Elizabeth Chan's speech to the Young Leaders Network Reunion
23 February 2012
I’d like to begin by thanking the Asia New Zealand Foundation for its support of and investment in the Young Leaders Network. In particular, I’d like to thank Dick, Vanessa, Melanie, Fiona and Adele for the opportunities that they have given us.
Elizabeth Chan speaking at the Young Leaders Network reunion.Tonight, I’d like to share something personal with you all.
My story is not an uncommon one. It starts in 1996 — well, perhaps it really starts about a hundred years before that, when China lost the Opium War and ceded Hong Kong to the British. 1997 was the year that Hong Kong was to be handed back to China, and the years just before that were pretty confusing and scary for people like my parents — those with young children and a great deal of uncertainty about how life might change.
I didn’t realise it then, but I was part of an influx of Hong Kong people who came to New Zealand in 1996. (Mum wanted to go to Canada, but Dad had heard that New Zealand was a slice of paradise.)
And so began a deeply personal journey about figuring out who I was — a Chinese kid in a Māori-Pākehā world. For many of my early years, I found my Chinese heritage irrelevant, annoying even. I didn’t particularly enjoy going back to Hong Kong for Christmas; it was too noisy and crowded. I resented having to go to Chinese school on Saturdays and struggled to master the characters – especially when English had come so easily to me. As many of you will understand, it’s very difficult to find motivation to learn about your culture when you feel like you’ve got no context for it.
Now, looking back on just over two years of involvement with the Young Leaders Network, I credit you all for helping me to be proud of who I am — a Kiwi-Chinese woman; for making me realise that there are lots of young people of all cultures who are passionate about Asia, indeed, many non-Asians who are far more steeped in Asian culture than I am.
I road-tripped up from Wellington today with some young leaders I’d just met. We stopped by a drive-through for a cup of coffee, and Frances told Nic the pin number of her Eftpos card in perfect Japanese, just so the rest of us couldn’t spend her money! Hamish told me he’d spent 10 years working in Taiwan, but still continues to be asked if he’s a visitor. Ephraim has been working with the Hutt City Council to organise cultural activities for the local community to enjoy.
I had stumbled upon the Young Leaders Network by accident, recommended to join it by friends, but I found a community of incredible young people. I am inspired especially by the non-Asians who are passionate for learning about my culture — my Chinese heritage — which took me so long to claim as my own.
Melanie asked me to talk about what I’m doing to further Asia-New Zealand relations. There are many young leaders among us who could speak far more authoritatively and persuasively on this subject, and I look forward to hearing some young leaders’ success stories at this conference.
My contribution to Asia-New Zealand relations is more modest — simply to succeed in my chosen field of expertise and to be a role model for other Chinese-New Zealand women. My chosen field of interest is the law, but it is not a field where there are many well-known female Chinese role models, perhaps with the single exception of Mai Chen. I hope I can, with grace and humility, help to pave the way for other Chinese women to succeed.
In my own way, I have tried to be a trailblazer. I am the only Chinese judge’s clerk currently working in the Supreme Court, where my five colleagues are all white. I am proud to be the first female Chinese national president of UN Youth New Zealand. I was honoured to be the only Chinese of the three finalists for the Young New Zealander of the Year Award, indeed the only Chinese person among the top 10 semi-finalists. I echo what Simon Bridges talked about tonight and thank you all for accepting me, as a Chinese New Zealander, into your hearts and minds.
To end, I hope you all have a wonderful conference. I hope that we can reflect critically on the value of the Young Leaders Network and work together to lead the network to even greater effectiveness. Thank you.
Image: Elizabeth Chan speaking at the opening dinner at the Young Leaders Network Reunion.