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When Silence is Yellow, Not Golden

Nicola Kean



“As each week passes with news of yet another arrest involving a Chinese-sounding name, disquiet grows in heartland New Zealand about the quality of migrants we’re letting through the door.”

They were the words that launched a thousand blog entries. Entitled “Asian Angst: is it time to send some back?” former ACT MP Deborah Coddington’s December cover story for North and South caused a storm of controversy. Detailing mostly gory tales of crime committed by Asian immigrants to New Zealand – many involving meat cleavers – the story advocates sending Asian immigrants back to their countries of origin.
The reaction was swift and outraged. The article promoted rather unfortunate stereotypes of a “gathering crime tide” and an “Asian menace.” Some called it outright racism. Asia New Zealand Foundation Media Adviser Charles Mabbett calls it “a throwback to a time fi fteen or twenty years ago.” The article approached the issue using a “dragnet approach of tackling everything Asians could possibly be blamed for, bizarrely even a TB outbreak in Palmerston North,” he says. “They included anything negative they could possibly attribute to Asian communities in New Zealand in one article.”
Others criticised its subjectivity, and the lack of Asian voices in the article. Several prominent members of the Asian immigrant community were interviewed, but not quoted. Indeed, one of two Chinese-New Zealander interviewees who were quoted, Lincoln Tan, Managing Editor of the Chinese and English newspaper iBall, later distanced himself from the article. Writing to North and South Editor Robyn Langwell, he says that Coddington’s “use of my quote would have given the impression that I supported her views – which I most defi nitely do not.”
In a quick email between deadlines, Tan told Salient that he felt his discussion with Coddington was taken out of context. “When I spoke with Deborah, it was more just giving her an overview of the situation as I saw it,” he said. He often discusses story ideas with journalists at The Herald and The Press, and didn’t expect to get quoted. “I did feel a little let down.”
Tan isn’t the only one. The Asia Zealand Foundation, along with one other party, has complained to the Press Council about the piece. Mabbett says it is an example of unethical journalism. “My information tells me that the editor wanted this angle, and found a journalist who would provide it. That was atrocious.”
Mutilating the truth to fi t a predetermined outcome is seemingly what Coddington has done. Sandwiched between tales of drug pushers and kidnappers is the claim that between 1996 and 2005 crimes committed by “Asiatics” – that is, Asian migrants excluding those from the Indian subcontinent – increased by fi fty per cent.
In a letter to the magazine published in the January edition, freelance journalist and former Salient News Editor Keith Ng wrote that “Coddington’s statistical obfuscations in her ‘Asian Angst’ article are ill-advised, given the usual stereotype of Asians as maths geeks rather than ruthless criminals.” A few lines down, and in a Listener column on the same subject, Ng argues that far from the “gathering crime tide” Coddington speaks of, the proportion of Asian crimes has actually dropped. “There is no Asian crime wave,” he concludes. “Deborah Coddington and North and South owe their readers and the Asian communities an unreserved apology.”
But far from apologising, Coddington has defended herself via her columns in the Herald on Sunday, calling the bloggers who criticised her “insane,” and claiming that “heartland” New Zealand was behind her. She ignored several requests to be interviewed for this piece.
If her claim of a positive response to ‘Asian Angst’ is indeed the true, is this an indication of a latent racism beneath the glossy exterior of New Zealand’s multicultural image?
While racial stereotypes – or mental images of particular racial groups – have existed since human-like creatures crawled out of the primeval bog, the concept of stereotypes has only existed since the 1920s when the term was coined by journalist Walter Lippmann.
“We don’t even notice if our Asian neighbour competently drives their non-racer car, but tut-tut when we see someone gunning their Subaru Impreza,”
“Stereotypes are in fact cognitive shortcuts,” says social and political psychologist Marc Wilson in his offi ce in the Easterfi eld Building. “The reality is that the social world is pretty bloody complex, and we can’t process everything that’s going on at one time. So after being exposed to members of groups that we haven’t met before, we start to develop a mental template of what members of other groups are like.”
From then on, Wilson says, we tend only to notice aspects of the world around us that are consistent with the mental picture we’ve created. He gives an example of an Asian stereotype perpetuated in Coddington’s article. “We don’t even notice if our Asian neighbour competently drives their non-racer car, but tut-tut when we see someone gunning their Subaru Impreza,” High profile crimes committed by Asian migrants are another example. In fact, Wilson says that the ethnicity of a criminal is more likely to be emphasised by the media if they are non-white.
Psychological research has shown that even people who are not prejudiced or racist hold these stereotypes. While stereotypes are generally negative and damaging, the serious damage is done when they are carried through into action. Historically, the Chinese community in particular has suffered from the negative effects of stereotypes; prejudice and fear.
Associate Professor of Chinese at Auckland University, herself a migrant from China, Manying Ip has researched the history of prejudice against Chinese in New Zealand.
While the infamous “poll tax,” a tax on Chinese immigration in the late 1800s and early 1900s in an effort to discourage Asian immigration, was just one example, Ip says the prejudice was more extensive.
“The Chinese were excluded from a whole lot of welfare and other facilities” she says, “even if they were born in New Zealand, it was totally race based, and nobody really chal- lenged it.” So extensive was the racism perpetrated against Chinese, that Prime Minister Helen Clark apologised on behalf of the New Zealand Government in 2002.
Immigrants from Asia now make up almost ten percent of New Zealand’s population and were the largest net group of migrants last year. However, Ip says that the fear of the “yellow peril” still exists in New Zealand society. “I think stereotypes run deep. If you have a fifth generation Chinese New Zealander walking down the street, they will still be told to go home.”
Born in New Zealand to Chinese parents, Auckland film maker Roseanne Liang has experienced such racism first hand. However, she says it is something occasional rather than the norm. “Every now and again I’ll be abused on the street,” she says. “The lucky thing is I’m New Zealand Chinese and I can stand up for myself, and invariably people are taken aback because I’m not the usual Asian immigrant who just ignores it.”
“The fact that it does come up is stressing, because it means that the problem has not gone away. And obviously I’d like to think that we’re in a modern society and New Zealand has accepted its multiculturalism.”
According to Wilson, racism in New Zealand has moved from overt to the seemingly rational. “We’ve moved towards this much more ‘enlightened’ form of racism. It appears to be much more reasoned, you only have to look at Don Brash’s Orewa speech to see perfect examples of these sorts of things. I think that there are a significant number of people, as in any society, who are racist. I imagine that many of those people wouldn’t even think of themselves as racist.” In particular, as research by Ip and other academics has shown, Asian migrants have suffered disproportionately from racism in the job market.
Mabbett is perhaps a bit more optimistic. “Overall,” he says “I think New Zealand’s taking enormous strides towards becoming a multicultural society.” At the same time there remain subgroups in New Zealand society that still suffer the hangover from fear of the “yellow peril.” He cites in particular the older generation who lived through the threat of Japanese invasion during the Second World War.
However, Mabbett says that New Zealand is suffering from a rural/urban divide. “I think that people in the cities have a different perception of migrants or migrant groups because they encounter them on a daily basis.” It makes sense, then, for Coddington to write in the Herald on Sunday that while in Bulls, she was “reminded of [how her critics are not reflective of New Zealand’s heartland] by good folk with concerns about certain aspects of New Zealand life disappearing… I mean, how many Asian families would live in Bulls?” Mabbett laughs indignantly.
For Ip, the good folk worrying themselves sick about the supposedly fast-dissolving New Zealand lifestyle need to face up to it. “New Zealand’s geography conflicts with its history,” she says. “Its history is Anglophile, and really centred towards Europe. We can’t change our history, and so we need to acknowledge it.”
Acknowledging our history is something we haven’t done enough of, either. While there was no clear ‘white New Zealand’ policy, as there was in Australia for many years, Ip says “heartland” New Zealand has deluded itself into thinking that there has never been a problem with racism. “Because we’re so new, it was only in the 1980s and 1990s that we started to wake up. After all, we are on the Pacific rim and it’s not surprising to see Asian people coming in and it’s not surprising to see the browning of New Zealand.”
“Our national identity is evolving, and the colouring of New Zealand is inevitable because of geography and because of globalisation,” she says. “There’s no stopping it.”
Roseanne Liang’s most recent film, Banana in a Nutshell, captured the public and media’s attention when it was selected for the International Film Festival last year. The film tells the story of Liang’s own struggle against prejudice and miscommunication – except those she is struggling against are her own parents. Liang is a member of what is commonly referred to as the ‘1.5 generation,’ who straddle the cultures of their parents and that of the society they have been brought up in. ‘Banana’ is another term used to describe members of this generation – they’re white on the inside but yellow on the outside.
Banana in a Nutshell traces Liang’s attempt to gain the approval of her traditional parents for her impending marriage to a ‘white boy’; her boyfriend of eight years. Often simultaneously heart-wrenching and humourous, Liang records her own feelings about her family and being caught between two cultures, along with her boyfriend’s attempts to learn Mandarin to seek her father’s blessing.
“People like to categorise, people like to stereotype. It’s not like the Chinese community is not capable of being racist, they totally are like anybody. So when my parents have a problem with a white guy, it’s completely understandable.”
Liang was also the author of one of the many outraged letters to North and South following the publication of Coddington’s article. “Sure, these [crimes] are happening,” she says. “It’s not fine, but it is happening and it comes from somewhere. But what concerns me is that there’s usually no redress for Asians, or for Chinese people, who are accused of doing these things – because they don’t want to talk about it.”
Generally, she says the concept of saving face in Chinese culture has meant that perceived failings or weaknesses such as crime committed by Chinese migrants causes embarrassment and is not often discussed.
“I know a mainland Chinese film maker,” she continues “and she said ‘whenever I see anything on the news about Triads or kidnappings, I feel ashamed.’ She takes responsibility for that, even though she’s got nothing to do with it. That’s why she doesn’t watch New Zealand television.”
According to Liang, many young Chinese migrants generally don’t watch New Zealand television, because they feel it does not represent them. “There’s a miscommunication going on.
There’s no maliciousness, it’s just people being people. So on the one hand you have white Kiwi people saying why are they so insular, and on the other hand immigrants saying we’re not interested in New Zealand media because they misrepresent us.”
Which is why articles such as Coddington’s are not particularly constructive.
Some Asian migrants are criminals, but most are not. Some Pakeha New Zealanders are racist, but many are not. It’s a reality that was too bland for North and South. But the rest of us stand to gain from the colouring of our society. As Ip adds “the interaction is going to be good. They have brought Asia to New Zealand.”