You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon: Agnes Moncrieff’s letters from China 1930–1945 edited by Barbara Francis (Victoria University Press, 2017), 295 pp., $50; Old Asian, New Asian by K. Emma Ng (Bridget Williams Books, 2017), 104 pp., $14.99
When we consider New Zealanders who have lived in China and had a significant impact on that country and/or on our literary or cultural imagination, we easily call to mind Rewi Alley, Robin Hyde and James Bertram. But many others went to China as missionaries, medical or humanitarian workers, including Kathleen Hall, Mary Moore, Alexander Don, George McNeur, Annie James, Dr Kathleen Pih and Agnes Moncrieff.
In 1938 Agnes (Nessie) Moncrieff wrote to her mother: ‘You do not travel in China at the full moon if you can help it. There are always air raids.’ Unlike those of my relatives who were unable to join their husbands, fathers and brothers in New Zealand and had no choice but to endure the war, Moncrieff, a Pākehā from Wellington, chose to live and work in war-torn China. From 1930–45 she was a valued foreign secretary for the YWCA of China, her salary paid by the YWCA of New Zealand.
Moncrieff lived at various times in Beijing, Hankou, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Chengdu and Chongqing, often having to move because of the progress of the war. She travelled throughout China both for work and on holiday, and through Vietnam, along the Burma Road and then back into Yunnan and on into Sichuan. She frequently endured tortuous routes and harsh conditions.
Moncrieff wrote in detail to her mother, friends and the YWCA in New Zealand about her life and work and the conditions in China. She described the corruption of warlords and officials, the lack of national unity and democracy, the civil war between north and south, and the suffering, courage and nobility of the Chinese in the face of Chinese military inhumanity, Japanese barbarity and British hypocrisy and injustice. She wrote of the conditions of China’s peasant farmers whom students tried to educate and help with the provision of seeds; and of the urban poor, most of whose eager and attentive children had to abandon the YWCA’s free education in order to work selling newspapers, carrying heavy banner poles for funeral processions, pushing rubbish carts from door to door, or scratching in ‘evil smelling’ rubbish for recyclable material to on-sell.
Moncrieff described bombed-out villages, eating in a teahouse rebuilt in the ruins, and the increasingly dilapidated truck in which she travelled – its makeshift repairs, and her experiences of scrambling underneath it during air raids to watch tracer bullets and count explosions. This was all in surreal contrast to the peaceful holiday interludes in wilderness areas among unseen leopards and bears, walking or riding donkeys along foothills and up steep stone-flagged pilgrim paths to temples among old cypresses and white-barked pines, the chanting of monks in the incense-filled early morning light.
Her letters are spiced with humour:
I had a gorgeous swim yesterday … I have known cleaner seas, but I didn’t drink much. My swimming suit seems to be falling to pieces … and I don’t suppose I can get one to fit here, so I shall continue to clutch the pieces round me & hope for the best … I’ve a good pattern for a knitted suit & will try my hand at it … Folk say though that knitted ones stretch so much that they’re not much use.
She describes the incongruity of trekking through mud in the white summer shoes mandated by the YWCA manual, travelling through a warzone with numerous large pieces of luggage including a camp stretcher and bedding roll, and the farce and confusion of managing both Shanghai time and the Japanese-imposed Tokyo time.
One of the most charming stories concerns a large rat that preferred to eat soap and soup rather than the cheese in her Shanghai apartment, and which pulled out the tail feathers of her flatmate’s canary until the poor bird fell silent. After the bird’s feathers grew back and he was fed bird tonic he started to warble again, but it took ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ coming over the radio for the canary to burst into ecstatic song.
Moncrieff’s letters have a contemporary relevance as she describes not only war refugees from other parts of China, but Russian and European refugees as well. Eighteen thousand Jewish refugees flooded into Shanghai where there were no visa restrictions, unlike in America and Britain. In 1939 she described four million people living in an area of thirteen square kilometres.
In China she wished she had studied history, and came to the conclusion that ‘folk are reading too much economics and not enough history … We need the perspective of history to show us the value (or otherwise) of our economic analyses.’
Moncrieff suffered ill health from wartime privations, poor nutrition and what would probably have been called nervous exhaustion or, these days, PTSD. Upon her final return to New Zealand and after considerable convalescence, her doctor eventually discharged her as ‘fit for anything but return to China’.
Her letters have been edited by her friend Barbara Francis, who has added helpful commentaries, notes and references, indexes, photographs and maps with place names in both the old Wade–Giles Romanisation of the time and the current Pīnyīn. This well-edited book with high production values bears witness to one of the many ways in which China and New Zealand have intersected in history. My only minor quibble is that it would have been helpful if more of the places mentioned in the letters were included on the maps.
Part of the excellent and wide-ranging Bridget Williams Books Texts series of ‘short books on big subjects’, Old Asian, New Asian explores the history and current experience of Chinese and other Asian New Zealanders, from the ‘old Asians’ like my family – who first arrived in Aotearoa/New Zealand in the nineteenth century – through to more recent ‘new Asian’ immigrants.
The daughter of New Zealand-born Chinese, K. Emma Ng grew up in Auckland in the nineties and noughties ‘during the second great wave of Asian migration’. Though reluctant to speak on behalf of other, diverse Asian New Zealanders, Ng discusses the prejudice and discrimination faced by Asians who, according to the Human Rights Commission in 2010, reported the most discrimination of any minority in New Zealand. From under-representation in popular culture, mainstream media, politics, the public service and leadership, to so-called ‘casual racism’ with its nonetheless painful and exclusionary ‘othering’, to harassment, violence and legislative discrimination, Ng outlines history from a Chinese New Zealand perspective and argues: ‘As long as we are allowed to forget, we will find ourselves returning to fight the same battles.’
The first recorded Chinese, Appo Hocton, arrived in New Zealand a couple of years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi; the first invited group of Chinese goldminers came in 1865. It did not take long for parliament to pass legislation to deter Chinese immigration, and the progressively harsh discriminatory laws resulted in a largely male Chinese population that still had not achieved gender balance when I was born in 1960. As late as the 1960s, New Zealand-born Chinese had to apply for permits to re-enter the country after trips overseas.
In 1987, ‘colour blind’ changes to immigration policy actively encouraged skilled and wealthy migrants, which resulted in an unexpectedly high influx of immigrants from Asia. Auckland’s Eastern Courier subsequently published a scaremongering series in 1993 called ‘The Inv-Asian’, suggesting that Auckland was ‘becoming the Taipei/Hong Kong/Seoul of the South Pacific’.
With New Zealand – and in particular Auckland – facing a growing housing crisis, in 2015 the Labour Party released data claiming that during one three-month period, almost 40 per cent of sales at one Auckland real estate agency had been to buyers with ‘Chinese’ surnames. The implication was that Kiwi and Asian identities are mutually exclusive, and that Anglo Saxon or European names are essentially Kiwi.
The World Migration Report 2015 revealed that Auckland had the fourth highest percentage of foreign-born residents in the world at 39 per cent, behind Dubai, Brussels and Toronto and just ahead of Sydney and Los Angeles.1 With the next census due and Statistics New Zealand already noting more than 220 ethnic groups living in Auckland and predicting diversity to increase, Mai Chen, founder of the Superdiversity Centre, has launched the social media campaign called #Myidentity, which encourages all New Zealanders to embrace the complexity of their own and others’ multiple identities. She quotes Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s book, Identity and Violence: The illusion of destiny:
The insistence on a choiceless singularity of human identity not only diminishes us all, it also makes the world much more flammable.
A solitarist approach can be a good way of misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world.2
In this context of rapid change and growing diversity, Ng asks us to consider a more open and flexible approach to transcultural and transnational identity. She asks what it will take for Asian New Zealanders to be accepted as non-stereotypical, individual, bona fide New Zealanders, no longer needing to ‘justify our existence or prove our worth’. And she suggests reframing our bicultural perspective of Māori and Pākehā Aotearoa/New Zealand as a respectful and inclusive partnership between tangata whenua and multicultural tauiwi. In this valuable introduction to the Asian New Zealand experience, Ng encourages us to walk in others’ shoes, to ask questions, and to be prepared to be part of the answer.
- World Migration Report 2015: http://publications.iom.int/system/files/wmr2015_en.pdf
- Email from the Superdiversity Centre, 26 February 2018.
ALISON WONG is a fourth-generation Chinese New Zealander living in Australia. She has written a novel and a poetry collection and has been published in many journals and anthologies. Her novel As the Earth Turns Silver won the New Zealand Post Book Award for Fiction (2010), and was shortlisted for the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (2010). She is one of the judges for the poetry category in the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.