Tuesday, 8 May 2012

And who are the Chinese?

A few weeks ago, the Dominion Post ran as its feature letter to the editor a piece arguing that Anders Behring Breivik was right in theory, but wrong in practice.  (A banal but still important aside: imagine the obloquy facing anyone with an Arabic name writing in to make a similar claim about Bin Laden!) All of this as Breivik’s trial continues, and as we re-learn details of how he murdered scores of young social democrats and citizens. The usual, polite correspondence ensued; such views are part of the editorial sense of the acceptable, evidently, as is Chris Slater of Silverstream’s contribution. Writing on how Islam is “a supremacist and intolerant religion with increasingly conservative followers”, Slater proceeds, as if quoting a local columnist or a slightly eccentric public intellectual: “As Anders Breivik points out, multiculturalism is part of a deliberate…” 

This is all contemptible and morally distasteful, obviously: it’s also politically revealing. The Dominion Post’s earlier, eager persecution of local ‘terror’ means I wasn’t surprised of its coyness in the face of genuine, self-described terrorism of the fascist variety, and this reminds us that not all treatment of terror threats are equal. Besides, as Tad Tietze and Elizabeth Humphrys have argued in a series of very important posts, media treatment of Breivik’s trial involves a dangerous interaction of de-politicisation and political expansion. De-politicisation, as speculation on Breivik’s mental state distracts attention from the detailed, programmatic basis on which his terrorist attacks were carried out. Political expansion, as this very programme finds its echoes all across the mainstream media: Breivik’s hateful rantings, like so much produced by European fascism currently, are echoes and repetitions from the much more respectable, and more widely syndicated, discourse of Islamophobia and war-on-terror chest-puffing that passes for serious thought on the constitutional Right. (Australia’s own intellectual embarrassment, Keith Windschuttle, was one of the many publicly-feted cranks and official racists Breivik drew on).

Understanding – and confronting – fascism is an urgent question for the left, in Europe and elsewhere. Utoya’s tragedy is also a warning.

The Shadow

A series of events these last months have had me reflecting on a local shadow of the Breivik trial, one which doesn’t match the current atrocity in the scale of loss and suffering, but which contains all too many parallels with the current scene of semi-apology, depoliticisation, and race hatred.

On 24th September 1905 Lionel Terry shot Joe Kum Yung in Wellington. Full of the racial theories and eugenic obsessions that characterised conservative thinking of his time (and, shamefully, that infected and paralysed much of the Australasian Left), Terry intended his murder as a political act, to rouse the colony against the threat of the ‘Yellow Peril’ and Chinese influence. He had travelled to Wellington distributing copies of his The Shadow, full of anti-Chinese poems and ravings. He turned himself in after the killing, and used his trial as a platform for racism.

As with Breivik, much of Terry’s case centred around his mental state. His later life, at Seacliff and elsewhere, make it clear that he was clearly a very disturbed figure, but, despite the prominence given to it in most historical accounts, the details of this particular petty individual’s life are less important than the context of his crime. He found huge public support, and it’s impossible to imagine this purportedly humanitarian concern being mobilised were it not connected to deeper sympathies with his anti-Chinese message. Clemency was granted, and the death penalty initially set transformed into a sentence. Petitions were gathered. Prominent figures spoke out.

A policeman who had travelled some of the way to Wellington with Terry described him in ecstatic terms:  'He looked a perfect picture. As fine a man as ever I saw – bolt upright, and with as free an action as you'd see on an athlete.' Some years later, once Terry was at Truby King’s asylum at Seacliff, locals wrote to the Otago Daily Times in support of his escapades: one correspondent wrote in 1907 that Terry would be “an honoured guest at 95 percent of the homesteads of Central Otago. Had his capture depended on the residents of Central Otago he would never have returned to Seacliff.” Truby King, himself a bigoted eugenicist well in sympathy with anti-Asian political programmes and fantasies at the time, developed a long-term friendship with Terry.

Madness is hardly the question here – why did it manifest itself as a murderous obsession with the Chinese? The answer to this can be provided by a glance through any of the mainstream publications of his time. Ettie Rout, now remembered for her work around birth control, wrote in her Maori Mythology of the “truly fearful prospect” that the “Yellow race” would overwhelm the white.  (This is much the same line used by European fascism around the threats posed by multiculturalism, although given contemporary ‘culturalist’ twists). Dr Doris Gordon, founder of the NZ Obstetrical Society, met Terry at Seacliff and recorded these impressions: “'A man of wonderful physique and a brilliant brain. Terry would propound his brilliant hypotheses; by the time he finished most of the hypnotised students were wondering who should be labelled lunatic and who custodian!'

Terry drew then, and developed, an existing discourse of hatred pre-prepared for him. The parallels aren’t exact, of course; there was no fascist movement in 1905 for which this murder could act as an organising issue; the ‘cultural’ politics of our day (Breivik’s hated cultural Marxism) have replaced the pseudo-sciences of an earlier era.

In memory of Joe Kum Yung

Joe Kum Yung has, for the most part, slipped from the focus of narratives of the 1905 attack, and it’s easy to see why. He was a normal man, elderly, incidental, until his death, to the story, chosen for his skin colour and the ease with which he could be murdered.

The poet Alison Wong, in her extraordinary and beautiful debut novel As the Earth Turns Silver, rescues Joe Kum Yung from posterity’s condescension, and grants him posthumous dignity:

Joe Kum-yung was not a clansman, but with maybe three hundred in all of Wellington, every Chinese was a brother, especially one shot at point-blank range. Yung heard from Fong-man, who heard from Joe Toy, that Kum-yung had been walking home when a man came up behind him and shot him twice in the head. No one got a good look at the murderer. It was a Sunday evening. It was dark. Haining Street was almost deserted. The man with the revolver wore a long grey coat. He was tall. He was gweilo. When Joe Toy got there, his cousin was lying outside Number 13 in a dark pool of blood, a paper bag of peanuts scattered around him.

Wong’s novel, a detailed and passionate work of historical reconstruction, restores some attention to the Chinese voices in this period of sustained hostility and European ill-will.

And who are the Chinese?

This isn’t history, though, or not here. For months now television and radio has been interspersed with announcements for shows analysing the dangers of more land passing to ‘the Chinese.’ The Yellow Peril may as well never have left, and neither, shamefully again, has sections of the left’s complicity with it. Loudest in their condemnation of foreign ownership have been Labour and the Greens.

And who are the Chinese, the threat to those national treasures the Crafar Farms? If we’re to enter stakes in any tauiwi entitlement register, my own memories are of Cantonese-speaking Chinese families I met at my Dunedin primary school, many of whom had family connections in the region dating back to the Gold Rush. A longer period of settlement, to be sure, than that of my own family’s post-war arrivals, and yet this is unlikely to prevent the verbal abuse and physical threats that follow along from talk of ‘foreigners.’

Political issues are in play too. I’ve written elsewhere on the Crafar farm sale, and have, in the organisation I’m a part of, tried to hold to something like a line involving socialist internationalism.

In the cultural sphere, though, and amongst those who wish to see themselves as liberal or progressive, we’re rotten with a xenophobia so strong it no longer needs to recognise itself. You can buy hoodies with the slogan “Born Here” marked on them, a phrase I hadn’t seen since the white race riots and attacks on Lebanese people in Sydney in 2005. For New Zealand, though, the message is so universal to seem like it’s lost any self-consciousness of its political purpose and exclusionary effect.

Neo-nazis marched, quite without opposition, through Christchurch not long ago. Violent attacks against Asians are reported around the country. Slogans around ‘foreign ownership’ become a common leftist currency, and smuggle in with them more direct, forthright racisms. (One placard from last week’s hikoi against asset sales in Wellington involved nothing more than a Chinese flag with a black cross through it).

Amongst all this, the Terry trial comes through to me like a moment of the pre-history of this present.  Intellectual climates are built through asides, gestures, hints, implications – the pitch around Islamohophobia was built over many years, and we see its results.

Anti-Asian racism is, in a settler colony like this one, part of the obsessively re-worked anti-myths of the Pakeha world, the fears of invasion nourished by generations of invaders. They’re being revived, consciously, and dangerously, all around us.

In March David Shearer made this comment on TVNZ’s Q&A:

Yeah, but what I’m doing here is saying we’re not closing the door to all foreign investment. I mean, it’s very clear in the bill that I’m putting forward. What we’re saying is that our land, our valuable land is best farmed for New Zealanders and the value flows back to New Zealand as well. What we don’t want to see is foreign corporates coming in here, buying up lots of land, and the value and the benefits flowing out of New Zealand, and that’s very very important.

Who are these New Zealanders? Who are these foreigners? What does it mean to say valuable land is ‘best farmed for New Zealanders’? (With hundreds locked out from a major chain of meatworks, that last question arrives with a hollow kind of mirth).

Alison Wong carries out a piece of cultural redemption and memory, and asks her readers to see the world as Joe Kum Yung. Narrative and imagination here offer political possibilities. Too many of the current political voices – official ‘left’ as much as governmental right – offer the far-too-familiar filter of all of our numerous Lionel Terrys.


Dr Gordon’s quote I’ve taken from Hilary Stace’s very helpful article on eugenics in New Zealand. Philip Ferguson’s PhD thesis on the White New Zealand policy – available as a PDF here – is the best piece I’ve read on the politics of exclusion. 


  1. Wonderful post, Dougal, and so, so timely. Thank you for this.

  2. This a good and valuable piece Dougal, and I appreciate it. Contextualising the present is the work of anyone working in the humanities, and you've done it richly. However, I think you draw implications but don't close them, and for that the argument is weaker than it might otherwise be. I don't necessarily disagree with you, in fact I think that Labour and the Greens have been sailing preciously close to the wind with their nativist rhetoric. But I don't think you bring out their statements clearly enough for us to draw the conclusions we might need to be making.

    By their own words we judge them - but it is these words that we redraw with our own meanings, and theirs are sufficiently interpretable to include New Zealanders of every colour who've declared their heartfelt allegiance to nationhood. Labour is after all a party that has more than any sought to broaden the colour base and brought in Pasifika and other communities, and is now actively engaged in the same process with New Zealand's considerable Asian populations. The Greens are themselves 20 or so years behind in this regard. It is the mark of good (useful) political rhetoric that it creates emotion rather than facts, because emotions run deep and more meaningful, and because unlike facts emotions are malleable and require no verification. They're also slippery.

    I don't think on any account you'll successfully pin down either party with their words, at least on their terms. There's always a dependable context (working New Zealanders) for parties on the left, like there is for parties on the right (citizens). The challenge for us as international socialists is in pulling away the false alliances and illuminating the hidden power both domestic and international that these words serve. By the time such things are obvious, the damage has been done to lives and to progress towards fair and equal societies.

  3. Many thanks for the comment, George. It draws out important detail I left hanging, yes. The creation of emotion from rhetoric needn't always be bad, either: good politics can give us images of what we'd like to be. (Marxism's language for that is the working class in itself and for itself). The problem with the revived "Yellow Peril", as you point out, is that its a blinding emotion, fear, and a dangerously divise one.