Farewell Guangdong is a book that Lily Lee never planned to write.
Lee came from many families descended from wives and children who fled Guangdong, China during the Second Sino-Japanese War from 1937 to 1945. During his retirement, Lee set out to compile a historical record of wives and children who fled their homeland, and these stories quickly accumulated into an impressive 500-page memoir of refugee experiences and stories.
These were families of Chinese men who worked in New Zealand during the gold rush. Although they sent remittances to their wives and children in China, many wives yearned for their husbands and experienced loneliness.
“It’s definitely a community book,” Lee pointed out.
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The book was commissioned by the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust Fund, which sponsors projects that promote preservation and awareness of New Zealand’s Chinese history. The fund is part of the government’s monetary gesture of reconciliation in the face of difficulties caused by poll tax and other discriminatory laws.
The book chronicles the efforts of gold miners in New Zealand to bring their immediate family to safety in the land of the Long White Cloud, far from the thick black plumes of war. These stories are a first glimpse of the love, humility and sacrifice at the base of these refugee families.
Lee places all of this in the context of legislation that discriminated against Chinese immigrants amid fears that the number of locally born Chinese would increase. She reminds readers how the New Zealand Mail wrote that “the Chinese have a large number of their wives here, and their wives are fruitful…it is a gross and bitter evil and the malignity of it increases with every child born in this country”.
Not only were these women seen as reproductive vessels and a threat to racial purity, but also not much more than a wife and dependent.
Although New Zealand was the only Western country to accept wives and children under a grant in 1939, they were not recognized as refugees on official documents, but rather as “visiting husbands” as reason for the request on the customs records. They entered with two-year temporary permits. In addition, the husbands had to pay bail of approximately the equivalent of just over $21,000 today, enter into a legal agreement regarding the maintenance of his family or their eventual deportation, and pay bail of around $54,000 in today’s money guaranteeing that his wife would take away all the children born to him in New Zealand. Reflecting this sentiment, the government passed the Immigration Restriction Act 1920 with the aim of excluding Chinese from permanent residency.
Chapter 7 of the book, Refugee to Resident, provides a major turning point for these families when in 1947 they were finally granted permanent residency, and for the next 300 pages, Lee compiles the stories of refugee families who settled from Northland all the way down. in Invercargill.
“If the women had arrived and not been allowed to stay, there wouldn’t have been this Chinese community that we know today,” Lee said. “It’s probably a watershed moment for us as a community.”
Lee, who was born and raised in Tāmaki Makaurau, said when she was in school she was taught about China in terms of sound. When Lee visited China and her village of Zhongshan early in her teaching career, she realized that “this wonderful 5,000-year-old civilization, [having] literature and writing spanning all those centuries and I hadn’t realized until then that [that] exists… I didn’t understand that I was part of this civilisation”.
The book is a collection of stories told by the families’ own oral histories and brought to life through art, poems, letters and, most importantly, old family photos. Lee and his team tracked down 500 refugee names from mailing lists and archival sources, and found 256 brides.
Reading Farewell Guangdong it’s like being invited into the homes of all those families. These stories are told through the immediacy of descendants, and readers are invited to share in the grief, humanity, and daily mundaneities of their journey.
“Some of them didn’t know their mothers or grandmothers were refugees…and most of them, the majority had no written information about their mothers.” Lee helped families search for their whakapapa and “in that sense they were contributing to the book.”
Writing the book was a joyful experience for Lee. “I made many friendships along the way by talking to other Chinese families, hearing their experiences and identifying with them.”
Lee hopes the book will have an impact on “the new generation of Chinese New Zealanders and that they will use it as a starting point to learn more about their own history and heritage. And if other New Zealanders read, they will better understand our history as refugees as part of the history of Aotearoa.
“I would also like it to be released in schools and for teachers to read it now that the new history curriculum has been introduced,” Lee said.
In 2022, the government announced a revised version of the New Zealand History Curriculum which includes Chinese New Zealand stories. This inclusion was made with comments when the draft curriculum did not include Chinese stories despite their longstanding relationship with tāngata whenua and their contributions to New Zealand society.
JACK PRICES / TIPS
Little remains of New Zealand’s southernmost Chinese colony except for the legacy of racism. (First published February 5, 2021.)
Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua.
I walk backwards towards the future with my eyes fixed on my past.
As a second-generation Chinese woman who grew up in Tāmaki Makaurau, I have always struggled to make sense of my whakapapa, primarily due to language barriers, but also cultural and political frictions arbitrarily tied to my ethnic identity. . But after my kōrero with Lily, I felt inspired. I went home and asked my mother to help me video call my grandfather to ask about his experience in the Sino-Japanese war.
We don’t really talk at all. I asked him what he ate for breakfast and he said “carbs”.
Learning about the trauma, violence, and near-death events he experienced at a single-digit age put things into perspective for me. Suddenly, I understood why there was always this sad and heavy feeling in my stomach when we visited grandfather’s hometown in Fangcun. I now understand the relief his generation must have felt at the turn of the Cultural Revolution. I understood how he found so much joy in what seemed mundane.
There are still huge holes in my whakapapa, but until now I hadn’t realized how much this war had affected my family’s understanding of identity, morality, and family. My grandfather had twice escaped from being held hostage by Japanese soldiers, witnessed family members being raped and tortured, endured various forms of psychological trauma, and was nearly sold to another family for his own family can afford to eat. I think of all these alternate realities for me and my family, and other families who might not have been so lucky to survive.
For descendants of migrants and refugees, our stories will not be found on ancestry.com or the local library. Lee’s project is not just a book, but a process of rekindling intergenerational relationships and restoring the tūrangawaewae of migrants and their descendants.