White Ghosts, Yellow Peril: China and New Zealand 1790–1950 by Stevan Eldred-Grigg, with Zeng Dazheng (Otago University Press, Dunedin, 2014), 384 pp., $55
The subject of White Ghosts, Yellow Peril: China and New Zealand 1790–1950 is vast, even daunting, a fable of an elephant and a flea, yet this book succeeds not only because of the thoroughness of the research but also because it has the virtues of good fiction: vivid particularisation, the density of lived lives.
Stevan Eldred-Grigg (with Zeng Dazheng) interweaves events and significant actors, treatises and opinions, treaties, acts of parliaments and statistics. Overarching theories are set up only to be undermined by counter evidence, by competing voices. By the third chapter I was caught up in the dynamic process of a text that is interleaved with well-chosen images. The authors engage with the scholarship on the topic, referencing James Ng’s work and acknowledging the Otago University academic Brian Moloughney’s ‘valuable feedback’. They also have ‘drawn heavily’ on the works of a further nine authorities, including Charles Sedgewick whose ‘thesis remains to this day the only serious work looking closely at the politics within Cantonese New Zealand’.
The authors are understated about their ambitions. In the Acknowledgements they say they aim ‘to summarise and synthesise all work done by the rather few writers who have looked at Chinese New Zealand’. They do themselves a disservice; endnotes referencing New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives and other primary sources indicate a degree of original research. An underlying theoretical position is evident at times: for example, in the endnotes the authors argue that historian Philip Ferguson’s analysis of class as a determinant of racist attitudes is not precise enough. Class, always an important theme for Eldred-Grigg in his previous work, serves in this book as a major analytic tool, a grid for the sifting of multifarious data. One such case is the scheme in 1853 by a ‘group of merchants and landowners’ to bring in a ‘first shipment of a few hundred Chinese to work as labourers and servants’. Though the plan, backed by influential conservatives, did not eventuate, one worker’s response to the proposal is illustrated by printer Richard Wakelin’s election poster:
FELLOW WORKMEN: If you wish to have CHEAP LAND and Small Farms, Cheap Food and Fair Wages, few Taxes and plenty to do […] you will not vote for the Importers of CHINESE SLAVES for LAND SHARKS, ABSENTEE AGENTS, or FLOUR MONOPOLISTS, but you will VOTE for WAKELIN, the POOR MAN’S FRIEND […]
There is a self-effacement to this book that fits the avowed intention ‘to summarise and synthesise’, but this reserve also extends to the question of authorship. Eldred-Grigg, who is both a scholar and creative writer (of novels – one of which, Shanghai Boy, has a significant Chinese element) is the lead author, but his name is linked ‘with Zeng Dazheng’, described on the back cover as having grown up in China and ‘studied and tutored in New Zealand politics and economics’. There is no explanation how the workload has been shared, although the overall style reads as Eldred-Grigg’s.
Eldred-Grigg also does not acknowledge re-use of material from Diggers, Hatters and Whores, his 2008 book on the New Zealand gold-rushes, not even listing it in the bibliography where two of his other books are mentioned. Chapter 12 of Diggers, Hatters and Whores appears rearranged and supplemented and with a tautening of style as Chapter 3 of White Ghosts, Yellow Peril. The description, ‘Chinese diggers attacked white diggers, too. Ah Long slashed …’ is altered to the more immediate ‘Chinese sometimes attacked whites, too. Fists flew. Nails clawed. Teeth gnawed.’
Throughout the book snappy word pictures are common: ‘Horses neighed and screamed. Cannon shrieked’; ‘Screws churned and coal smoke darkened the sky as iron ships bore them southwards to the New Gold Mountain.’
The frequently visual style of writing is effective. Metaphor and short sharp sentences generate montage; jump-cuts and panoramic shots transform reader into viewer – the book becomes a scenario. Astronomical metaphors recur to emphasise the relationship between empire and colony: ‘while the small meteor in the southwest Pacific was drawn willy-nilly towards the orbit of the British Empire’; ‘China … still a vast solar system … was mottled with sunspots.’ Phrases used for chapter headings and within the text are usually pithy and apt: ‘Fur and Tea, 1790–1840’ (the chief early items of trade between New Zealand and China); ‘Hot War, Cold War, 1930–50’.
The stage machinery which does the job of moving fresh acts and scenes into view occasionally creaks. Archaic conceits – ‘furred innocents’ for seals, ‘the fragrant leaf’ for tea – jar more than they provide historical colour:
The book is dedicated to the ‘memory of Joe Kum Yung and Edith Searell’ whose tragic stories are included. Though these two people are little known, it is not difficult to see why they were chosen as dedicatees, the authors manifesting their even-handed humanistic approach to their subject ‘Chinese New Zealand’ in this subtle way.
There is elegance to the orderly structure and restraint of White Ghosts, Yellow Peril, reflected in the cover design of a painting of ‘Chau Yip Fung with Otago missionary Alexander Don, Guangzhou, 1880, artist unknown’, painted in an Oriental–Western style. The subdued colours are echoed in the title and authors’ names positioned overhead on a white background.
The diligent reader can trace various themes in this intricate book, for example the evolving attitudes of New Zealand workers to Chinese immigration. Workers in the nineteenth century were ambivalent, occasionally hostile, often racist, yet gradually a feeling of solidarity grew, culminating with legislation by the first Labour government in 1935 that ameliorated some of the anti-Chinese laws entrenched by William Massey’s earlier right wing government. In 1944 Labour finally repealed the iniquitous Poll Tax, which had served to limit Chinese immigration since 1881 by severely taxing each Chinese person when they landed in New Zealand (their right of entry had been secured by treaty between China and the British Empire in the mid-nineteenth century).
As the authors explain, ‘The racial state was built, word by word, act by act, on a slowly improvised yet solid foundation of statutes opposed to the Chinese. The racial state was also built as one outcome of class struggle between the wealthy, the middle class and the working class.’
In 2002 a Labour-led government issued a belated apology for the imposition of the Poll Tax. This important event in the history of New Zealand’s relationship with China could be a chapter for a possible sequel by these two authors on the years since 1950. It would be fascinating to read the interpretation by Eldred-Grigg and Zeng Dazheng of a billboard (that contrasts Richard Wakelin’s election poster) currently hovering over Auckland’s Ponsonby Road:
REACH OVER 2,000,000 CHINESE PROPERTY BUYERS […] NZ Real Estate Worldwide
The Chinese in New Zealand, though often perceived as a homogenous community, have never been such. The inevitable tensions and shifting alliances of various social and political groups permeate the book. Almost all Chinese in New Zealand were Cantonese speakers from the southern province of Guangdong that comprised various counties speaking different dialects, sometimes mutually incomprehensible. In the early years there were a significant number of Hakka speakers, their language quite different to Cantonese and its dialects. They ‘would mostly be forgotten by later generations for they nearly always stayed only a few years, while Cantonese slowly built up a settled community … as many as half the “Chinese” diggers on some fields may have been Hakka’.
The first known Cantonese organisation, The Effulgent Goodness Society, was ‘a tang – or “tong” – a secret society’ formed in Otago in 1883 by men from the county of Panyu. During the political turmoil in China in the first half of the twentieth century, some Chinese in New Zealand formed organisations to support the increasingly right wing Nationalist party, the Guomindang, led by Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kaishek), while others supported the Communist Party that took power in 1949.
The book ends with the tale of New Zealander Annie James, a hospital worker in Guangdong captured by the victorious communists. At her trial, the judge ‘wondered why she had stayed in the country and asked why she liked the Chinese’. Her answer was, ‘I feel an affinity of heart with them.’
The Afterword reinforces this conciliatory tone. The authors conclude that during the subsequent twenty years of the Cold War, ‘the meteor of New Zealand and the red star of China spun on two sides of a world split by chilly standoff’ and that a ‘new phase in the relationship began, that ended seven or more generations of making, fumbling and then once more breaking links between mighty China and little New Zealand’.
White Ghosts, Yellow Peril is a brilliantly researched and presented history. Full of the accumulated energy of the past, it is a generous resource for the future.
DENIS HAROLD is an editor and researcher who lives near Dunedin.