Making a home: 175 years of Chinese life in Aotearoa

A new photography exhibition celebrates 175 years of Chinese life in Aotearoa.

“If I had tried to start this project 20 years ago, the general New Zealand audience may not have been ready,” says Phoebe Li, the curator of Being Chinese in Aotearoa: A photographic journey. “Now, Auckland has become such a multicultural, diverse place, and people have become so much more accepting.”

Li, a social historian, originally curated the exhibition for a Chinese audience in Hong Kong. Adapting it for Auckland Museum, she hand-picked 100 historic photographs from a pool of 10,000 depicting Chinese life in New Zealand. From the Chinese miners in Central Otago to service in World War I, Dominion Road noodle restaurants and watermelon-growing in south Auckland, the photographs offer a wide-angle lens on what it means to be Chinese in Aotearoa.

Fed up with stereotyping and the way mainstream media often portrays Chinese people, Li hopes the exhibition will quash common misconceptions, including that Chinese people are bad drivers and Chinese students are drug dealers. “This is not an entire picture of the Chinese community in this country. People are ignorant and do make mistakes, but I feel it’s time that people who have the knowledge, should share it,” she says. “Without Chinese migrants bringing the two countries together, New Zealand would have no relationship with China.”

Here, Li and Simon Gould, exhibition developer at the museum, discuss the stories behind some of the photographs.

Phoebe Li: Ans Westra came from the Netherlands, and she shot this photo after she landed; she walked around Wellington and took this photo of children from one family. You can see that they all have the same hairstyle and are wearing the same shoes. I guess for Ans she was just curious of the children, and the children would have been very curious about this tall woman photographing them.

Phoebe Li:  Alexander Don, who took this photo, was a Presbyterian missionary. He was preaching to his Chinese followers. His mission wasn’t very successful, but at least he was a good photographer. The reason he took this photo was because he needed to complete an annual report for his mission.

Simon Gould: There aren’t many photographs of the early Chinese miners, so it’s an amazing document. Leon Narbey, the film director who made the film Illustrious Energy in the late 1980s, used these photos as a main source of material to dress the actors.

Phoebe Li: This is also a very typical family run business: a wife, children and husband. It’s a Chinese greengrocer but if you notice the details you will see it’s not only for Chinese consumption. The Chinese fruit shop is a general part of New Zealand city life, within small towns or in larger cities like Auckland, so in many parts of New Zealand this kind of shop serves the local communities, not just Chinese people.

Phoebe Li: This was just a casual shot. Ans doesn’t know much about these gentlemen but took the photo because they were so well-dressed, so distinct and stylish among the Europeans. We don’t know who they are, but we hope that with the exhibition’s launch, some people from the community will contact us with information.

Phoebe Li: Ans was commissioned by the Department of Education in the 1980s to document New Zealand education scenes. This shows how integrated they [young Chinese people] were into New Zealand society and shows a lovely teacher and girl, learning to sew. It’s not a typical scene in Chinese schools, because today in China at this age people don’t learn to sew, so this is a very New Zealand-rooted situation.

Phoebe Li: We keep talking about children growing up, educated in New Zealand and becoming professionals – they live pretty much like anybody else in middle class New Zealand. You can see it’s a very nice house and there’s a guy who’s reading in his garden and is very content. He is Chinese, but if you don’t look at his face, he could be any New Zealander; this is a very typical scene.

Phoebe Li: This was taken when they first launched seedless watermelon; they were the first to grow it in this country. They’re very humble, straightforward, honest gardeners. When I talked to Fay (bottom right), now an elderly lady still working in the garden, she said, “Nothing is easy, if it’s easy, it’s nothing”. It’s so philosophical.


See Being Chinese in Aotearoa: A photographic journey, at Auckland Museum, open daily until February 2018.