I opened the wooden gate and walked into the privacy of Liu Shueng's dainty garden. It reflects Liu Shueng's air of artisticism. A stone buddha sits complacently among plants, a bamboo shield acts as a divide behind which it leads to the back of the house – providing even more privacy, here and there are decorative artworks. I knocked on the door, an aged door, and waited. The house is not of a modern design but it adds character to the occupant.
After a while, Liu Shueng came out from the back carrying a hanger with a man's suit. “I'll put this in my car first,” she said. Then when she showed up again she took me to her family room at the back. She quickly cleared the table and asked if I wanted to record the interview or just take notes. I preferred recording it so that I wouldn't lose anything.
She promised to give me some feedback on my short story and they are very useful. We chatted for a short while and without much ado the interview started.
“Were you born here?”
“Yes, I was born in Carterton, a small town north of Wellington with a population of around two thousand.” Her parents owned a fruit shop there and she and her elder brother were the only two Chinese children there. They lived a visible life. Everyone knew them and watched them. They spoke only English at school and at the shop because, “it would not be polite to say things others do not understand.” But behind the shop was home where they spoke Chinese and lived the Chinese way. She created an imagining boundary between these two worlds.
My next question was, “I see that you're using your Chinese name, does that tell me anything?”
“I was using the name Janice and when I got married I took on my husband's name, Smith. Then after I was divorced I (feel that I) can't go around the world calling Janice Smith, it's a no name at all, like Brown. So I use my Chinese name – Liu Shueng Wong.” But there are some people who are not Chinese find it difficult to say her name so she thought of using revolution which rhymes with Liu Shueng to help them to pronounce it. With new people she will use the method of telling a story, putting herself as the third person and repeating her name several times to help people to remember it.
When asked how did she raise her children, as Kiwi or as Chinese, she emphatically said, “Both.” she used the examples of her grand daughters – who are twins – how she teaches them, how she spends time with them and their interesting reactions to answer my question. Her three year old once asked her and she mimicked her voice, “Porpor, are you Chinese?” “Yes, if not you'll call me Granny or Nana.”
One day, one of her grand daughters said to her, “Porpor, I know why you're Chinese because you like Chinese stuff.” Here she burst into laughter and commented that these days everybody's house is stocked with Chinese stuff. “Do you like Porpor's Chinese stuff?” Every Chinese New Year Liu Shueng will decorate her family room with Chinese stuff like hanging a dragon and her grand daughters are aware when will the Chinese New Year be. “It's a mystery to them,” she added, that she being a Chinese.
Once she went to their school and one of them said to her, “Porpor, do you know Ricky's Chinese? Ricky's got a Porpor.” “Does his Porpor pick him up from school?” “She's in Beijing, why don't you live in Beijing?” “They're perplexed,” Liu Shueng told me.
She then told me something very interesting. “One of them was to write five things that nobody knows about them in class,” and her grand daughter wrote, “I am one quarter Chinese,” with Liu Shueng's photo against it. At this I could see a hint of satisfaction, a hint of pride on Liu Shueng's face.
Liu Shueng loves the theatre and she wants her grand daughters to love it too. She takes them twice a year to these activities instead of buying things for them. They've been taken to the magician, the puppet show – “very New Zealand”. And she introduces different kinds of food to them just to extend their paletes. She does that on these occasions.
She cultivates their creativity, their art instinct; there will be no computer at her place. She teaches them things they don't do at home – painting, building model cardboard house, scarecrow for the garden. To her apps like angry bird limit to their response to something which only lead them to the second stage but they will not know how to fix things or do things of life. Here she showed concnern all over her face.
When they were about fifteen months old she put them on chairs to watch her prepare and cook stir fry chicken. When they could manage she made scones, jelly, pancakes...with them. She has ten good recipes and she “makes sure that they learn how to cook them before they leave home”. From cooking she also wants them to learn to take responsibility as they need to tidy after the cooking.
Here I put forth the most interesting question I've found: “Has identification been any problem for you at any stage of your life?”
The answer fascinates me. I've heard about searching for identification, read about it, tried to understand it and I even attempted to write on it. But now she's given me first hand knowledge of how it had bothered her and how she overcame it.
“We had no mirror but there were doors in our room (hers and her elder brother's) and at night time when the lights were on we could see our images on them and that's the closest to mirror we had.” She was given a New Zealand doll with fair hair, fair skin and blue eyes. While playing mother she held the doll in her arms and looked at the reflection on the door. She asked herself, “Can this be my baby? Who is this?” Since then she put the doll away and never played with it. When she had children she bought them brown doll, multi-ethnic people for lego, she also wanted to buy a Chinese cabbage patch doll but when she found out that they were made they were no longer manufactured. I can see how she tried hard to feel Chinese.
Then she brought me back to the imagining boundary of the English world and the Chinese world with just a door away. She was living two lives and it was difficult searching for identification. A horrific experience was when she was sent to a private girl school, she was the only Chinese girl and the other students pinched her – she acted it out – she was “not treated like a human being but rather an animal.” I find it hilarious but I believe it.
She revealed that if she could live her life again it would be best if she went to Hong Kong after teaching two years, but when she went back she felt Kiwi and out of place. She just could not fit in the Chinese stuff in her life – trying to fit the back part into the front part.
With the influx of new Chinese migrants from Hong Kong in 1980 she thought she would be safe to live in New Zealand. She could listen to Chinese songs, go yum char, be among Chinese and get a “dose of Chinese”. But it was when she ventured into the Ventnor Project that had helped her. In 2007 she did a documentary for the Hokianga Heads Film Festival, focusing on the sinking of SS Ventnor – a ship carrying 499 remains of the Chinese back to Hong Kong for burial in China but had a ship wreck. This brought the attention of the Maori who have for years discovered bones flowed ashore the Hokianga coastline. With the same culture as the Chinese who believe that the dead will not rest in peace without a burial they buried these remains in order to stop the wandering souls. It was then revealed that some of the remains were actually discovered and buried by the Maori. She decided to do the Ventnor Project which took her eight years to do research and she made a documentary on “connecting with ancestors”. In 2010 a group of Chinese made a trip to where these Chinese were buried and paid them their respect. “This is about connecting with all the Chinese ancestors and this makes me more solid. It's about identity. I now don't need that much attention. I can be myself.” She thanked the Maori for what they had done – burying the dead and helped those who survived the ship wreck. And I begin to understand how she overcame her identification difficulty.
Now at each Ching Ming, the Wandering With Ancestors is organised when Chinese can join and go to these burial places to burn incense sticks, paper money to their Chinese ancestors – a custom of the Chinese to pay respects to the dead.
The answer to the question, “What do you think of the tag – the well-behaved minority?”, actually gave me an insight into the prejudice faced by the Chinese and how they protected themselves.
“If the government is openly racist to any group, it's a license for people to target that group... even when the government needed the Chinese to keep the economy going.” Then she talked about the poll tax that went from £10 to £100 and the restriction of one Chinese per ten tons of cargo by way of passage into New Zealand. Her voice raised and the tempo quickened when saying what followed, “We will be so good to be liked by others, we'll be the good kids, we're diligent, we're law abiding; we become doctors, engineers, lawyers, accountants...We look after our sick, we hide our bad ones – the druggist, the gamblers, the triad, the gang. It's a social reaction against racism.” She explained that by being the model minority the Chinese gave themselves “a breathing space to have less racism”.
But with the flooding in of new Chinese migrants in 1980, Liu Shueng described that suddenly even the early settlers were targeted, although she's educated and she's got a job. Some of the Kiwis were offended. They were offended because they did not like seeing Chinese signs in the streets, they were offended because they did not like hearing Chinese talk in their own language, they were offended because they simply did not like seeing Chinese get together. One even complained to Liu Shueng that Sommerville had turned into a slum, a ghetto.
Liu Shueng gave an explanation which was enlightening. “Because the Chinese did not teach the Kiwis about Chinese culture. They did not know what's behind the boundary.” Now I understand how the early Chinese settlers in order to protect themselves from greater prejudice they assimilated so well that they're like “cocoons”, covering their Chineseness, as a means of surviving.
Now Chinese are visibly prominent and Kiwis are more used to Chinese culture. Many go yum char and have Chinese food. Liu Shueng smilingly told me she only goes to restaurants where authentic Chinese food are served.
When talking about prejudice I could not not mention Winston Peters. Liu Shueng with anger said, “He's doing what Donald Trump is doing in America just now; setting one group against another. It is dangerous.” Liu Shueng added to my knowledge that while the early Chinese settlers have been working on accommodating the new Chinese migrants, this happened. She continued that he's working on people's fear – the yellow peril; when some Kiwis were afraid that all these Chinese are here to stay he confirmed that fear. “It's a political stunt, a backward step in terms of multi culturalism.” Though being the minister now in the far north and doing a lot of good there she still can't forgive him.
She gave her views on Maori which was very positive. “I certainly acknowledge the Treaty and what it stands for. We are only four million people and it's easy to right what's wrong.” I learn from history that there was a time when they were approaching extinction, their culture especially their language was denied and land – even when they proclaimed that those were their sacred land – were taken from them and “it's done the Pakeha way.” Liu Shueng thinks that it is give back time. But she can understand why some Chinese think differently. “We Chinese have never had our homeland taken away from us, we still have a hometown, a home village. But when you only have land in New Zealand and those are taken off you,” she thinks that it is just right to give them back their sacred land. Some Chinese are not happy when Maori are given land, fundings and yet they don't seem to be a diligent group. According to Liu Shueng the government now gives them back the sacred land for cultural purpose, provides scholarship for them in order to arm them with education and tries keeping them healthy. “As soon as Maori become middle class they will change their view, they are helping their own people.” She helds the view that indigenous people when “wounded enough will resort to helplessness.” She believes that in thirty years Maori will be significant economically.
I'm happy that the interview ended so positively. My perspective is that there is lack of understanding that brings about prejudice and sometimes the media are responsible in reporting what only a few black sheep of a certain group do and blow it into something big. And also discrimination is mostly brought about by superiority. Quite some friends of mine whether Chinese or Kiwis are prejudiced against Maori and Pacific Islanders and I, too, at an earlier period thought like they do; but as I begin to know more about them either through my exclassmates who are Maori or some who've been called the coloured (actually we Chinese are considered coloured as well, I may say) through different channels and also from realisation that if I don't want to be categorised and be discriminated against, I'd better not be a racist, then I can loudly condemn racism. I sincerely hope that prejudice between the Chinese and the Maori will gradually be dissolved when as like Liu Shueng believes the Maori are changing and we Chinese should also learn to be more accommodating. Without racism, it is a big step towards world peace.
Liu Shueng is such an experienced interviewee she made this process very easy for me and I have to thank her for giving me this opportunity to reveal something so interesting, so worth knowing. I have learned a lot and it has started me thinking on issues such as identification, discrimination and racism. It is because I find her interview so colourful, so informative, so mind blowing that when at first I was only looking for research material for my novel(s) I asked her permission to write this out as an article and post it on my website and blog.
A big thank you to Liu Shueng!