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  • Added August 18th, 2016
  • Filed under 'All Sorts'
  • Viewed 1128 times

Us and Them

By Helen Watson White in All Sorts

stereotyping diminidhes others; to bring peace, we're going to have to do a lot more looking behind the face of the one we call Other

Last Saturday, 6 August, marked Hiroshima Day;
and today we remember that on 14 August 1945, Japan surrendered to the Allies (that's us), bringing an end to World War Two. Both days are about peace, but it's a fraught kind of peace, since the nature of nuclear explosions meant the destruction didn't end then. The effects of radiation are lasting, for it corrupts creative and restorative processes in human bodies (that's us). Radioactive waste, such as that precariously stored at Fukushima, lasts even longer. These things matter to many people; they are pretty important to me, since I now have two White grandchildren who are also Japanese.
War with Japan has been much on my mind while I've been reading Helene Wong's book Being Chinese, about her family's origins in a clutch of villages near Canton. Some of her relations emigrated to New Zealand because of war with Japan -- the Japanese having made threatening moves on China since the late 19th century. Her book, however, is called A New Zealander's Story because Helene Wong was born here, she's "one of us", one of what is now a considerable number of New Zealand Chinese.
China was actually "one of us", too, when the Japanese surrendered in August 1945. Northern China had been invaded by the Japanese Army in the 1930s, before war broke out in Europe, and received military support from the British and US after 1941 -- the attack on Pearl Harbour.
When Helene's parents, Willie and Dolly Wong, were living near Taihape in 1945, running a community store, the news of the Japanese surrender reached them as quickly as it reached every small community on 14 August. The subsequent celebrations were enjoyed by all, she writes, "but they were particularly sweet to the Chinese. The next day, VJ Day, Willie pulled out all the stops. He closed the store, lit a bonfire in the middle of the backyard and invited everyone -- neighbours, locals, motorists passing through and stopping to see what was going on -- to join in. He produced firecrackers from [another family store in Wellington] Te Aro Seed: chocolate biscuits, rationed at the time... saveloys ordered from Gregory's the butcher in Taihape..." cups of tea and everything needful for a party. "It made for a great story in the New Zealand Free Lance," she says, and quotes from an undated newspaper cutting pasted into her mother's scrapbook, the tale of
HOW A CHINESE CELEBRATED PEACE: "This is a story about VJ Day, a story which hasn't grown stale with the passage of time. It concerns two Air Force lads who, recently returned from service overseas, were making a tour of the North Island and were on route to Wanganui when the joyful news broke. When, as they entered a town on their way, whistles, bells and voices proclaimed that the great day had arrived, they parked their car to join a large and hilarious throng...Centre of attraction was a beaming Oriental. Catching sight of the officers, he summoned them: "You been overseas?" Receiving an affirmative answer, he beckoned violently. "Come on! Come on! You fight for China! You fight for China! Me got plenty lots beer. Come on! War over!" It was an invitation promptly accepted and Wun Hi continued to 'roll out the barrel' for an increasing number of guests to the tune of: "Allin come! Me shout flee dlink!" Come they did, on draught-horses, in cars and afoot, till Wun Hi had to rope in many assistant-hosts."
Remember this kind of story-telling? Made funny because that's how we like it, never mind the facts. Helene points out that her father would not have spoken like that, with phrases like plenty lots beer or Me shout flee dlink!
Willie's history is quite remarkable, as she tells it, and a long way from this stereotype of a beaming Oriental. Having started at the village school in China in 1915, Willy came to New Zealand for his education the following year, at the age of eight. The Wong family was by then well-established in Taihape, with both a shop and a market garden to stock it. Enrolled at a new Catholic school and taught by nuns, Willy "thrived", studying hard, excelling at maths, playing rugby, winning a children's handwriting competition and topping the class in Standard 5 -- all "in a completely new culture and language". There's a confident, grownup photo of him at age 13, which was used to accompany his
payment to the government of the poll tax of 100 pounds. He'd been allowed in for six years of study, but his time was up: he had to pay, like all incoming Chinese, if he was going to stay.
The story of the VJ party is only a fragment of a life richly lived, in and for the community he served. Willy was known for bringing people together at what proved an essential social centre. From a new shop just out of Taihape he and Dolly provisioned the whole district, Willy taking the post and supplies to outlying farms, even driving pregnant women to have their babies in town. And this one life is only a small part of Helene's story of her parents' backgrounds, and their widespread kin-group. The cruelty of the NZ poll-tax was compounded by the fact that families were split, from the time of the goldrushes, between China and New Zealand: sons returning home to find wives or to visit ageing parents in the poll-tax period had to pay again on re- entry.
And the discrimination didn't stop there. As Helene's family experienced it, racism was nasty (if normal) right into the 20th century. I too can remember how often the pig-tailed, buck-toothed Chink, Chow or Chinaman appeared in comics, films, even a puppet-show I saw in London in 1975.
What such a stereotype does is diminish a person, reduce them to a stick-figure, sketch or cartoon. And it often shows them as one person acting alone, as if an Oriental or a Jap or Asian (as in the Auckland "Asian invasion") didn't have two parents, four grandparents, all with unique personalities (possibly different nationalities or ethnicities), and if not many children or siblings, then perhaps various cousins, uncles and aunts. All different, even if they look the same.
There's still a lot of work to do. If we are going to prevent future wars -- and who doesn't want that -- we're going to have to do a lot more looking behind the face of the one we call Other, the one we dismiss as Not One of Us.
-- Helen Watson White