Until recently, immigrants to New Zealand were expected to blend into the culture they found here. One reason for this attitude is that, for well over a century, New Zealand was ethnically very uniform. In 1945, 'Europeans', or Pakeha, made up over 93 per cent of the population. Most of these people either came from the United Kingdom or Ireland, or were descended from people who had come from there.

Only 5.8% of the 1945 population identified themselves as 'Maori'. And a tiny 0.63% were classified as 'aliens by race' (Chinese, Indians, and Pacific Islanders). The pattern of public and cultural life that had developed in New Zealand was Anglo-Saxon and, generally, Protestant. This photograph shows Kathleen Pih-Chang at the age of 85 at her home in Tauranga. Kathleen was the adopted child of a missionary and came to live in New Zealand with her new family in 1908. Kathleen went on to become the first Chinese to gain a medical degree in New Zealand at the University of Otago, Dunedin. However for much of her early childhood living in Otago, Kathleen found it difficult to be accepted because she was Chinese. She was embarrassed and sensitive about her Chinese heritage. It was not until her return to China to practise medicine in the 1930s, that she accepted her Chinese identity.

After World War II, New Zealand suffered a labour shortage. Immigration was seen as a way to deal with this problem. As much as possible, immigration was restricted to people of 'British stock from the British Isles'. When it wasn't possible to get enough British people to emigrate, the possibility of getting immigrants of similar 'racial stock' from Northern and Western Europe was considered.

The assumption of immigration policy makers was that such people would be readily 'assimilable' - they would blend in, socially and culturally - to the way of life in New Zealand. The opposite assumption was made about people of Southern and Eastern European origin, and the possibility of large-scale migration of Asians was dismissed out of hand. A 1953 internal memorandum of the Department of External Affairs states:

Whereas we have done much to encourage immigration from Europe, we do everything to discourage it from Asia. (1)

The Department was working on the principle that New Zealand should be a 'country of European development', and that New Zealanders' way of life was essentially 'British' - the closer an immigrant's cultural match to this way of life, the better. As late as 1970, the Department of Labour maintained that 'the greater and more obvious the differences between the immigrant and the average New Zealander, the longer and more difficult the period of assimilation and the greater the tendency of immigrants to hive off into little colonies.'

A strategy that was designed to further assimilation was the scattering of small numbers of newly arrived migrants all over the country. This strategy was employed with Dutch migrants who came here in large numbers in the 1950s. The idea was that the scattering would prevent the formation of urban 'ghettoes' of alien immigrants.

Between 1945 and 1965, about 200,000 people migrated to New Zealand. Most were British. Of the non-British arrivals, the Dutch were by far the largest group - the population had a net gain of about 24,000 permanent Dutch residents between 1951 and 1968. About 5000 'Displaced Persons' came from various countries in Southern and Eastern Europe between 1949 and 1953, followed by about 1100 Hungarian refugees after 1956. These numbers made up less than 2 per cent of the total New Zealand population in the 1961 census. Asians and Pacific Islanders not born in New Zealand accounted for less than 1 per cent of the total population.

Despite their small numbers, some migrants were criticised during these years by xenophobic New Zealanders for a supposed unwillingness to assimilate.

Many older immigrants can recall being berated in public for not speaking English, and many Asian and Pacific people found themselves targets of racist abuse.

It was very difficult for ethnic communities to maintain a strong sense of identity during the 1960s and 1970s. Their numbers were small, and open expressions of ethnic and cultural differences were discouraged. It even seemed to some observers in the late 1970s that the 'assimilationist' goal had been achieved. But at about this time, policy began to move away from promoting assimilation. Public attitudes were changing, and there was a wide acknowledgement that diversity would enrich rather than weaken New Zealand society.

A major review of immigration policy in 1986 overturned the emphasis on nationality and culture. The new Immigration Act of 1987 ensured the selection of immigrants on the basis of personal merit. This was a significant departure from the bias in favour of the British and West Europeans that had shaped New Zealand migrant flows for almost a century. The new legislation gave priority to migrants whose skills and business expertise would benefit New Zealand, allowing many new immigrants of Chinese ethnic background to enter the country.


(1) Brooking, T. and Rabel, R. (1995). Neither British nor Polynesian, a Brief History of New Zealand's Other Immigrants, in Grief, S. (ed), Immigration and National Identity in New Zealand. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press. p 39.

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.

  • Brooking, T., and Rabel, R. "Neither British nor Polynesian, a Brief History of New Zealand's Other Immigrants", in Grief, S. (ed.) (1995). Immigration & National Identity in New Zealand. Dunmore Press.
  • Ip, Manying. (1990). Home away from home: life stories of Chinese women in New Zealand. Auckland: New Women's Press.
  • Lochore, R.A. (1951) From Europe to New Zealand, An Account of Our Continental European Settlers. Reed.
  • Roy, W.T. "Immigration Policy and Legislation" and Thomson, K.W. "The Dutch", in Thomson, K.W. and Trlin, A.D. Immigrants in New Zealand Massey University.


Kathleen Pih-Chang in her Tauranga home
photograph by Gillian Chaplin, 1988
Courtesy of Manying Ip
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