Friday, July 19, 2024

Māori-Chinese New Zealanders embrace their mixed heritage

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In Māori culture, Matariki is traditionally a time for gathering, reflecting on the past year and honouring those who have passed.

For Māori-Chinese families in New Zealand, it also offers a chance to reconnect with their roots.

As the country celebrates the beginning of the new year in the Māori lunar calendar, individuals from different generations of Māori-Chinese descent share details on how they have embraced their mixed heritage.

In search of a better life

Mikaela Mee-Sahn Hanara Joe traces her ancestry back four generations to the Joe-Williams family, a pioneering Māori-Chinese household that established a market garden business in the 1940s.

Joe is proud to have Chinese included in her name.

“My mum found the name in a baby name book,” Joe says. “It could mean ‘beautiful’ or ‘beautiful mountain’, I’m not 100 percent sure.

“I grew up with my Chinese name. In my family and throughout my schooling, I was called Mee-Sahn. It was only when I moved into working in an office, I took on the name Mikaela.”

Joe’s great-grandfather, Joe Kum Chee, immigrated to Stratford in Taranaki from Naam Tsuen, a southern Cantonese village in Guangzhou, China, in the 1920s.

Her great-grandfather met Alice-Jean Kiriona Williams in the 1940s and, together, they established a large family that blended Māori and Chinese heritages.

“Nana (Joe’s great-grandmother) and gong (great-grandfather in Chinese) went on to have about 13 children, 40 grandchildren and 80 great-grandchildren,” she says. “I am one of the great-grandchildren.”

Mikaela Mee-Sahn Hanara Joe embraces all aspects of her Māori and Chinese heritages.
Photo: RNZ / Yiting Lin

Joe was 17 when she first learned about her great-grandfather’s journey.

She was struck by how he moved to New Zealand and faced discrimination against Chinese individuals, yet still managed to establish a market garden business and secure a better life for his children.

“There was a lot of racism at that time when they met,” Joe says. “Their union … was built on survival. It grew into love in a big, close-knit family. One thing that I’m inspired by even now is, in the face of all that adversity, how they built their market garden family business and created an amazing life for their children.”

At one point, her great-grandfather returned to China to build a home before moving to New Zealand permanently.

After learning about her great-grandfather’s story, Joe decided to visit his hometown in China to reconnect with her Chinese heritage.

“At that time in my life, I was trying to understand my identity and all of the parts of myself, which was something that also encouraged me to go to China.”

Despite traveling halfway across the world to Guangzhou, a non-English-speaking city she was unfamiliar with, Joe felt a profound sense of belonging during her visit.

“When we visited his house, our extended family – generations of the New Zealand family – had come to be in photos everywhere on the walls,” she says. “It really felt like home. It felt like a connection already.”

Joe is thankful she has been able to grow up in a society that is far more open and diverse than that of her grandparents’ and parents’ generations.

“I think my mother felt a little bit more disconnected from both her Māori and Chinese sides,” she says. “Her journey with her identity looks quite different to mine.

“I’ve heard some of the stories of my grandfathers’ siblings growing up as Māori Chinese – that was really, really challenging.”

While Joe is still navigating her Māori and Chinese identities, she is deeply fascinated by the parallels that exist between the two cultures.

As an ambicultural management consultant in Auckland, she believes this shared heritage is something all New Zealanders should collectively celebrate.

“I’ve heard a lot of Chinese are more likely to join and learn te reo Māori,” she says. “I thought that was really interesting. There are so many people who are willing to embrace the language of this country, the cultural norms and the rituals that come with it. … I think it’s so much about a shared culture for our country, above all things, rather than it being specifically a Māori thing.

“I think there’s so much opportunity for families who choose to come here and build their next generations to find balance and harmony,” she says. “We can learn more from each other because I think we’ll find there’s already so much in common.”

Jenny Joy Bol Jun Lee-Morgan, a second-generation Māori Chinese and director of Pūrangakura, an independent kaupapa Māori research center based in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland.

Jenny Joy Bol Jun Lee-Morgan says it is not easy to be Māori Chinese in New Zealand.
Photo: Supplied

Discrimination from all sides

Jenny Joy Bol Jun Lee-Morgan, director of Pūrangakura, an independent Māori research center based in Auckland, traces her lineage back to a Māngere market garden where her Chinese grandfather and Māori grandmother first met in the 1940s.

Born in the late 1960s and initially named Jennifer Joy Lee, she was also given the Chinese name Bol Jun, meaning “precious pearl”.

Lee-Morgan remembers being happy growing up in a Māori-Chinese household.

However, she recalls struggling with her identity once she started primary school, where being of Māori-Chinese heritage proved challenging.

“When I was growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the stereotypes about Māori and Chinese were very strong,” Lee-Morgan recalls. “People couldn’t understand that you could be (both) Māori and Chinese, that you could have these two heritages and ethnic backgrounds.”

Lee-Morgan says she has faced discrimination not only from Pākehā, but also from individuals in the Māori and Chinese communities.

“Over the years, it hasn’t been easy to be Māori Chinese in New Zealand,” she says. “Being Māori Chinese is never good enough – you have to be full Chinese, full Māori or Māori Pākehā. In the past, Māori Chinese has been looked down upon, not only by Pākehā but by our own community as well.”

Lee-Morgan says that as New Zealand’s population has grown, individuals with mixed heritage – Māori, Pacific, Chinese, Japanese and others – have been more readily accepted.

However, they still faced discrimination that made them question their own identities sometimes.

“Our ancestors suffered [through things] like the poll tax and the Tohunga Suppression Act in terms of Māori,” she says. “All of those things aren’t as overt anymore, but those microaggressions or everyday racist experiences continue. I think it’s still difficult for Māori and Chinese in Aotearoa [today].”

Manying Ip, a social historian and emeritus professor in Auckland has authored several critically acclaimed books on the experiences of Chinese New Zealanders.

Historian Manying Ip has been pleased to see an increasing number of younger people taking an interest in Chinese and Māori languages and cultures.
Photo: RNZ / Yiting Lin

Sharing history

Manying Ip, a social historian based in Auckland, has authored several acclaimed books on the experiences of Chinese New Zealanders, including those of Māori-Chinese descent.

In a book titled Being Māori-Chinese: Mixed Identities, Ip draws on interviews with seven families to explore the historical and contemporary relationship between Māori and Chinese – a topic that has not been documented in detail.

Ip says most Māori-Chinese families that were included in the book have grappled with their mixed heritage.

“If you are of a mixed identity, mixed race, it’s always difficult,” she says. “‘Am I Māori?’ ‘Am I Chinese?’ ‘Who am I?’

“Being Māori [has been] discriminated against socially and being Chinese had no status at all in New Zealand for a long time. … Being Māori Chinese is [like being] in the crack of the crack.”

Ip has engaged with various generations of Māori-Chinese families over time, noting that the discrimination they face has evolved.

She believes New Zealand has outperformed other Western nations such as Australia and the United States in embracing multiculturalism.

However, she says New Zealand still has a lot of work to do to foster greater social harmony.

“New Zealand is getting very multicultural now, … [but] you need to change,” she says. “It’s not just mainstream society – not just Pākehā or Māori – who will change. Chinese also need to change. We need to not be so self-centered.”

Ip is pleased to see an increasing number of younger people taking an interest in Chinese and Māori languages and cultures.

“I know Māori-Chinese people who want to know more about China and Pākehā people who want to know more about China,” she says.

“Many of the Chinese I’m very proud of speak such fluent Māori. … I’m very proud of that because the future belongs to young people.”

Ip says the identity struggles of Māori Chinese need to be universally shared in an effort to help New Zealand become a more harmonious country.

“The story of Māori Chinese needs to be told, retold and spread in many ways,” she says.

“I feel that for a more harmonious country, for a better society, it would be wonderful if we knew more about what Chinese culture is, what Māori culture is and had respect for others as well.

“It would be a much richer society, much more interesting and certainly better for New Zealand when different cultural elements of society are respected.”

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