Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Wooden Man Stone Heart

This book is unique in the genre of New Zealand heritage literature. Written as an autobiography/social documentary Paul Wah explores with uncompomising honesty the experiences of a young Chinese living a cossetted life in a self -sustaining Chinese family in the rural heartland of Feilding and South Taranaki. He looks critically and sometimes painfully at himself, the Chinese family and the cultural conventions and weaknesses that clashed with European values, thereby making integration with the local people difficult. Particularly the predeliction for gambling and the domestic stress caused by arranged marriages among a small community with few females. Dissected in detail is the strained relationship with his father that influenced his values in later life and at a personal level he deals intimately with his conflicts over interracial marriage and the difficulty of finding true love with a Chinese girl. During the 1940's period the author chafed about the social and occupational racial discrimination that was the norm in society, these he examines in some detail. He found that by participating in team sports such as cricket and rugby a window of opportunity opened to share in what was a white man's world . A two year stint as a boarder at Wellington College convinced him that the pathway to a fulfilling future lay in leaving the protection of the Chinese enclave to live an integrated way of life and compete for work in the wider community. Simultaneously the experience also exposed personal inadequacies such as an inferiority complex, race conflicts and no career motivation or study skills. He left school intent on reinventing himself in order to live a better life, initiailly working as technical trainee in the DSIR and spending a year labouring in a freezing works and on the wharf, to finance his tertiary studies. At university, without sufficient funding he found study hard, but fortunately made friends amongst many of Wellington's radical, intellectual fringe. From pub and party meetings with people such as JK Baxter, James Ritchie and Conrad Bollinger he learnt much about poltics, religion, philosophy, current affairs and alternative lifestyles, gaining the social and intellectual confidence to provide a platform for future personal growth. After a seemingly aimless period in his life, beset with unresolvable relationship problems he enrolled at Wellington Teachers College and fortuitously found a satisfying career that allowed him an outlet for the socialist sympathies he had nurtured as a student. Coincidentally, during the post war 1950 -1970's period, the weakened boundaries of racial discrimination allowed Chinese entry into professions and other occupations, but leadership positions in public companies, government departments and schools were slow to be offered and seldom sought by Chinese who tended to take low profile behind the scenes posts. In Wooden Man Stone Heart Paul Wah describes his unusual pathway to the top of secondary education. To be a successful teacher meant showing professional competence in the classroom but to win a Principal's position in competition with Europeans required a range of social and communication skills rare amongst Chinese of that era. Of particular importance to his development was with the 22 Club, a public speaking and debating society where he won national honours despite encountering racist attacks from his Irish opponents. While he experienced no hostility as a classroom teacher, his seeking promotion to become a Principal brought to the surface the old scourge of race discrimination. He writes frankly about the difficulties encountered by a young teacher during times of full employment when many students did not value education and his angst over the use of corporal punishment. A change in school policy requiring teaching unstreamed classes brought him into conflict with his Principal. He writes candidly of his time as a Deputy Principal serving under a reluctant Principal and of the stresses involved when later he won appointment as the first Chinese Secondary Principal. His former school, Taita College struggled against handicaps of poor previous leadership, uncertain student intakes, inadequate state and community funding and battles to recruit quality staff. He descibes the the steps taken to restore the school to a position of good standing within the community and with the education authorities. It was the melding of his European and Confucian values together with experience from his family business background that brought him ultimate success. He concludes that racial prejudice became an incentive to overachieve and the best aspects of his Chinese upbringing, work ethic and self reliance became the philosophical platform for shaping school policy. The final section of the book covers the time he spent teaching English at the Shanghai University of International Studies in China. In 1988/89 where there was considerable civil and student dissatisfaction over restrictions to personal freedom, widespread official corruption and rampant inflation. These issues led to the 'Freedom and Democracy' demonstations in Beijing and Shanghai, culminating in the Tian An Men Square shootings. It was in Shanghai and Beijing, shortly after the TIan An Men incident, that he became involved in potentially life threatening situations with demonstrating crowds and security police. He comments on the reaction of Chinese colleagues and friends to living in a Communist State and also the mindset of his students as they braced for rebellion against an all powerful government. During August 2012, he made arrangements for his book to be published in China by the government owned Shanghai No 10 Printing Works but was informed by management that the book had been banned for publication and sale in China. The reasons given were that he had made disparaging comments about the Communist government and had included photographs of demonstating students. Paul Wah is a 4th generation Chinese New Zealander born in 1932. He is married to Shirley with 3 adult children. He attended Victoria University and holds BSc and BA degrees. Paul was the Principal of Taita College from 1978 to 1985, and a visiting teacher of English at Shanghai International Studies University in 1988/89.

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