Emma Ng wants to re-tell the story of anti-Asian racism in New Zealand.

Not just because so few understand the long history of discrimination and scapegoating they have faced here, but because, as she writes “as long as we are allowed to forget, we will find ourselves returning to fight the the same battles”.

She doesn’t want it remembered as Chinese history, but New Zealand history.

Ng’s book Old Asian, New Asian tells the story of Chinese New Zealanders’ struggle to be recognised as natural and equal citizens in a country they call home, but which has treated them with suspicion and unfairness from the beginning.

Ng examines what it means to be a second-generation Chinese New Zealander today, and the hurt that stems from the wide belief that Kiwi and Asian identities are mutually exclusive.

Chinese people first came to this country in the gold rushes of the 1860s, and have since been singled out by a raft of anti-Chinese measures.

Between 1879 and World War Two, Chinese were targeted by 55 race-based amendments, including a poll tax that charged Chinese immigrants the equivalent of nearly $20,000 to enter the country. Even New Zealand-born Chinese could not get the pension, vote or hold local body office. Tight immigration rules stopped Chinese men bringing their families out to New Zealand, effectively rendering them single, with exclusionary measures continuing well into the 1960s.

New Zealand may not be overtly legislating against Chinese New Zealanders and new immigrants to this day, but the residual disadvantages of having done so are clear.

“We only get to talk about race in a really public way when we talk about things like immigration or foreign property ownership. We never talk about race on its own.”

– Emma Ng

Ng points to State Services Commission figures from 2015 showing only 2.1 percent of leadership positions in the public service are held by people who identify ethnically as Asian, even though Asian people made up 11.8 percent of the total population in the 2013 census.

Asian New Zealanders are underrepresented in Parliament, and their voter turnout is lowest of any group in the country except for youths – stats likely not unrelated to Chinese New Zealanders being denied the right to vote between 1908 and 1952.

Ng finds it difficult to “find the language to articulate the subtleties” of how the racism in her life is expressed, and the harm it causes.

She recounts several anecdotes from her own life that show how benign and casual racist attitudes can seem.

In one, she describes a high school party where she was asked constantly if she had met the only Asian guy there. In another situation, the judge of a fashion competition described her sister’s garments as “very Asian” – perhaps intended as a compliment but not without the “chill of exclusion” such subtleties create.

Author Emma Ng, right, with her sister at Mystery Creek Fieldays in the Waikato in 1996. Photo: Supplied

“For some uncomfortable events in my life, it’s only in retrospect that I’ve been able to discern the assumptions that were at play,” she writes.

Now living in New York, Ng is noticing a dramatic change in the demographics and her own comfort levels.

“There has been no point here where I’ve felt self-conscious about being Asian in the same way that I do when I’m in New Zealand.”

One of New Zealand’s biggest problems is that people find it so difficult to talk about race – especially anti-Asian racism, she says.

“We only get to talk about race in a really public way when we talk about things like immigration or foreign property ownership. We never talk about race on its own.”

However, initially positive reviews of the book have given way to more interesting feedback, namely from people who say it opened their eyes to the concept of benign racism – and that they themselves were unwitting perpetrators.

“The people who make well-intentioned offhand comments … it makes total sense that there are people who have never someone tell them how it makes them feel, so that has been really rewarding.”

As long as anti-Asian sentiment persists, Asian New Zealanders will continue to feel like they don’t belong.

The cover of Old Asian, New Asian reads: “Perhaps at some point we will no longer be asked to justify our presence or prove our worth.”

And that should be something all New Zealanders want.

Cass Mason is Newsroom's news director.

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