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Women share voices of their tipuna

Wong Liu Shueng [left] and Marlene Ditchfield, descendants of Carterton’s pioneering families and speakers at Carterton Historical Society’s Voices from the Families event. PHOTO/ERIN KAVANAGH-HALL

Many of Wairarapa’s pioneering families fled political turmoil and religious persecution, only to face poverty, inhospitable conditions, and social exclusion on arriving in Aotearoa.

Nevertheless, these whanau thrived in their chosen communities: toiling the land, building successful businesses, achieving on the sporting field, and serving in local government.

The descendants of two such families, Marlene Ditchfield and Wong Liu Shueng, were the keynote speakers at Voices from the Families, an event hosted by the Carterton District Historical Society in honour of Family History Month.

The event was organised by the society as part of its annual family history exhibition at Carterton Events Centre: this year featuring photographs and stories of the Andersen, Lipinski, and Wong families.

All three settled in Carterton in the late 1800s, their progeny remaining in Wairarapa for several generations.

On August 11, Ditchfield and Wong delighted a crowd of about 50 genealogy enthusiasts with tales of their industrious tipuna [ancestors], who overcome hardship to become pillars of the community.

Historical society committee member Grant Pittams, MC for the event, said this year’s exhibition pays homage to Wairarapa’s multi-cultural and multi-ethnic communities.

“It’s easy to think of provincial New Zealand as a homogenous society. But Wairarapa is a community of many cultures, which have a rich history,” he said.

“It’s important to reflect the different communities within our town and New Zealand as a whole.”

Johanna and Peder Andersen, great-great-grandparents of speaker Marlene Ditchfield, with three of their 13 children. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

First to address the crowd was historian and journalist Marlene Ditchfield, author of The Andersens of Parkvale, the story of her Scandinavian forbears.

The first of her ancestors to settle in Wairarapa were third-great-grandparents Pal and Petronella Anderson, who emigrated to New Zealand in 1875, presumably to escape the political upheaval and widening social divisions in their native Sweden.

“Pal and Petronella were well into their 40s. They were established farmers, and would have been reasonably well-off,” Ditchfield said.

“But they still decided to seek a new life in New Zealand. Clearly, they were adventurous!”

In 1887, Pal and Petronella’s daughter Johanna married Danish sailor Peder Andersen, with whom she had 13 children, the third, Matilda, was Ditchfield’s great-grandmother, all born at the couple’s small cottage at Parkvale.

The Andersens become well known for their Jersey cows, which won multiple awards at the Wairarapa A&P show.

“Their cottage was tiny and very basic by today’s standards. They certainly weren’t wealthy,” Ditchfield said.

“It was common for families to have a lot of children, as they knew some would die. But all 13 of the Andersen children lived to a ripe old age.

“They lived off the land, they grew their own fruit and vegetables, they had their own sheep and cows, the children all walked to school.

“They lived a simple life, but a very healthy one.”

The Wongs were similarly active in the Carterton community: first arriving in the district 1884, the family ran a successful series of greengrocers and a market garden at Taumata Island.

Wong Liu Shueng’s father Bill was a Carterton Borough councillor and deputy mayor, as well as an active Rotarian and Mason.

Wong said both her grandfather and great-grandfather had to pay the then government’s £10 poll tax [about $1700 in today’s money], introduced to deter Chinese migration to New Zealand.

Like many of their fellow New Zealand Chinese, Wong’s family were the victims of prejudice and systemic discrimination: for example, in the early 20th century, Chinese migrants were the only group who had to sit an English language test before settlement and were unable to become naturalised New Zealand citizens until 1951.

Anti-Asian political groups gained popularity, amid fears Chinese men posed a danger to white women, and Asian grocers would put their Pakeha counterparts out of business.

In her youth, Wong  endured years of racist abuse.

“It was easy to place stereotypes upon us. We were visible: we looked different, our food was different, our language sounded completely foreign.

“So, we stuck together, worked hard, and made ourselves less conspicuous. We were the model minority.

“People always said my dad was more Kiwi than most Kiwis. He didn’t share his Chinese culture, none of us did. We couldn’t afford to.”

Wong said she still carries the scars from her early life experiences, but found healing by exploring her heritage later in life.

To honour her culture, and her tipuna who had to hide theirs, Wong began using her Chinese given name, Liu Shueng.

“I was christened Janice Deidre, we all had English first names.

“Mum was horrified when I told her I’d be going by my Chinese name. But, for me, Janice was a name that didn’t mean anything and Liu Sheung was beautiful.

“So much of our identity is made up of how other people see us. But I needed to do something to reclaim my identity, as a Chinese woman, for myself.”

The Voices from the Families exhibition is on display at Carterton Events Centre until the end of August.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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