The Art of Being Invisible - Helene Wong on Sinophobia

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 22 August 2016

A block from parliament, loud, cheerful Irish music pours out of the Thistle Inn. For award-winning writer Helene Wong it brings fond memories – believe it or not – of Sir Robert Muldoon. In 1978 she was the first woman appointed to the then-Prime Minister’s Advisory Group, and as she downs a well-deserved tipple after the Wellington launch of her new book, Being Chinese, her mind wanders back to those days.

“The pubs that I went to were usually around the university,” she recalls. “We used to drink in the Beehive. We used to go to Saint George Hotel, The Duke of Edinburgh, The Royal Tiger Tavern ... that part of town!” It must have been extraordinary working for Sir Robert Muldoon? “Yes, it was a complete surprise to be offered the job and it [being Chinese] was just not an issue.”

It was an experience notable for its rarity. Sinophobia sits at the heart of Helene’s life and book. Yet after a childhood spent trying to be “invisible”, it’s fair to say Helene lost the fear of “rocking-the-boat” a while ago. She’s been making waves ever since.

Growing up within Lower Hutt’s green-grocer and market gardening community, Wellington became Helene’s ‘stomping ground’. Helene’s mother Dolly (Chinese name Yuet Wun) was born in the capital in 1911. Helene’s father Willie emigrated from Guangzhou to New Zealand as a thirteen-year-old, his poll tax certificate registering his entry on 6 February 1922.

After graduating in Sociology from Victoria University, Helene worked in the Public Service before that appointment as social policy adviser to Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon.

I remember the Prime Minister describing me as “tough” – coming from him that was a compliment!”

Small degrees of separation

Victoria University was where both Helene and acclaimed writer Michael King shared an education during the 1970’s but Michael was a “BMOC” or “big man on campus” as Helene puts it, already a promising literary heavy-weight. The title of Helene’s memoir is inspired by King’s own “Being Pakeha Now: Reflections and Recollections of a White Native.”

A passion for theatre prompted a dramatic career turn in the mid-1980s, working as an actor and director before moving into film and television.  Helene was appointed as the first script development executive in the NZ Film Commission, before freelance script consulting on short and feature-length film projects, including the feature film Illustrious Energy by Leon Narbey, a poignant story of Chinese goldminers in Otago during the late nineteenth century.

Poster for the feature film Illustrious Energy, (1988) Cinepro/Leon Narbey.

Poster for the feature film Illustrious Energy, (1988) Cinepro/Leon Narbey. Photo: Cinepro/Leon Narbey,

In May 1980 Helene went through a life-changing experience when she visited her ancestral home, Huangshatou village in Jung Seng county. “In my 30s I visited my father’s village with my parents. I had an incredibly emotional reaction to it – it set of a whole lot of existential questions about who am I? What am I here to do? What’s being Chinese got to do with it?”

Writing and directing documentaries for television - notably Footprints of the Dragon, about Chinese in New Zealand - for the series An Immigrant Nation was pivotal for Helene; a chance to answer back. Footprints of the Dragon was among the ten top-rating documentaries of 1995.

Why did your memoir take three decades to write?

“Being a memoir means you’ve had to live your life before you can put it in a book. I’m glad that I did wait, it’s a full articulation of a journey which I had to take.”

“In 1949, I was born in Taihape and that, I think above all, justifies calling myself a New Zealander, which is why it feels appropriate to add my voice to the conversation that Michael had begun, about being non-Maori and identifying this place as home. Because over the years despite the length of time my family and many others like mine have lived here, being Chinese has often meant being told this is not our home"

Helene at Utiku, one year old, circa 1950

Helene at Utiku, one year old, circa 1950 Photo: Helene Wong, Wong family

On the Art of Being Invisible – Sinophobia

“It has never gone away. The title of my talk, “Inside/Outside” refers to the ambivalence many New Zealand Chinese feel about themselves and their place here. There are varying degrees to this ambivalence. Chinese are accepted as friends, colleagues and through marriage, as family. But every now and then incidents occur where we are viewed as part of, and yet apart from, the mainstream. The Chinese experience has been so long standing that it’s worth examining for what it might tell us about ourselves and our future.”

She grew up denying that she was Chinese.

“I had a typical Chinese upbringing as far in so far as racism was concerned, which was, the best way to deal with it was to put your head down, ignore it and not engage with it. It was a survival tactic that our parents had learned. You did nothing to draw attention to yourself that would lessen the frequency with which you’d be targeted. All of us went along with that because it did work. During the 1970’s we were pretty successful at becoming accepted because we’d assimilated; we almost aggressively became white as a reaction to this.”

Helene and Chin Ting family at Te Aro Seed nursery, Hataitai 1954.

Helene and Chin Ting family at Te Aro Seed nursery, Hataitai 1954. Photo: Helene Wong & Wong family

But a new wave of Asian migration in the 1980s changed that.

 “That complacency where we thought we’d succeeded in becoming invisible was a very thin veneer. [In the 1980’s] the “colour” of our society was changing. Maori were questioning their own identity; they wanted to honour their own culture, that’s when I asked “what about my culture? Shouldn’t I be asking the same questions?”

And those questions have never gone away. These days they’re promoted by the anti-Chinese rhetoric provoked by Auckland’s housing woes.

“Sinophobia has never really gone away. Every wave seems less vitriolic but it’s still there.  It comes from attitudes being passed on to the next generation. My only hope is that our next generation are having those attitudes diluted as they question what their parents have told them about ‘these people’ – because they’re real people; they’re not just their race.”

Helene has taught scriptwriting, film criticism, cultural identity and the media; judged numerous industry awards; served on the jury of the Asia-Pacific Film Festival in Auckland in 1996; and, from 2000 to 2006 was a member of the board of the NZ Film Commission. She continues to contribute to the New Zealand Listener as its film critic.