The Making of a Chinese New Zealander

The first Chinese people that came to this country endured discrimination, loneliness, and hardship - a situation that would continue for them, their descendants, and new Chinese immigrants for over a century. But they would experience triumphs and happiness too.

After Polynesians and Europeans, Chinese are New Zealand's largest ethnic community. New Zealand's first-known Chinese settler was Wong ah Poo Hoc Ting ('Appo Hocton'), who arrived in Nelson in 1842 as a steward on a migrant ship. Later, the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce invited Chinese from the Victoria goldfields in Australia to work in the Central Otago goldfields. Many of the European miners had abandoned these 'exhausted' fields in favour of new goldfields on the West Coast, and local businesses saw hardworking Chinese as a way of reviving their now depressed local economy. In 1866, twelve Chinese miners landed in Dunedin. By the end of 1866, there were 1219 Chinese in Otago.

All of these Chinese were either single men, or married men who had left wives at home. Their aim was to dig enough gold at 'New Gold Hill' - their name for the goldfields of New Zealand and Australia - so that they could return to China and lead prosperous lives in their home villages. The home region for most of these men was the Pearl River delta area of Guangdong Province.

Chinese who came here encountered a hostile environment. Anti-Chinese sentiments became widespread towards the end of the 1800s. Despite this, some Chinese, such as Choie Sew Hoy and Chew Chong, did well in New Zealand society.

World War II started for China when Japan attacked in 1937. The New Zealand Chinese Association was quick to organise a national campaign of donations to help 'Save the Motherland.' By late 1945, New Zealand Chinese had donated over £230, 920, a rate of giving per person that was exceeded only by American Chinese.

Chinese New Zealanders got involved in the nation's war effort in many ways. Chinese market gardeners were encouraged by the Government to grow vegetables with maximum efficiency to supply troops fighting in the Pacific. Individuals such as Alex Ah Chee enlisted in the forces and took a direct part in the war. Within New Zealand, Chinese people came to be viewed no longer as 'aliens' but as 'allies'.

In 1939, Chinese women and children came here as war refugees. They were only allowed to stay for two years, but the war didn't end for another six. Permanent residence was granted to war refugees in 1947, but only after considerable pressure was brought to bear on the Government by the Presbyterian Church and the New Zealand Chinese Association.

Prior to the entry of this first large group of Chinese women into New Zealand, the Chinese here consisted of isolated men whose stay was intended to be temporary. When women came, settler families were established. It was these families who began the process of developing a true Chinese community within New Zealand.

In 1952, Chinese people who could prove their assimilation to New Zealand ways could become naturalised. Only a few took up the opportunity; some older people were reluctant to abandon their Chinese citizenship, and others had difficulties in proving that their way of life was more 'New Zealand' than 'Chinese'.

Despite this block to citizenship, many Chinese New Zealanders recall the 1950s and 1960s as a time of racial harmony and general prosperity. At this time, Chinese assimilation into New Zealand society seemed to be well under way - both the use of Chinese language and observance of traditional festivals were declining.

In 1966, of the 10,000 Chinese in New Zealand, half were under twenty-five.

With such a young community, there was a marked growth of sports teams. The 1960s and 1970s were also the time when young Chinese New Zealanders began getting tertiary education in significant numbers, and started to enter the professions. Chinese New Zealanders became known as the 'model minority'. Making up only 0.6 per cent of the total population, they had a reputation as a law-abiding, hard-working, and well- educated group.

The Immigration Act of 1987 brought a radical change to New Zealand's immigration policies. Admission to this country was now based on personal merit, qualifications, and proven business skills rather than on nationality or ethnic origin. The 'business entry' category attracted Chinese people from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia.

The 'old' New Zealand Chinese are now heavily outnumbered by the recent arrivals, most of whom have settled in Auckland. People of Asian origin now comprise 5 per cent of New Zealand's population. (1)

The Government hoped that these 'business migrants', many of whom had substantial cash savings and significant investment proposals, would help kick- start New Zealand's sluggish economy. Many of the new Chinese migrants had chosen to come here in preference to the much larger and wealthier societies of the USA and Canada because of New Zealand's reputation for racial tolerance. However, a lack of familiarity with New Zealand's business culture, language problems, and expressions of hostility from some elements of New Zealand society, have tended to limit the potential of the 'new' Chinese.

The increased numbers of New Zealanders of Chinese descent is a pointer to this country's collective future as a multicultural Pacific-rim society.

(1)  New Zealand official yearbook 1998 Te pukapuka houanga whaimana o Aotearoa. Wellington: Statistics New Zealand and GP Publications, p 122.

More information

Some of the following publications may be found on the Discovery Centre bookshelves or in Te Aka Matua Library and Information Centre on Level 4. Photographs of Te Papa collection items may be ordered from Images on Level 4.
  • Greif, Stuart W. (1995). Immigration and national identity in New Zealand: one people, two peoples, many peoples? Palmerston North: Dunmore Press.
  • Ip, Manying. (1996). Dragons on the Long White Cloud: the making of Chinese New Zealanders. North Shore City: Tandem Press.
  • Ip, Manying. (1990). Home away from home: life stories of Chinese women in New Zealand. Auckland: New Women's Press.
  • New Zealand Immigration Service website:
  • New Zealand official yearbook 1998 Te pukapuka houanga whaimana o Aotearoa. Wellington: Statistics New Zealand and GP Publications.
  • Ng, James. (1993-1999). Windows on a Chinese past. Dunedin: Otago Heritage Books. Vols 1-4.
  • Statistics New Zealand web site:
  • Beal, Tim and Sos, Farib (1999) Astronauts from Taiwan, Wellington: Asia Pacific Research Institute.
Some Chinese items in Te Papa's collection


Entrance to the Community Gallery, The Making of a Chinese New Zealander exhibition
February 1998 - July 2000
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