Turning Stone Into Jade

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 29 June 2015
Proud grandhildren Salvy Fung and Sophie Fung with Ye-ye (granddad) David Fung

Proud grandhildren Salvy Fung and Sophie Fung with Ye-ye (granddad) David Fung Photo: RNZ/Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Turning Stone into Jade is the story of how a community founded by Chinese sojourners and migrants adapted to New Zealand, a new homeland far from their place of birth. The New Zealand Chinese Association is celebrating their special 80 year anniversary; Lynda attends this auspicious event and the launch of their publication Turning Stone into Jade to meet the community and learn more.

I think its important to document [our] history, because it's important to inform and educate people who might not know about these things. it's topical, it's part of New Zealand's heritage - Salvy Fung, grandson of author David Fung.

The first floor area at the National Library in Wellington is buzzing with people, it's standing room only. There's an auspicious book launch taking place and the title of the publication sounds like modern day alchemy; Turning Stone Into Jade.

Audience listen to speeches at book launch

Audience listen to speeches at book launch Photo: RNZ/Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Officially opened by the Honorable Peter Dunne MP and Mayor of Gisborne Meng Foon - the celebration is covering 80 years of New Zealand's history, specifically Chinese settler history. 

Salvy Fung is at the book launch with his younger sister Sophie.Salvy is a year 11 High school student and his sister Sophie is in year 8. Their Ye-ye (paternal grandfather) is David Fung, the author of Turning Stone Into Jade. It's taken 8 years for David Fung and a team of contributors to publish this seminal history of the New Zealand Chinese Association, but 80 years of history is an even longer time for the wide spread Chinese community to make contributions to New Zealand society.

Mayor of Gisborne Meng Foon and current President of the National NZ Chinese Association

Mayor of Gisborne Meng Foon and current President of the National NZ Chinese Association Photo: RNZ/Lynda Chanwai-Earle

The title itself refers to the old Chinese proverb turning stone into jade refers to the meticulous carving of a piece of stone to turn it into a ritualistic jade amulet. The metaphor itself applies to how generations of Chinese have endeavoured to transform early challenging circumstances into a better life here in New Zealand. It's the story of how a community founded by Chinese sojourners and migrants adapted to New Zealand, a new homeland far from their place of birth.

Author David Fung tells me that he did not want to sanitise this history either, even if some passages may have been seen as controversial by his own community. David believes that history should be accurately reflected.

In memory of people long gone, David has acknowledged even the darkest parts of their migrant experience, events and policies such as the Poll Tax, levied against Chinese only entering the country. From 1881 until it was finally abolished by the New Zealand government in 1944, the Poll Tax journey traversed discriminatory statutes to reconciliation.

Formerly a painful and buried history this came to light in large part because of the efforts of researches and writers within the community, David and his wife Esther among them, which resulted in the Labour Government issuing a formal apology in 2002.

Subsequently a Poll Tax Heritage Trust was created from financial compensation, earning longevity in the most useful way by funding ongoing projects from within the Chinese community (such as the publication Turning Stone into Jade) that seek to preserve and promote the cultural heritage of Chinese migrants as well as educate the public.

David tells me there are many more historic events recorded in Turning Stone Into Jade that have never been revealed before, events that are finally seeing the light of day.

Chris Szekely, the Head Librarian tells me it will be a book utilised by schools and libraries across the country for research. "It's a very accessible tool available to a range of ages."

The publication itself started when we went through our history records. We came across a treasure trove.

Gerald Wong is the immediate past president of the New Zealand Chinese Association. he tells me that the association is the largest and longest running Chinese association in New Zealand. Fourteen branches (with one sub-branch) stretch from Northland to Invercargill. "In its early incarnations the NZCA offered kinship and a united voice for an often marginalized and fragile minority."

Justine Kohing selling copies at the launch

Justine Kohing selling copies at the launch Photo: RN

The publication tracks the Southern Chinese migrants and settlers in New Zealand but the association itself began after the Japanese invasion of China, as early as 1935. The association officially launched in 1937 and has grown in numbers through to its current day membership in 2015.

Over 1800 members across the nation put time and effort into public events that take place around the country, such as the annual Easter Sports Tournaments that may see several thousand Chinese and their families gathering to play indoor and outdoor sports like basketball, volleyball and touch rugby.

The Chinese Association takes up issues relevant to the community on local and international levels. The Poll tax is one historic issue covered in the publication alongside more current events such as museum exchanges with sister cities across China and on-going connections with diasporic Chinese communities across the globe.

I want my children and grandchildren to understand, unless its written down it might be lost.

Harvey Woo was one of the instigators, he supported David through the writing as well as and identifying people in hundreds of photographs included in the publication. For Harvey the book is also a treasure for future generations.

Virginia Chong is Chair of the book committee. She tells me that the title resonates perfectly with the way the Chinese community and the Association have evolved over the years, "The change from a small, hard working community to a large and precious one."

He's fluent in Te Reo Maori, the Mayor of Gisborne and most recently has been voted into the role of current President of the New Zealand Chinese Association. For Meng Foon the book is important because its living history that will continue to inform our next generation.

This gathering is a witness of the children and grandchildren of our forefathers that set up the association - the preservation of our culture is so important as we go forward.

NOTE: The Auckland branch of the New Zealand Chinese Association (NZCA) will hold an official presentation of its history Turning Stone into Jade: The History of the New Zealand Chinese Association to the Auckland Chinese community on Sunday 12 July at 11am in the Tasman Room, Alexandra Park, Greenlane.