Chinese Women's Culture in New Zealand
Liz Ngan, 13 October 1992
I am here today to talk about Chinese women's culture in Aotearoa. To me this means: what our lives have been like in this country, what we have retained from our cultural past and what we do to deal with the present.
I haven't always found it easy being part of a visible minority. If, for example, I was first or second generation Scots would so many people ask me if I was born here, or would kids call me names in the street? If you belong to a majority culture, you don't have to question who you are or why you are here. If you are outside that majority, others will ask those questions for you.
By telling you about some women in my family you may see how the opportunities and expectations of Chinese women have changed over time. You will also see how different women deal with the challenges of being Chinese in this country.
The Chinese in this country come not only from China but also from Malaysia, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Fiji, Canary Islands and so on. Chinese people as a race are dispersed throughout the world. Both sides of my family come from the South China province of Guangzhou. On Dad's side it was his parents who emigrated here. My Grandfather came out late last century (19th), as a teacher of English and Chinese. My Grandmother, A-Ma arrived here in the 1920s. A-Ma was a second wife. My Grandfather married her because he wanted more sons. Back then in China man could have as many wives as he could support. His first wife had had three sons, but two of them had died in adulthood. When he married A-Ma, she was about the same age as his eldest son. I don't know what A-Ma's level of education was like. I don't ever remember seeing her reading or writing. But then again, most of the books around our house were in English and she didn't speak much English.
Not long after Dad was born here my Grandfather and A-Ma took the family back to China. They considered that their prospects were better in China. Although my Grandfather was a naturalised British citizen, he was not entitled to a pension, for example.
A-Ma didn't return to New Zealand for ten years, until the Sino-Japanese war concentrated on Guangzhou. Dad and his brother had been sent back to Wellington earlier. A-Ma and her daughter travelled through China by night to escape via Hong Kong. They left Hong Kong just as the Japanese declared war on Britain, A-Ma worked hard here to support her family. She worked in fruit shops, she did odd jobs like helping in laundries. She worked hard to survive. Eventually she borrowed enough money to start a fruit shop in Mirimar. A-Ma wasn't only working for her family who had escaped the war. Two sons had been left behind in China. One was her natural son, the other was the son of the third wife. It was always her ambition to reunite the family.
Sadly, this never happened while she was alive. My memories of A-Ma are of an old woman sitting in the sun at our house knitting jerseys and cardigans for her grandchildren back in Guangzhou. That and her taking a long draw on a Matinee cigarette while waiting for the tea to cook. I wish now that I could have spoken with her in Cantonese. If the language barrier wasn't there I would know a lot more about her and I could've heard her stories first hand.
In contrast to A-Ma, I have heard a lot of stories from my Nan. Mum's mother Dolly Wong was born in Wellington in 1911 over a fruit shop in Cuba Street. Nan's father emigrated here first and when he became established in business he sent back to the village for a wife. Nan had nine surviving brothers and sisters. She is the youngest of the three daughters, but not the youngest in the family. Nan was educated at Clyde Quay School and stayed until she did her proficiency. She was12 when her father said, "Enough education, you will work in the shop from now on." The shop was Te Aro Seed Company in Courtney Place. Although her father was strict, Nan found ways around the rules that were imposed.
She loved ballet and always wanted to dance, but her father didn't think it was proper behaviour. For a whole year she went off to ballet classes without her father's knowledge. Her eldest brother, George, paid for her lessons. At the end of the year the teacher said that there would be a recital and Nan would've loved to be in it. But she realised that her father would find out that she'd been going to the lessons, so she had to give it all up. Another thing that was forbidden was for the kids to eat fish and chips in the living quarters above the shop. Nan's older sisters, Lily and Daisy, would send her out with some money to the chip shop. When she got back, they'd lower a basket out of the bedroom window and haul the goodies up.
When Nan was 16 she went to China to complete her education. She went back with her parents and some of her brothers, and they lived in Guangzhou City. "Completing her education" meant learning to read and write Chinese and to know what her homeland was like. Most of her brothers and sisters spent time in Guangzhou for the same reasons.
Nan was lonely there. She missed her home and friends. One of the things she missed most were the cream doughnuts. After three years of studying Nan asked her father if she could take a job at the library where one of her cousins worked. He said, "No, because you'll be getting married." Nan's wedding to My Goong was arranged. She didn't want to get married but there was no choice. Luckily, she had met Goong before the wedding so he wasn't a complete stranger.
Also Goong had been working in New Zealand since he was a boy. He spoke and wrote English fluently and he knew what life was like here. Nan's sisters, Daisy and Lily, chose their own husbands, meeting them through church groups. One was a Baptist, the other was an Anglican. Both of them married in New Zealand and my great-grandfather wanted at least one of his daughters to have a traditional wedding in China. So probably that decision was made for Nan long before she knew.
Nan and Goong returned to New Zealand in the 1930s. In 1938 they took over the General Store at Utiku, near Taihape. Through running the General Store and having the cream and mail runs, Nan and Goong were very involved in the local community. They had five children in all and were the only Chinese family in Utiku. Later Nan and Goong moved to Lower Hutt where they still live. Although my great-grandfather had prevented Nan from working in the library in Guangzhou, she certainly worked hard for the rest of her life.
Mum, Jean Ngan, is Nan's eldest daughter. She has two brothers and two sisters. She remembers the years in Utiku as really happy, even although it was the end of the Depression and then World War II. As country kids she thought that her parents sheltered them from the hardships. Mum, like her brothers and sisters, spoke Cantonese up until the time she started school. From then on English was spoken at home, Cantonese became the language used by Nan and Goong if they wanted to speak in private. When visiting her grandparents as a teenager, she regretted that she couldn't speak more Cantonese.
Mum stayed at school till the fourth form (Yr 10). She did elocution lessons, learnt the piano and the organ and with her sister Marina played lots of sports. (Mum and her sisters' English names are Jeanette, Marina and Helene. Their Chinese names are Zhen-Ling, (Pure Lotus), Mei-Ling (Beautiful Lotus) and Hei-Ling (Happy Lotus).) The reason Mum left school when she was 15 was to help in the General Store, as Nan was expecting Helene. Mum says that no-one asked her to leave school. She just felt, as the eldest daughter, that she should. Her one condition was that when she turned 18 she would go and do her nursing training. There was one other time when Mum put her own plans on hold to help out the family. After she finished her nuring training and staffing at Hutt Hospital in 1956, she took a year out to help Nan and Goong in their fruit shop in Nae Nae. She says she hated it but again she felt she should do it. In 1959 Mum married Dad. She said there was an expectation that she would marry a Chinese man. The places where Chinese met each other were at dances and weddings. Mum met Dad when he his brother and a cousin went round to play Mah Jong with Goong. Mum gave up nursing when my brother was born in 1960. I came along in 1964 and Mum didn't return to nursing until I was in third form (Yr 9).
Mum is still nursing, and though it's often stressful, she really enjoys it, especially meeting and helping so many people. In the practice where she is head nurse, she finds the Asian patients are more open to her because she is Chinese. Again, she wishes she could speak Cantonese as it would make her dealings with the patients easier.
As for myself, I was born in Lower Hutt and grew up in Stokes Valley. My educational opportunities were greater than Mum's or Nan's. I don't ever remember deciding to go to university. It was just considered the natural follow-on from college. There weren't many Chinese kids at any of the schools I went to. The only Chinese people I knew were my relatives.
The only place I would see a lot of Chinese people would be at weddings, 80th birthday parties, the first month parties given to children, and other family celebrations. Growing up I found it hard to accept that I was Chinese. I actively disliked being different from other kids. And I actively hated the racism and petty name-calling. When I was 14 I decided, well, there's no way I can be anything else, I might as well be proud of my heritage. Since then I have listened more carefully to the family stories.
When I got to university, I studied Mandarin Chinese language and culture as part of my Arts degree. I learnt to read and write and speak. I appreciated how hard Nan must have studied in Guangzhou, at a similar age to me. The type of job possibilities for me were limited only by my imagination. There was no family business for me to work in, no particular profession that my parents wanted me to follow. Perhaps because there were no guidelines, that's the reason it took me so long to find something I enjoyed and was challenged by! After three years of library work and learning to weave, I moved into computing.
One of the things I enjoy about my life now, as opposed to when I was growing up, is that I have lots of Chinese women friends. They are supportive and loving. I often feel I can speak more freely with them than with other friends, because we share a bond of being different.
In particular when someone has been verbally or violently racist towards me like the day a man took a swing at me with piece of roofing iron and said he wished he'd killed "us" all in the war, the support is there. There's no question that you provoked him or that the world needs less people like that.
From the stories I've told you, I hope you have gained some idea of what it can be like to be a Chinese women in this country. While holding onto the culture they were brought up with, my Grandmothers made a life for themselves and their families. My mother as second generation New Zealand born Chinese, had more choice in her personal and professional life. But she still bore in mind family obligations and expectations.
For me the choices were even greater, including the choice of accepting or denying my Chinese identity. I am glad I accepted it. I am glad also of the opportunity to tell you of the struggles and achievements of the women in my family. And to share with you the richness that comes from being a Chinese woman in Aotearoa.
Liz Ngan of Wellington has kindly given her permission to use her 1992 YWCA lecture notes in this unit.
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