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Asian New Zealanders

Asian New Zealanders

When I went to school in New Zealand, back in the 1960s and 70s - and even university in the 1980s - Asian New Zealanders were by no means absent, even in rural New Zealand, but they were by no means well-represented, either. That's because for most of New Zealand's history the main source of immigration was not Asia, but Europe, which is about two and half times further away from New Zealand than Asia.

New Zealand, Asia and Europe
New Zealand - much nearer Asia than Europe

That has changed (well, except for the distances!), and now just over one in ten New Zealanders is of Asian descent (defining Asian as not only those from East and South-East Asia, but also including South Asia, i.e., Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka).

Most Asian New Zealanders live in the country's biggest city, Auckland, and make up about a quarter of the city's population, whereas thirty years ago, they made up only about one-twentieth of it. Botany Downs, Dannemora, Howick and Henderson-Massey are the areas of Auckland with the most Asian-descended residents.

The 2018 census found that about one in four Asian New Zealanders was born in New Zealand.

Chinatown, Dunedin.
Chinatown, Dunedin

Chinese New Zealanders

The first significant wave of Chinese immigration to New Zealand was in the 1860s, which was the time of the Otago Gold Rush, and its aftermath in the 1870s when the goldfields were reworked.

Chinese miners came to New Zealand at the invitation of the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce, not from China, but from Victoria, Australia, where there were also gold mines. They were invited because of the reputation Chinese had as hard workers willing to rework largely exhausted goldfields. Before long, most immigrants were coming from mainland China. They were nearly all male, young (teens to early 20s) and from rural Canton.

Yet, by the 1880s, prejudice from local white communities had begun to rear its head. Officialdom followed suit, and from 1881, Chinese immigrants were subjected to a poll tax that not only unfairly targeted them because they were Chinese, but also put restrictions on the number of Chinese allowed to immigrate.

The Chinese-only poll tax was £10 a head (equivalent to about NZD 1,750 today), and increased to an exorbitant £100 (about NZD 20,000 today) in 1896. The poll tax on Chinese immigrants was abolished only in 1944, when Finance Minister, Walter Nash, described it as a ‘blot on our legislation.' In 2002, the government apologized to the Chinese New Zealand community for the poll tax.

Historical remains of New Zealand's first Chinese immigration can be seen in the Arrowtown Chinese Settlement. It is a reconstruction of the original Chinatown in Arrowtown, which was destroyed with the building of the Clyde Dam (1982-1993).

New Zealanders of Chinese descent still make up most of today's Asian-descended New Zealanders. The latest figures are from the 2018 census, when out of the total Asian-descended population of 707,598, there were 231,386 of Chinese descent, making up 4.9% of the total population.

Indian New Zealanders

The second biggest group is of Indian descent (4.7% of the population).

The first Indians to New Zealand came here in the 18th century, when Muslim lascars on European ships came for the timber and seal skins New Zealand was known for at the time. The first known lascars to settle here did so at the turn of the 19th century. Interestingly they, and the Indian migrants that followed them over the next century, typically integrated into Maori communities.

Auckland is home to about 65% of Indian New Zealanders, especially the Ōtara-Papatoetoe and Puketāpapa areas. Of the approximately 220,000 New Zealanders of Indian descent, some tens of thousands of them (about 50,000, estimates Fiji Pundit) are originally from Fiji.

Many Fiji Indians came to New Zealand in the 1960s to help clear land of gorse to turn it into farmland (so spare a thought for them when you're driving through New Zealand's green pastures full of grazing sheep); however, most were on 3-month contracts. The 1987 coup in Fiji saw a sudden rise in the number of Fijians of Indian descent to New Zealand.

Filipino New Zealanders

Filipino New Zealanders (who often refer to themselves as "Kiwinoys" or "Kiwipinos") became a demographically significant presence only from the 1990s onward and now make up just over 1% of the population. Most Filipino New Zealanders, too, live in Auckland, with the city's Kaipātiki, Maungakiekie-Tāmaki and Ashburton districts having the highest concentration.

Majority attitudes towards Asian New Zealanders

Recent survey work by the Asia New Zealand Foundation Te Whītau Tūhono shows that COVID-19 has considerably changed most New Zealanders' perceptions of Asia. Whereas before COVID-19, in November 2019, 67% of New Zealanders (already a large majority) felt that developing ties with Asia was important, by March 2020, this had jumped to 79%.

This suggests that, contrary to the fearmongering of certain right-wing parties over the past couple of decades, the non-Asian New Zealand majority views Asian immigration in a positive light.

Prominent Asian New Zealanders

NZ Asian Leaders (NZAL) is an organization founded in 2013 to increase the number of Asian New Zealanders in leadership positions in New Zealand companies. However, the state of its website suggests that it may have lost momentum over the past couple of years.

This is not to say that there isn't a significant number of Asian New Zealanders prominent in public life already. For example, Peter Chin, of Chinese descent, is the Mayor of Dunedin, a city that has had a sizeable Asian population since the 1860s. Sir Owen George Glenn is an Indian-born New Zealander and businessman especially noted for his philanthropy, mainly by way of the Glenn Family Foundation. Shirley Setia, of Indian descent, is singer and actress from Auckland. Pansy Wong, of Chinese descent, became the nation's first ever Member of Parliament of Asian ancestry in 1996. Paulo Garcia is a Filipino-born former member of parliament. Li Ming Hu, of Chinese descent, is an actress who played the role of Li Mei Chen in the very popular TV soap opera, Shortland Street. Alison Wong is a writer of Chinese descent, born in Hastings. Prominent Korean-descended Kiwis include the rap musician Bizzy (real name, Park Jun-young; New Zealand-born but now based in South Korea), and the professional golfer, Danny Lee, who won the 2008 U.S. Amateur golf tournament at only 18 years of age, the youngest winner ever.

Asian Festivals and Arts in New Zealand

With its sizeable population of Asian descent, New Zealand has various Asian festivals. These include the Chinese New Year Festival in Wellington (happening on 13-14 February this year) and the Japan Festival Wellington (happening on 6 March this year).

Proudly Asian Theatre is an Auckland theatre group, begun in 2013, whose mission is to "deliver contemporary performance works driven by Asian artists in Aotearoa."

Online Asian New Zealand Resources

A good resource for what is happening in Kiwi Asian communities and between New Zealand and Asian countries is the Asia New Zealand Foundation website.

Also, several support groups exist for New Zealanders of Asian descent, such as Asian Family Services.

Books about New Zealand

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