Friday, February 18, 2011

Poll tax survivors

Being Chinese in NZ has always been a challenge, writes Merilee Andrews

Barry Wah Lee still has the unpaid grocery tabs clocked up in his grandfather's time. Many Chinese immigrants arrived in town with little more than the shirts on their backs, and in these tough times, the story goes that the elder Wah Lee, owner of the now iconic Chinese emporium on Hobson St, would cover not just people's food bills, but even the tax the government of the day charged to new Chinese migrants ? the sum of ?10. Prime Minister Helen Clark formally apologised at Chinese New Year in 2002 to descendants of Cantonese settlers who were singled out for the poll tax to enter the country and other punitive laws. Following the apology, a $5 million trust fund was established to promote the history, culture and language of the Chinese in New Zealand. ''Everything was against them,'' says Barry Wah Lee. My grandfather used to pay for most of the Chinese, and set them up to live.'' Selling everything from fireworks to silk to cooking utensils, the shop has a proud history of 102 years, and is a focal point not just for the Chinese but all Aucklanders. ''We're Aucklanders rather than just Chinese sort of thing,'' he says. ''There's a new generation that might not know us.'' -Barry Wah Lee has recently made oral recordings of his family's history, as part of a study called 21 Voices.

The research on early settler life is sponsored by the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust, and the search is still on to find others whose ancestors had to pay the entry tax to live here. For Aucklanders whowant to preserve their own family, work or community history, training workshops will run on August 26 and 27, September 23 and November 4. Contact Lorna Wong, 444 4310. 22nd August 2006

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