Alice Canton 2016

Alice Canton: White/Other

Being Chinese / White / Other in New Zealand.

Notes on a conversation between Alice Canton and Helene Wong.

Held at Word Christchurch Festival on Friday 26 August 2016.

Helene emphasised that many of the older Chinese liked the ‘fair go’ attitude in NZ and that attitude in the 50s, 60s and 70s served many people well. Unfortunately ‘fair go’ has, more recently, been unavailable to so many immigrants.

The media has a responsibility in what we can now see as the rise and fall of racial equilibrium, she says, and too often the media still plays a negative role.

Recent reports in newspapers were starting to be questioned. Despite attribution, the vocab and phrasing was not what you would expect from someone with English as a second language. “Unwholesome” was used and the commentary raised large issues.

There is also an ongoing issue with movie and tv stereotypes – Chinese are too frequently portrayed as vixens, sex workers, tiger mothers, restaurant owners.

In contrast, advertising is now speaking to the whole population and has got a lot better at providing diverse roles and racial identities.

For example, 48% of Aucklanders are now Maori, Pacific or Asian, so the caucasian kiwi is no longer fully representative of the population, despite what tv, especially, continues to portray.

Helene grew up in the 50s and suffered all the taunts. By the 80s the Chinese were more or less assimilated – but that meant being invisible as Chinese and being ‘little Kiwis’. In the late 80s and early 90s the next big wave of Chinese arrived and the xenophobia arose again – and is still a big issue.

The discussion also raised the questions – are Kiwis racist, deep down? Should we retreat again? Alice’s script for the play White/Other is like a scream of frustration. The panelists asked: do we have to go through this all again?

In terms of personal identity, what is the status of someone who is being challenging and provocative? An individual in the Chinese culture is frequently pulled between being dutiful and community-oriented, versus being more outspoken.

Helene explained: “I’m very clear now that my primary identity is as a Kiwi. But I’m no longer ashamed of being Chinese. I’m comfortable with that.” She continued that most Kiwis are made up of multiple identities – and they may or may not be racial. So during the day we step from one identity to another – from one wedge to another – and Helene’s Chinese wedge is “okay” now. “I can enjoy all my identities.”

Alice added that many artists are now exploring their identities. Although she don’t see us as being post-race, there is now a definite openness about conversation and creativity. She stated that in Auckland it’s really exciting. “That process of racial consciousness being integrated into creativity is very exciting.” Alice continued that racial identities bumping against each other can often result in tremendous creativity, and maybe we will see a new Kiwi identity, around ethnic diversity. Not homogenous, but diverse and inclusive. Decolonisation rather than Diversity.

Helene Wong’s new book Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s Story is currently available.

More details on the Word Festival:

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