The Chinese grandparents who bond over bus rides and bargains

Translation Xiaoting Liu - Photography Adrian Malloch

Bus About

Film-maker Julie Zhu goes grocery shopping in Pakuranga with a group of grandparents: Chinese immigrants who bond over bus rides and finding bargains.

We meet at Pakuranga’s Tofu Shop, a small Asian grocer in the east Auckland suburb. Backpacks and trolleys in tow, we make a dash for it across Ti Rakau Drive. It’s a funny thing, seeing elderly people make a dash, but nonetheless, we do it, coming dangerously close to the cars hurtling along the four-lane-wide road. I hold my breath and run without protest. After all, these grey-haired folk do this three or four times a week.

It may not seem like an exciting outing, but to hop between bus stops in east Auckland, visiting their favourite Asian supermarkets, is a leisurely regular activity for these elderly Chinese grandparents, a way to feel connected to a home country they left long ago. Home is now New Zealand, and life is often spent looking after their children’s children. It’s a deeply entrenched Chinese custom: to be financially supported by your children and in turn, help raise your grandchildren.

Film-maker Julie Zhu

Film-maker and first generation New Zealander Julie Zhu saw something special in these seemingly mundane group outings to Asian supermarkets. Her nana, Fang Ruzhen, and granddad, Zhu Wanli, are part of a group that maintains vital connections to other elderly Chinese immigrants who are fluent in Mandarin and Shanghainese, but whose limited grasp of English makes it difficult to connect with many of the residents in their adopted country. 

Zhu’s short documentary about her grandparents and their friends, East Meets East, is being funded by short film initiative Loading Docs, which helps burgeoning New Zealand film talents create three-minute-long documentaries on a diverse range of subjects. Zhu sees herself as part of the “1.5 generation” of Chinese immigrants, saying that after she moved to Auckland from China at age four, she struggled with her identity. “Growing up, when I was little, I was like, ‘I don’t want to be Chinese, I want to be kiwi’. It’s only recently that I’ve understood what that meant and why I felt like that. It’s that pressure to assimilate and fit in and be the identity that’s revered in New Zealand,” she says. East Meets East is Zhu’s attempt to form connections with her Chinese heritage: “This is me trying to reclaim some of that.” 

The documentary is shot in an observational style, with interviews conducted in Mandarin and subtitled in English. Zhu’s grandmother is the focus. Ruzhen and Wanli moved to New Zealand in 2001 when Zhu and her younger brother were born. Ruzhen says the many different supermarkets they visit reflect how important it is in Chinese culture to get a bargain. “To save money is to sustain the home,” she says, as we browse products on our second stop at Tai Ping Asian Supermarket, a short bus ride away from Tofu Shop. “If there’s expensive stuff, we’ll try to find a cheaper option and then we save money so we can spend it on our grandkids. The most important thing is passing your savings on to the next generation.

The prices in Tai Ping supermarket remind Wanli of home, while the bus routes give the non-driving grandparents independence and a sense of community with the friends they travel with. “This supermarket is quite clean and well-structured for me to shop,” he says. “They have special prices for items every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.” He also has a lot to say about the difference between Chinese and Western views of money and family. “You can’t compare kiwi people to Chinese people. When they die they owe a lot of debt, but when Chinese people die, they don’t,” he says as we browse the aisles. Today, Wanli’s bought glutinous rice flour to make homemade rice balls that are mixed with pumpkin. “They’re really sweet. Next time, I’ll make some for you guys,” he smiles.

Wanli and Ruzhen also accept their grandchildren will live very different lives and have vastly different values to their own. “Our values are from China, the world is changing,” says Ruzhen. “Young people are so different to us. We don’t think it’s bad, though. Their quality of life is much better.”

The hardships this generation of Chinese immigrants face include financial struggles. Yu Xuezhang says it’s hard for her and her husband to survive just on their superannuation, as although they came here for their children, their children cannot afford to look after them. “I have to pay rent, so it’s a lot harder to survive,” she says. “I have a son and a daughter and they don’t pay for me. My daughter has limited income so cannot look after us. Our daughter-in-law is not in a very good health condition,” she says. In these circumstances, the bus trips and shopping trips serve multiple purposes: they’re a social occasion as well as a budgeting lifesaver.

Our morning bus adventure ends with Zhang Xiufeng hurrying us along, papaya in hand, and soup for lunch on the horizon. We shuffle after her – she’s clearly the boss – and catch the number 500 bus back along Ti Rakau Drive, backpacks and trolleys bursting with bargains.

Watch the full film below.

To read more about the film makers and their funding journey, go to boosted.org.nz. Watch East Meets East and other documentary shorts at www.loadingdocs.net,