Being Chinese in Aotearoa in the 1890s

In a previous blog we talked about Minnie Alloo, one of the thousands of women who signed the 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition. Minnie Alloo and her sisters  — who also signed the 1892 petition — were of Chinese and British ancestry: their father came from Guandong, and their mother from Scotland. 

In this blog we take a brief look at what archival records can tell us about the position of Chinese people in New Zealand in the 1890s, and issues which may have affected Minnie Alloo and her family.

Poll Tax Certificate
Poll tax certificate for Wong Chuen Lai. Archives New Zealand reference: AANK 24728 W3164 Box 5 646.

East Asia and Aotearoa connection

The connection between East Asia and Aotearoa stretches back to at least the mid 19th century, and possibly much further. There is a tradition among the indigenous people of Taiwan — who used to be recorded as 'Chinese' on the New Zealand census — that they share whakapapa links with Māori. Whatever the more ancient connections, Chinese people have lived in Aotearoa since at least 1842, when ship steward Ahpo Hock Ting ('Appo Hocton') settled in Nelson. After Te Tiriti o Waitangi, people living in New Zealand who were neither British nor Māori were considered 'aliens'. After 1844, aliens could apply for 'naturalisation' and become citizens. Appo Hocton was naturalised in 1852.

Chinese miners in New Zealand

In 1866 12 Chinese miners came to New Zealand at the invitation of the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce. By 1871 there were 2,645 Chinese people living in New Zealand. These migrants, often from the Guandong region like Minnie’s father, sought to make money working in New Zealand to send back to their family, often hoping to eventually return to China. In other parts of the world, Chinese people had been exploited as indentured labour. This was not the case in New Zealand, but some New Zealanders continued to perpetuate the stereotype that Chinese labour was cheap and unfree.

Poll tax introduced in 1881

In the 1880s-1890s attitudes towards Chinese people became more explicitly racist as ideas of the superiority of the 'white race' and the desirability of a 'white New Zealand' were popularised. Many of the same politicians who argued for liberal reforms also propagated these ideas, suggesting that their vision for a more egalitarian society in New Zealand did not extend to everyone. In 1881 a poll tax was introduced, requiring Chinese immigrants to pay £10 in order to enter the country. In 1896 the tax was increased to £100.

Photo of Yee Jack Gin
Yee Jack Gin, who paid a £100 poll tax to enter New Zealand in 1921. Archives New Zealand reference: ACGV 8836 W1514 L24/30 672.

Other anti-Chinese laws

A slew of anti-Chinese legislation followed. Between 1908 and 1952 Chinese were denied naturalisation, effectively excluding them from the franchise. Naturally Chinese people rallied together against this discrimination.

John Ah Tong's 1883 Petition.
L1883 petition from John Ah Tong and 166 others against the Poll tax. “The Chinese residents in New Zealand have heretofore proved themselves industrious, inoffensive and law-abiding people…” Archives New Zealand reference: ACGO 8333 IA1 Box 490 1883/3058.

Chinese women in New Zealand

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese population remained very small in this period, peaking at 5,000 between 1874 and 1881. Anti-Chinese legislation, along with responsibilities to their families in China, meant that very few Chinese women came to Aotearoa in this period. The first woman from China arrived in 1869, and by 1886 there were only 15 Chinese women in Aotearoa.

Original letter.
Correspondence between Fook On and the Colonial Secretary, requesting that the tax be waived so he could bring his wife to New Zealand. 'The matter can be dealt with only on the arrival of the woman'. Archives New Zealand reference: ACGO 8333 IA1 Box 711 1896/4247.

Meanwhile, politicians such as Richard Seddon stoked fears about 'miscegenation' (the interbreeding of people from different 'races'). Seddon conducted a survey in 1886 which found 101 people in New Zealand who, like Minnie and her sisters, were of mixed Chinese and European ancestry. While officially such pairings were discouraged, the very existence of these children shows that attitudes on the ground were not always so stark.

The same was true of Māori relationships with Chinese: officially they were frowned upon, but in reality relationships and marriages between Māori and Chinese were not uncommon, particularly from the 1890s as Chinese began to migrate to the country and operate market gardens, often leasing land from Māori and working side by side with them.

Read our previous blog about Chinese in early New Zealand — The Alloo family and the Women's Suffrage Petition

This blog was originally published on the Archives New Zealand Facebook page as part of Suffrage125 and Chinese Language week.

Further reading about Chinese in Aotearoa

The Dragon and the Taniwha: Māori and Chinese in New Zealand edited by Manying Ip Jade

Taniwha:Māori-Chinese Identity and Schooling in Aotearoa by Jenny Lee

Being Māori-Chinese by Manying Ip

Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand

By Romany Tasker-Poland

Romany is a Learning Facilitator, at the National Library of New Zealand.

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Lynette Shum November 2nd at 2:16PM

Good job, Romany. I like that it shows that Chinese had agency too, and fought back, and that things are more nuanced than the old "us" and "them".

Trevor Agnew May 19th at 2:26PM

John Ah Tong is interesting. He was an early Chinese arrival in Wellington (from Canton by way of New South Wales), naturalised there in 1866. He was a cabinet-maker, carver and upholsterer in Willis St and lived in Tory St. He was a pioneer of the fungus trade (before Chew Chong and Sew Hoy). Ah Tong spoke English well and was often a court interpreter. He was the only Chinese to give evidence to the Select Committee on Chinese Immigration in 1871. (Then aged 33)
As a business-man, he had good ideas but he was not good at the financial details. He was bankrupt in 1867 and 1870! When John Brogden began building railways in NZ, John Ah Tong offered to recruit goldminers from the Lawrence area to work on cutting the line from Tokomairiro (Milton) to Lawrence. He failed to pay the miners he recruited and they sued him in court in Milton in 1873 and won. He then went to Queenstown and the beautiful eagle reading desk/lectern he carved in St Peter's Anglican church (in 1874) is regarded as a national treasurer. His business, however, failed. He went to Invercargill for some years, once again as a cabinet-maker but was bankrupt in 1881. He then went to Dunedin and lived on the corner of Hope and Stafford St, selling dried fruit (which he claimed as a cure for influenza
) and doing court interpreting work.
John Ah Tong married twice but his first wife, Caroline Tolhurst, died aged 19. His second wife, Jessie, divorced him in 1877. Only one of his four children seems to have survived infancy. Nothing is known of John Ah Tong in NZ after 1892. There's a great research topic here for some historian.