Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s story by Helene Wong (Bridget Williams Books, 2016), 182 pp., $39.99
Being Chinese is a memoir. But it’s also much more than that. It is an important slice of social history, both Kiwi and Chinese. It might well have been two books. It could have been a history of the Wong and Chan families, a story of migration, the interconnected families, their community. The other story would have been entirely that of Helene Wong, a most interesting character, a woman perhaps ahead of her time.
Let me begin with Helene’s story and why it gripped me so. It begins with the first chapter ‘The greengrocer’s daughter’. The author and I are a similar age and her post-war 50s childhood, ‘making mud pies, playing marbles, and climbing the plum tree’ is one that I recognise and relate to. As well, her description of growing up in the 50s and 60s – the way in a small community you knew the people who owned the petrol station, the ‘old maids’, the returned serviceman, the lady with whiskers on her chin, the Four Square, draper, the fish and chip shop and the Italian family with their glasshouses full of tomatoes. Not to mention the passionfruit vines and Chinese gooseberries and a vast expanse of lawn on which to practise her marching-girl moves. All of this resonates so familiarly with me. Her father like mine was a betting man, reading the Turf Digest and the Sports Post. And when she is home sick from school, she speaks of catching up with the women’s programmes, and the soaps Doctor Paul and Portia Faces Life. All these things mirror my own experience and, I am certain, that of many baby boomers.
But then there is the moment when, as a ‘typical Marmite, Weetbix, school milk and Chesdale cheese suburban kid’, that she hears ‘Hey Ching Chong!’ She tells us the first time she heard this taunt was ‘walking home from school, lost in the bliss of a Jelly Tip’. And so begins the moment when the author, a typical Kiwi child of the 50s, begins to understand that the word Chinese is something associated with derision. Although, even then, it doesn’t really disturb what feels like an idyllic, happy childhood.
The memoir begins powerfully with a prologue detailing the author’s very first trip to China with her parents, Dolly and Willy Wong. For the parents this is a huge event in their lives and they wouldn’t have undertaken the trip without the encouragement and support of their daughter. They left China before Mao, and now it is 1980 and Mao is dead and Deng Xiaoping is moving more towards capitalism. I read the prologue twice because at first I was slightly overwhelmed by the Chinese names and districts and characters, but the defining impact of the prologue is the awakening for the author of her heritage, her identity as both Chinese and Kiwi. It is profound and moving. There’s a lovely moment when the family is being welcomed back into the village her father left when he came to New Zealand, and the author in jandals steps in some shit. This is a rural village with pigs, ducks and chickens free roaming. She tries to disguise her disgust and raises her sole ‘like some horrified princess’. The relatives rush to rescue the situation and wash her jandals. So many emotions are evoked during this visit and one of these is the ‘what if’. What if her parents had stayed in China, and ‘What if I was the country cousin walking nonchalantly among the pig shit?’ She writes, ‘I went to the village as a tourist and left as a Chinese.’
This prologue is a beautiful entrée to Helene Wong’s world, to her journey towards understanding her dual Kiwi–Chinese identity. I will warn you that there are a lot of Wongs (which on reading this memoir I’ve discovered is actually a version of Huang), and although I’m a teacher of ESOL and deal with many students with difficult names from all corners of the world, at times I still struggled with the extended family history. However, for the logical of mind, there is a Chin Ting (Chan) Family tree (Helene’s mother) and a Wong Family tree (Helene’s father). In spite of this or even perhaps because of this, I found myself at times a bit overwhelmed.
Although her parents’ back story is also very interesting, for me the most riveting aspects of this memoir are the journey of a postwar baby boomer of Chinese heritage, growing up in suburban New Zealand and then discovering what it is to be Chinese. I loved the descriptions of her and her Dad driving from the Hutt Valley (before the motorway) heading into Blair or Allen streets to the markets. As a young girl she loved the air of excitement, and the energy and colour of the auctions and sometimes, if she was lucky, a morning tea at the Santa Anita Café on Courtenay Place with her father’s mates. Particularly interesting too, in the chapter ‘Dance to Follow’, is her recall of the weddings when the whole Chinese community would be invited (sometimes 800 people) with the reception at the Winter Show Buildings in Newtown. Almost always, the Maadi Caterers and guests would be involved in the eating of ‘salads, cold meats, jellies and trifles’. ‘Even the old people gnawed valiantly away at meat whose toughness and dryness would have been unacceptable if it had been served in a Chinese dish.’
In the same chapter we learn that if the Kiwi traditions prevailed on the Saturday, then on the Sunday morning, after the wedding, they would go to the ‘The Tung Jung’ No. 2 Frederick Street, (running parallel to what was Haining Street, once known as Wellington’s Chinatown) where close family would feast on authentic Cantonese delicacies. As Helene says, ‘I spent my early years moving with ease between Chinese and European contexts.’ It seems it was only the ‘random racist taunts’ that reminded her of this duality.
There’s a defining moment early on as a child, when three young lads are freewheeling past her father’s shop and yell ‘some predictable inanity’ and she runs outside to confront them. ‘What propelled me I don’t know, but it was like a jump-cut to outside the shop.’ This feels like the beginning of a strong and independent thinker. Wong completes first class honours in sociology, becomes an actor, ends up in the State Services Commission and somewhat fascinatingly (to both the reader and author), is asked to join Muldoon’s special advisory group where she works closely with Māori gangs and becomes known as ‘The Gang Lady’. This is a rather potted and condensed summary of her astonishing achievements, which include her role as a film reviewer for the Listener.
But there is so much more to this memoir and to the author. So many aspects to being a New Zealand-born Chinese, none more potent than when there is the so called ‘Asian invasion’ in the mid-90s and she is living in Auckland and finds herself part of the raw backlash: a Kiwi girl who is now perceived as ‘one of them’. She becomes politicised and it seems that the memoir began bubbling up from these experiences, the dichotomy of her Kiwi and Chinese self, identity, injustice, and also the journey to find the back story of her mother and father.
On reading this memoir to review, I found my book festooned with post-it notes. So many quotable moments or observations by the author that rang true and resonated for me as a reader. My oldest friend is a Dutch immigrant who came to New Zealand when she was two years old. Her experience of returning to Holland (as it was known) was similar to that of Helene’s first trip to China. Knowing you are at heart a Kiwi but recognising your heritage, your roots. I think this memoir will resonate with the sons and daughters of not just Chinese immigrants, but readers with a similar experience of two cultural identities.
I’m wary of being critical of the quality of the book itself. I know how fortunate we are to have independent publishers and the cost of production without any guarantees a book will sell. I found myself wishing the book was somehow more substantial, perhaps a hardcover, to reflect the status I feel this story deserves. There is so much to recommend about this memoir, so many aspects that make it an important contribution to New Zealand literary history.
MAGGIE RAINEY-SMITH is a novelist, poet, short-story writer, essayist and book reviewer. She teaches Workplace English to migrants and refugees. Her latest novel, Daughters of Messene, explores a New Zealand-born daughter’s Greek immigrant heritage, together with her mother’s story during the Greek Civil War.