Rev. Raymond Nobiletti, the Cantonese-speaking pastor.

Kindergarten students at the New York Chinese School, where Mandarin classes now outnumber Cantonese three to one.

At the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, which has been the unofficial government of Chinatown for generations and conducts its business in Cantonese, the president, Justin Yu, said he is the first whose mother tongue is Mandarin to lead the 126-year-old organization. Though he has been taking Cantonese lessons in order to keep up at association meetings, his pronunciation is sometimes a source of hilarity for his colleagues, he said.

“No matter what,” he added, laughing, “you have to admire my courage.”

But even his association is being surpassed in influence by Fujianese organizations, said Professor Kwong of Hunter College.

Longtime residents seem less threatened than wistful. Though he is known around Chinatown for what he calls his “legendarily bad” Cantonese, Paul Lee, 59, said it pained him that the dialect was disappearing from the place where his family has lived for more than a century.

“It may be a dying language,” he acknowledged. “I just hate to say that.”

But he pointed out that the changes were a natural part of an evolving immigrant neighborhood: Just as Cantonese sidelined Taishanese, so, too, is Mandarin replacing Cantonese.

Mr. Wong, the principal of the New York Chinese School, said he had tried to adjust to the subtle shifts during his 40 years in Chinatown. When he arrived in 1969, he walked into a coffee shop and placed his order in Cantonese. Other patrons looked at him oddly.

“They said, ‘Where you from?’ “ he recalled. “ ‘Why you speak Cantonese?’ ” They were from Taishan, he said, so he switched to Taishanese and everyone was happy.

“And now I speak Mandarin better than Cantonese,” he added with a chuckle. “So, Chinatown — it’s always changing.”

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Master brews clean green Waikato tea

4:00AM Monday Oct 05, 2009
By Andrea Fox
Ming-Hsun Yu has the same expertise for his product as a wine master has for his.
Unsmiling, intense, Master Yu swirls steaming water to pre-heat the delicate white green tea pot and miniature china beakers with the absorbed concentration a master of wine, would swirl shiraz to judge its colour.

Respectfully addressed as "Master" by the staff at Waikato's oolong green tea farm company Zealong, where he has come from Taiwan to further school in tasting and presentation, Ming-Hsun Yu is dressed in green theatre scrubs and presides over an ornate Chinese heavy stone tea platform that would be at home in an art gallery or museum.

The scrubs are because Master Yu has come to this traditionally designed teahouse at Zealong's plantation at Rototuna, north of Hamilton, from the nearby sterile environment of the tea processing plant.

The comparison with a master of wine is valid, says Kiwi Mark Levick, co-founder of leading New Zealand organic certification agency BioGro who is supervising the full conversion of this plantation to organic status.

Master Yu is Zealong's tea processing manager and for 18 years has been involved in producing the world's finest oolong teas for Chinese markets. Grown in Taiwan, south China, Vietnam and now on 50ha in the heart of the Waikato, premium oolong tea can sell for up to $11,000 per kg.

Master Yu is here to train staff as Zealong, founded in Hamilton 13 years ago by the Taiwanese immigrant family Chen, counts down to the November world launch of its premium tea, with its branding connotations of purity as a clean, green, New Zealand-grown safe food.

Estimated revenue from the first 2009 export crop to high-end Chinese markets is $16 million, with annual harvest revenue expected to be around $56 million in five years when plants at a second plantation at nearby Gordonton mature.

The Chen family have invested more than $10 million in the venture. They were inspired when new immigrant Tzu Chen, who was developing a housing subdivision in Rototuna in the 90s, saw how camellia trees flourished in the Waikato's rich pasturelands. Tea comes from a species of camellia.

In 1996 Tzu Chen and son Vincent propagated 130 premium quality seedlings from Taiwan, and purchased 3ha nearby as a nursery.

Zealong deputy general manager Gigi Crawford said the venture had created employment for 100 New Zealand contractors and consultants, and 32 tea pickers and plantation workers. The company paid $800,000 in wages last year, 85 per cent of which went into the Waikato economy, she said.

By 2014 the picturesque plantations, which will have three 20-day harvests a year, will need 130 workers.

Zealong plans to invest another $18 million in a tourist attraction at the Gordonton plantation next year.

It will include a tea-house for visitors, cafe, conference centre, tea processing factory and eventually, a hotel, set around a lake and gardens.

This project is awaiting local authority approvals. But for Zealong the most challenging aspect of the venture has been getting skilled workers for the highly labour-intensive picking and processing stages, Crawford said.

"We need the specialised skills of overseas, experienced tea pickers and workers to transfer the technical know-how to our local workers, particularly in the first five years. "It is also important the Asian markets know New Zealand-grown Zealong tea is made the traditional way."

The brand was due to be launched in June, but Zealong has only in recent days, supported by politicians and business agencies, won approval from immigration officials for 15 specialist Taiwanese pickers to enter the country for the November harvest. Next year, the company must apply again.

Crawford said using machinery to pick tea leaves would turn the first $1000/kg Zealong crops into a $10/kg product. "To maintain the quality of this tea and to respect the unique environment it is grown in we cannot do this. We talk to the plants all the time - to use a machine on them is just not right."

* Tea tips

Oolong tea consumption in Taiwan in 2008 - 1200g per person. China 600g per person.

Chinese market expected to double within 10 years.

Fine oolong plays important role in Chinese health, business and social structures.

80 per cent of Zealong to be exported - balance domestic through specialist tea shops.

Zealong tea farming produces no effluent, uses no chemical sprays.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Beginner's guide to Chinese resources

Central City Library
Wednesday 30 September, noon – 1pm
This workshop will get you started if you’re keen to search for your Chinese roots. It’ll help you identify information and resources available in New Zealand such as databases, websites and recommended reading. We’ll also cover several case studies of Chinese families in New Zealand. Bookings essential – call on 307 7771 or use our online booking form.

Mon, 20 Jul 2009 100 Years Ago

In conversation with a Wellington pressman, Mr Yung Liang-Wang, Consul-general for New Zealand, said that the Chinese do not live so cheaply as is generally supposed.

They spent more money on food and drink than other men of their class in this country.

It was their custom to go out on Sundays nicely dressed, and to meet together at a social feast, where they would have eight or 10 courses, with Chinese wines, which paid a high import duty, and were rather expensive.

Wed, 9 Sep 2009 100 Years Ago

A Morton Mains correspondent writes to the Southland News: "Quite a Chinese colony is springing up in the vicinity of Invercargill.

Lately several farmers in the Morton Mains and Edendale districts have shown a marked preference for the Celestials, and it is given out on good authority that some farmers intend to introduce Chinese labour into their milking sheds.

The experiment will be watched with interest as marking a new departure in the dairying industry."

Wed, 10 Sep 2008 100 Years Ago

Quite a large number of Europeans attended the funeral of Tommy Ah Joe at Cromwell (says the Argus), and the ceremonies at the grave as carried out by the Chinese would rather astonish those not accustomed to the Chinese funeral rites.

During the burial the clothes of the deceased were burned, and food placed round the grave, and the Europeans were treated to a glass of spirits, and were also presented with two pennies.

Tue, 1 Sep 2009 100 Years Ago

Auckland: Speaking at the banquet given in his honour last night, the Chinese Consul (Mr Yung Liang Hwang) had some interesting remarks to make.

He did not know the meaning of the words "Yellow peril."

There would never be anything to fear from China.

All she wanted was fair play.

China had no aggressive ideas, and no desire to seize what was the bread and butter of other nations.

Did the cry of a yellow peril mean peril commercially? He did not think so.

As long as the Chinese merchants remained true to their traditions of honesty, impartiality, friendliness, and generousness she would never be a trouble to the world in this respect.

The term "Yellow peril" was one which he regarded as very unreasonable.

China was a moral country, and its motto was "A Country of Purity."

In regard to what had been said about the cost of living amongst the Chinese, he would remind them that as their civilisation advanced so the cost of living would advance.

China was making many mistakes, but she was gradually working her way through.

The people of China were at all times loyal and honest.

The Chinese in New Zealand were obedient to what the Mother Country had taught them - to be peaceful, honest, industrious, humble and kind.

That was what they were taught to do.

They did not contribute to the Mother Country as far as money was concerned, but they had that good sense of loyalty, and so it was through all parts of the world.

The Chinese had proved that there was nothing to fear in this cry of a yellow peril. . .

Fri, 18 Apr 2008 100 Years Ago

The Vincent County Council has written to the Otago Charitable Aid Board, as follows:

"With reference to the quarterly list of those in receipt of aid, this council would advise that the whole of the Chinese in this county be struck off the list, the council having reliable information that the sums received by them, in most instances, are being improperly used. Should renewed or fresh applications be received by the council on their behalf, this council will recommend that every applicant be received into the Benevolent Institution, and, failing to accept this, aid be withheld; the other names on the list are in order, and in this council's opinion should be renewed.''

A telegram of later date from the council read: "Considerable distress among Chinese owing to stoppage of supplies. County chairman suggests that you instruct storekeepers to continue supplies to end of May.''

The Aid Board members then questioned the board chairman's action in stopping supplies in line with the county's initial request.

Mr Mosley (Bruce County) pointed out that the Benevolent Institution Trustsees had declined an increase for Chinese in Bruce from 3s to 4s a week, but then took the Chinese into the institution at 6s 6d a week.

Therefore if they could get over the difficulty by keeping these Chinese where they were, they should not burden the country with their upkeep in the institution.

It was resolved that supplies be continued to Chinese in Vincent and that the finance committee should report on the whole matter.

Tue, 1 Jul 2008 100 Years Ago

The Chinese Immigrants Restriction Act of last session, which has just received the Royal assent, provides that no Chinese shall land in New Zealand until it has been proved that he or she is able to read a printed passage of not less than 100 words of the English language selected at the discretion of the Collector of Customs or principal officer at the port of landing.

The right of appeal to a magistrate is provided.

Any master of a ship who lands or permits to land in the Dominion any Chinese who has not fulfilled the requirements of the act is liable to a penalty not exceeding 50.

The act will not apply to any teacher of the Christian religion duly accredited to the Minister of Internal Affairs.

Sat, 19 Sep 2009 100 Years Ago

• Mr Yung Liang Hwang, Consul for China in the Dominion, arrived in Dunedin by the first express on Saturday, and was welcomed at the station by a number of countrymen.

Yesterday afternoon he spoke to 186 Chinese in the Chinese Church at Walker Street, and in the evening spoke at the Dunedin Central Mission.

The service in the afternoon was conducted by the Chinese missionary (the Rev. A. Don) and Mr F. L. Law.

The Consul, on rising to speak, was greeted by the whole congregation standing and saluting in Chinese style.

He said he would not preach a sermon to them, but would give them "a straight talk about practical Christianity", talking to them as his brothers and because he loved them, so that they should not take offence at what he would say.

He then asked his countrymen some very searching questions as to the reasons for their being despised and hated by Europeans, and gave them wholesome advice in detail regarding cleanliness, education, gambling, and opium-smoking.

The congregation took the address remarkably well, and when a vote was taken to request the Consul to prolong his stay so that a banquet could be tendered on Wednesday, every man rose and held up his hand.

The Consul, however, could not agree to extend his stay.

Heritage trail a gold mine

By Glenn Conway on Sat, 5 Jul 2008
The Regions: Otago

Otago's mayors will this month be asked to embrace plans for a Chinese heritage trail that has the potential to bring hundreds of thousands of visitors into the region and provide a modern tourist gold mine.

Organisers of the proposed trail want to see it in place for the Lawrence 150th anniversary celebrations in 2011.

The trail would link the Chinese garden in Dunedin, the goldfields of Lawrence-Tuapeka and the Cromwell Mining Centre as key drawcards for visitors from China.

Exact details of the trail, how it would work, what it would include and the price tag have yet to be determined.

Dunedin historian Dr Jim Ng, who is also behind plans to recreate the Lawrence Chinese camp, will present the gold trail concept to the Otago Forward meeting on July 18.

This group of Otago leaders will be asked to endorse the idea in principle so Dr Ng and others can prepare a feasibility study and detailed costings.

A paper on the concept, prepared by Morgan GR Tourism Management, said several factors suggested Otago had significant potential for Chinese tourism.

Those factors included the recent signing of a free-trade agreement between both countries, Dunedin's sister city relationship with Shanghai, the Chinese garden, and joint pushes by Air New Zealand and Tourism New Zealand into the Chinese market.

Talks with tourism heads suggest there was a dearth of "Chinese-specific tourism products" which could lead to the development of Chinese tourism to New Zealand over the next decade.

"The conjunction of the Chinese history in Otago, current relationships between the Otago community and China, a milestone in the Lawrence sesquicentenary in 2011, the presence of New Zealand's leading tourism resort in Otago and the macro signals in the closer trading relationship between the two countries suggest the time is right for a [tourism] project to develop a Chinese heritage trail in the Otago region," the paper said.

The aim of the trail would be to provide a specific focus for the development of Chinese tourism to New Zealand, offer an economic return to the region and its communities, and enhance the identification, protection and interpretation of Chinese history in the region, it said.

The first three steps involve presenting the proposal, a feasibility study and then implementing the trail.

Clark pays tribute to Chinese at garden blessing

Home » News » Dunedin
By Dene Mackenzie on Tue, 10 Jun 2008
News: Dunedin

The Prime Minister , Helen Clark, is followed by Dunedin Mayor Peter Chin on a tour of the Dunedin Chinese Garden today. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
Prime Minister Helen Clark today attended the blessing of the $7 million Dunedin Chinese Garden and paid tribute to the work that had been carried out to bring the project to fruition.

The Chinese had a long history in the province after they trekked into Central Otago in search of gold. Some had returned to set up businesses in Dunedin or start their market gardens.

Their important contribution to the region had been recognised through the new gardens, she said.

Also attending the blessing, carried out by the Anglican Bishop of Dunedin, George Connor, were Dunedin Mayor Peter Chin, the Chinese Ambassador to New Zealand, Zhang Yuanyuan,
Madame Wang, representing the Shanghai Museum, Chinese Gardens Trust deputy chairman Peter Sew Hoy and trust secretary-treasurer Malcolm Wong.

The blessing started with the lighting of traditional Chinese Crackers.

Chinese garden is in Oamaru's Public Gardens

Sat, 12 Apr 2008
, Yvonne Cox, who found a way of celebrating the Chinese community.

Dunedin's authentic ‘‘scholar-official'' Chinese garden, Lan Yuan, is getting its final polish before opening next month.

It is the newest in a series of Chinese-style gardens throughout New Zealand. All except one celebrate sister-city friendships.

New Zealand's first Chinese garden is in Oamaru's Public Gardens. It is a symbol of the friendship between Oamaru and the large Chinese community in the Waitaki district, most of them descendants of the Central Otago gold miners.

The creation of this garden in 1988 is an inspiring, little-known story.

Right from the start, the catalyst for the garden's creation, and still working on its development, is an extraordinary Oamaru woman.

Yvonne Cox is 86, a tall, stylish and handsome woman. She has worked 38 years as promotions consultant for the Otago Daily Times in Oamaru and continues to go to her office.

In the 1980s, her husband was a public accountant working from home. Some of his clients were local Chinese; they would bring gifts of vegetables for Mrs Cox.

She found herself thinking about the big community of Chinese market gardeners at Totara, just south of Oamaru.

‘‘I was aware of three generations of Chinese in the district, and I wondered why these people had never been recognised within the community.

‘‘I thought, there will come a day when the sons and daughters of these market gardeners will all be educated professionals, and we won't have a Chinese settlement there any more. Somebody needs do something about it.''

That somebody, not surprisingly, was Mrs Cox. In 1987, she spoke to Jimmy Kong, a leader in the Chinese community at that time, regarding an idea she had.

He, in turn, called a meeting in the Totara School hall. About 40 Chinese men attended, ‘‘with two women in the kitchen making tea''.

Mrs Cox spoke of her idea, thinking a weekend festival might be an appropriate celebration, ‘‘but I needed to have the support of the Chinese community so that I could ask for advice as to what was culturally acceptable''.

Two weeks later, representatives of the Chinese community came to her with a proposal for opening night: they would provide a Chinese chef and a team of young people dressed in black and white to work as waiters.

They envisaged a 10-course banquet for 400 people at $40 a head to be held in the new recreation centre in Oamaru.

Three days later, with not a single advertisement, all the tickets had been sold. Half the profits went to the Totara School for equipment and the other half was held in trust by the Waitaki District Council; there were already ideas for a celebration garden.

‘‘What was to be the Whitestone Chinese Festival weekend in May 1988 turned out to be a nine-day event, and it paid for itself,'' Mrs Cox said. ‘‘People from all over the South Island brought ideas and artefacts - a man came from Central with articles from the Chinese huts in the gold fields; they were on display in the Brydone Hotel.''

In the two years after Mrs Cox first approached the Chinese community, three Chinese came on to the 1990 sesquicentennial celebration committee.

‘‘Never had there been a single Chinese person on any public committee in Waitaki. They simply said they had never been invited.''

In 1990, the Waitaki district offered 53 sesquicentennial festival events, the largest number for a town of its size in New Zealand. Mrs Cox suggested a Chinese festival, and again the Chinese Association offered another $40 banquet for another huge sellout crowd.

Once more, money went back to the Totara School, but this time half the profits were added to the previous trust fund to make a beginning on a commemorative Chinese garden.

A local architect, Bruce Parker, was consulted, as was New Zealand Chinese historian Dr James Ng, in Dunedin.

Graeme Hall, then parks and reserves manager, visited the Chinese Friendship Garden in Sydney and came back enthused with ideas. The garden committee consisted of Mrs Cox, Waitaki Mayor Duncan Taylor, Mr Hall, and four Chinese from the Totara community: Wing Yee, Bill Lee, Martyn Tonkin, and Jim Kong.

The first step was designing a gateway and procuring appropriate roof tiles from China.

Immediately behind the entrance is a wall designed traditionally to deflect evil spirits, which, in Chinese lore, move only in straight lines.

‘‘In my mind,'' Mrs Cox said, ‘‘I could see a dragon on that 14ft wide, 7ft high wall, so I got in the car and drove to Dunedin, found the man at Otago University in charge of ceramics and asked if there was a Chinese ceramic artist in any of his classes. He burst out laughing and said no, he hadn't.''

Three weeks later, however, there was a fax on her desk recommending Christine Black, the previous year's ceramics honours student.

Mrs Cox sent her to Dr Ng, ‘‘for guidance as to the correct dragon''. Eventually the design and cost came in: not much short of $10,000.

‘‘So I got in my car again and went down to Nick Smith at the ODT. I said I would like to know if the company could sponsor this dragon. He said, ‘You give me one good reason why we should spend $10,000 on a Chinese dragon to go on a wall in Oamaru, the week we're buying a new printing press'.''

Mrs Cox had more than one good reason, and today the dragon can be seen at the entrance to the Chinese garden.

For the most part, the design for the garden has come from the local Chinese community. The first stage involved building the gateway and enlarging a small pond to create a little lake.

The excavated soil and truckloads of local boulders created the mountainscapes essential to any Chinese garden design.

Initial planting included bamboo, and the mature weeping willows by the lake, Salix babylonica, that had their origins in China.

The second stage involved expanding the lake and preparing the site for the final features, now in the planning stage: a tea house by the lake and an Oamaru stone wall to separate the Chinese garden from the 1960s Oriental garden beyond.

On November 18, 1995, at the completion of the first stage, the Chinese Garden was officially opened by Mr Huang Guifang, Ambassador of the People's Republic of China.

He planted a Chinese tree; Paulownia tomentosa is native to east Asia and known to the Chinese as the elephant tree.

In a nice coincidence, Mrs Cox's son Laurence now works in China. He came home for a visit late last year with his Chinese wife, Ming, and her mother came too.

Naturally, they visited the Chinese garden and immediately recognised the thriving elephant tree.

Mrs Cox's best Christmas present arrived on December 18, when her Chinese granddaughter, Davina Yvonne, was born in Dunedin.

That would make it just 20 years since her first move to salute the Chinese community in the Waitaki District.


Masterpiece first novel by Wong

Gavin McLean reviews As the Earth Turns Silver.

Alison Wong
Penguin, $37, hbk

Poet Alison Wong's first novel is quite simply a masterpiece.

The framework is deceptively simple, the story of three outsiders.

Two are Chinese vegetable sellers, the brothers Shun and Yung, drawn to the "New Gold Mountain", as they called New Zealand, to make their fortune, only to occupy the social and economic fringe of settler society.

The other, also an outsider, is white, but in pre-social welfare New Zealand sudden widowhood was enough to reduce people like Katherine McKechnie and her young children to poverty.

I won't surprise anyone by revealing that (a) Katherine falls in love with Yung and (b) that the star-crossed lovers' relationship is doomed to fail.

That predictable ending won't harm your enjoyment of the book.

In this novel Wong uses a deceptively conventional narrative form to explore racism, cross-cultural relationships and a woman's role in society, in new and satisfying ways.

A lesser writer might have made a heartfelt but predictable rant about all three.

Wong makes her points, but with a beguiling lightness of touch.

Subtlety, solid research and fine writing are her great strengths.

So, although Lionel Terry struts his stuff as the cardboard racist loner, converting Katherine's late husband, Wong shows the corrosive power of racism more tellingly through a few comments from Katherine's son.

There, you say, that's how it regenerates.

She also catches the city's racism in her description of wealthy Oriental Parade under moonlight.

"The most beautiful street in Wellington. The Chinese street where no Chinese lived."

Historical Wellington is the fourth "character" of the book.

Apart from one short chapter set in China to show the loved ones the brothers left behind, As the Earth Turns Silver is set in the early-20th-century "Empire City", centred on Haining St, the tiny Chinese enclave shunned by respectable Europeans, and in working class Newtown.

Some historical novels go overboard with period detail. Wong does not.

She's done her research, but brings the city's impoverished working-class suburbs alive convincingly without burying the plot and character development under a landslide of detail.

When Katherine and Yung make their clandestine night-time assignations, you can almost hear those new-fangled trams clanking their way around the Basin Reserve, but you don't lose track of what's going on between them.

Wong's greatest strength, though, is her writing style.

She can make peeling an onion profound: "She peeled the skins, held the naked onion in her hand. For a moment she saw a lopped-off globe with no continents or seas, a world that had lost its shape. And all its boundaries. Perhaps intelligence was not a blessing, More a test of character."

The book's final strength is its lyrical writing.

A wonderful book.

- Gavin McLean is a Wellington historian and reviewer.