Week in Review

A brief history of racism in Southland

An author finds historical parallels with the dog-whistling comments made by Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker.

The recent race-based comments by the Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker have been described as “disgraceful, scaremongering and racist”. But I found them fascinatingly familiar.

My wife Jenny and I, both Otago-born teachers, lived in Central Southland for 15 years. Jenny is a Chinese New Zealander and she and our family often encountered the unconscious racism of Southlanders. Southlanders are the nicest, most generous people in the world, but many are blissfully unaware of their racist views. We heard many versions of “Yeah, but where are you really from?” directed at Jenny, a fifth generation Kiwi, but never at me, with my Scots-pale skin, blond hair and blue eyes.

In the schools there was bullying, sometimes physical but often psychological. It was the “can’t you take a joke?” type bullying, where Māori were called Marmite and New Zealanders with Chinese ancestry faced endless taunts about chinks and chopsticks.

The Springbok tour controversy was a lightning rod for the expression of extremist views in Southland. Rob Muldoon, our own mini-Trump, made New Zealand’s name mud throughout the Commonwealth. Invercargill MP Norman Jones, in favour of the tour, was also prepared to play the “race card” to defend apartheid.  It was a tense period in our history.

When moving to Southland, it’s always useful to have a local connection: my uncle was the police sergeant at Otautau and Jenny’s Sew Hoy side of the family had run the Nokomai Valley’s hydraulic sluicing operation for five decades. Hamish Walker was born in Dunedin and lives in Queenstown, both Otago centres, but he has plenty of Southland links.

Walker was supported by Queenstown Lakes District Councillor Valerie Miller, who is also a Queenstown GP. Dr Miller said that Walker was not being racist, and was just indicating “countries that have a Covid incidence.” Unfortunately Walker specified only India, Pakistan and Korea – all Asian countries – while the high-Covid-incidence countries are currently the US, Brazil, Russia, India and Britain.

When we were researching our new book on the life and times of Choie Sew Hoy, a Chinese merchant and gold miner (and Jenny’s great-great-grandfather), we learned that a very similar case of dog-whistle racism occurred in Southland in 1888. It was a case of elected representatives deliberately trying to cause a race riot.

Events were triggered by news reports of public protests in Australia. The subject of their protest: a shipload of Chinese miners from Hong Kong. About 100 of these miners continued their journey to the South Island on the trans-Tasman steamer Te Anau, with Bluff as first port of call. The Chinese had paid their fares, passed the health officer’s medical inspection and had made their £10 poll tax payments. Every law had been obeyed.

Joseph Ward declared: “A white man was worth fifty Chinamen any day.”

Two members of the House of Representatives, Joseph Ward and John Joyce called a mass meeting in Invercargill. Mayor Alfred Tapper told the crowd he hoped that the health officer at Bluff might “see if he could not discover some disease among these Chinese”, so that they could be turned away.

Joseph Ward, a future premier, declared: “Every Chinaman who came here took the place of a white man, although a white man was worth fifty Chinamen any day.” He suggested placing all the Chinese on the harbour dredge until they could be sent back to where they came from.

John Joyce was even less subtle. “I learned in my younger days how to use a shotgun,” he told the crowd, then called for volunteers to join a Vigilance Committee, each man to “take their oaths on the Bible””, and go to Bluff to resist the arrival of the Chinese. “They might have to kill a Chinaman or two, and for that he would, of course, be excessively sorry.” His proposal was agreed to unanimously.

What followed was a series of widely reported anti-climaxes. The Invercargill City Band turned out before dawn to lead the crowd of hundreds to the railway station. Unfortunately the vigilantes’ treasurer slept in and only 50 or 60 men could pay their own fare to Bluff on the early train. Another 130 took the 11.15am train and arrived in Bluff just after the Te Anau, which had passed the health officer’s inspection, tied up at the wharf.

As soon as Chinese passengers were seen on deck, the crowd gave a tremendous roar of indignation, then, “hooting and howling”, threw stones and oyster shells at them.  The captain of the Te Anau threatened to call the police which quietened the vigilantes down. Then an Invercargill clergyman appeared on deck and told the embarrassed offenders that no Chinese would be landing at Bluff. The Chinese were going to Dunedin, Wellington and Greymouth. The crowd’s demonstration had been a waste of time. After Mayor Tapper made a speech, hinting that their presence had made the Chinese change their plans to land, the crestfallen vigilantes “quietly dispersed”.

There was strong criticism of the farce at Bluff, especially of the “foolish and absurd” call to violence. The local paper at Mataura summed the situation up in four words: “Chinaphobia: Invercargill very ill.”

I’d like to end on a positive note. During our research, did we find anything encouraging in people’s response to the Chinese? Yes, dozens of examples – and the best is from Milton, a town not far from the Clutha-Southland electorate. In 1873, a group of Chinese workmen building the railway line south to Balclutha weren’t paid their wages. They took their case to court and then had to wait for over a week to be heard, living in tents outside town.

The local council responded brilliantly. Donations were collected so that the council could arrange paid work for them, digging ditches and clearing the recreation ground. People gave them food supplies. Children were warned not to annoy or insult them. The Chinese, we are told, “went cheerfully to work, wrought diligently and returned to their camp well satisfied.”

What a credit to the councillors and people of Milton. What a contrast to the current Clutha-Southland MP.

Merchant, Miner, Mandarin: The life and times of the remarkable Choie Sew Hoy  by Trevor Agnew and Jenny Sew Hoy Agnew (Canterbury University Press, $49.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

With thanks to our partners