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Paper trails can link our history

As Chinese Language Week comes to a close, for many it may have evoked reflection on how predecessors first touched New Zealand soil.

Over 100 years ago, from the Jung Seng county of China’s Guangdong province, my great-grandfather Wong Wing Kit set his sights on Northland.

Due to recent access to some family history, I know he arrived in Wellington, on the Moeraki aged 19.

He paid poll tax [number 358], which, according to the Ministry for Ethnic Communities would have been ₤100, equal to more than $11,000 today.

At around this time, there were various groups opposing Chinese immigration, including the Anti-Chinese Association and the White New Zealand League.

He had left his wife – my great-grandmother – Wong Yun Song, and returned to see her seven years later, before heading back to New Zealand.

When the Japanese invaded Jung Seng, Yun Song fled with their two children [two others died in China] aged eight and two and she met her husband in Auckland.

They established themselves in Kaikohe, where they had three sons born at Rawene Hospital, including my grandfather in 1942.

My great-grandfather owned the Young Kee fruit, vegetable and confectionery business in Broadway, an initiative common among Chinese settlers.

In thinking about her mother’s emigration, my grandfather’s sister Loha said she believed Yun Song was disappointed they never returned to China.

“Her thoughts would return to the close-knit village network of Buk Sek which were so important to her,” she said.

“She spoke to her children in Chinese; the grandchildren could not speak the language but understood what she was saying.”

Reading these notes ignites a strange feeling in the gut.

It is an odd thing to gain knowledge about my bloodline from words put to paper by someone I’m not related to.

With age comes a keen yearning to learn more and fortunately, there is still whānau I can reach out to who have first-hand memories of those who have now passed, and where they came from.

It also makes me wonder – if I’m missing so many details about my own history, what details are missed in Wairarapa’s?

One example beautifully highlighted in Gareth Winter’s book ‘Street Wise’, is William Wong Place.

Winter writes that this is the only street in Wairarapa to be named for a Chinese person, found in Carterton.

“William Wong was born in Carterton in 1911, where his parents operated a general store.

His mother had her feet bound in the Imperial Chinese manner – making her an object of great curiosity among the children of the town.”

I hadn’t heard of Wong before reading Winter’s excerpt. He was quite the legend.

“Bill Wong was a passionate duck shooter, a foundation member of Carterton Rotary and he served on Carterton Borough Council for many years.

He died in 1985.”

It’s a testament to Wong’s character that he had a street named after him, in Carterton, of all places.

And it goes to show how important archival documents and evidence is in preserving the stories of those who came before us.

Who knows what other details may have slipped through over time, in Wairarapa or in my own family history, leaving no trace because they were not written down?

Bella Cleary
Bella Cleary
Bella Cleary is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age, originally hailing from Wellington. She is interested in social issues and writes about the local arts and culture scene.

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