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The story of Aotearoa New Zealand’s first Chinese refugees

June 20th, 2022, By Yasheeka Bertram

On World Refugee Day, explore a piece of local history by learning about a group of Chinese women and children who came to Aotearoa New Zealand as refugees in 1939. Discover quality resources to learn more about refugees.

Ukraine is front of mind

The experiences of Ukrainian refugees will be in the hearts and minds of people in Aotearoa New Zealand and around the world as we honour World Refugee Day on 20 June. This year, the theme is:

Whoever. Wherever. Whenever. Everyone has the right to seek safety.

Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Since the war began, over 6.5 million refugees have fled Ukraine to seek safety in neighbouring countries. The majority of Ukrainian refugees are women and children as the men often stay back to fight.

Media reports from Ukraine have been hard to watch. I have seen images of buildings destroyed and turned to rubble, tanks overturned on broken roads, and fathers, brothers and sons armed with guns.

The topic of refugees can be explored at any time, but World Refugee Day provides a good opportunity. With the experiences of Ukrainian refugees on my mind, I began to wonder about the journeys and experiences of those who have come to Aotearoa New Zealand seeking safety.

Black and white photo of tired and emaciated-looking Chinese refugees.Some are sitting on the ground with their belongings in burlap sacks.
Image credit: Unidentified refugees from Canton at railway station, Kowloon, Hong Kong by Whites Aviation Ltd. Ref: WA-22914-F Alexander Turnbull Library.

Who were our first refugees?

Since the 1870s, small groups of people have come to Aotearoa New Zealand seeking safety, but our formal resettlement programme did not begin until much later. Among these early groups were the Danes fleeing German occupation during the 1870s and Jews escaping both Russian persecution in the 1880s and Nazism during the 1930s. In this blog post, I will share two different accounts about Aotearoa New Zealand’s first refugees, but I encourage you to explore our rich and diverse refugee history further.

In 1943, Prime Minister Fraser invited war refugees from Poland to live in New Zealand until the end of World War 2. Over 800 Polish refugees arrived in 1944 on board the ship General G. Randall. The group included 734 orphaned children and their caregivers. After the war, many Polish refugees were unable to return home and accepted the government's offer to become New Zealand citizens. Based on this information, some historians regard the Polish refugees as Aotearoa New Zealand’s first refugees.

Another perspective is that a group of Chinese women and children were our first refugees. I first heard about Chinese refugees while attending a hui at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre organised by the Asia New Zealand Foundation. I remember a historian sharing her findings that a group of Chinese women and children had arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand as refugees in 1939.

The story of Chinese refugees in Aotearoa New Zealand

The story of Chinese refugees may not be as widely known as the Polish refugees, but it provides another viewpoint into our refugee past. From 1939 to 1941, 256 Chinese women and 244 Chinese children arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand as refugees. The New Zealand Chinese Association had appealed to the government to allow Chinese men to bring their wives and children to New Zealand to escape the Japanese invasion of China during World War 2.

Wives and children of Chinese men already living in New Zealand were allowed to visit for a period of two years, under the following requirements:

  • Chinese men had to sign a bond of £500 agreeing to provide financially for their family for the duration of their visit.
  • Any children born to a refugee wife while in New Zealand had to leave at the end of the two-year period.
  • The Chinese husbands and fathers had to pay a £200 deposit, which they would lose if these conditions were not followed. The total payment of the bond and deposit would be similar in value to NZ$75,000 today.

Chinese refugees arrive in Auckland

As news reports of Ukraine continue to show powerful images of war, I wonder about alternative ways to teach ākonga (students) about refugees.

On Papers Past, I found an article from the Manawatu Times, Chinese refugees arrive at Auckland, reporting on the arrival of eight Chinese women and their children. I share this article with you as an example of a primary source where ākonga can learn about the experiences of the Chinese refugees. It can be very powerful for ākonga to put themselves in the shoes of refugees and imagine their journey, from leaving China to arriving in Aotearoa New Zealand.

For example, ākonga can learn how the women and children:

  • walked for 10 days from Canton (now Guangzhou) to Hong Kong
  • hid during the day and travelled by night to avoid the Japanese forces
  • boarded a crowded boat in Hong Kong to travel to Aotearoa New Zealand.

The Papers Past article can support discussions around the attitudes and beliefs of the time. Ask ākonga to consider the reasons why the government set out rules about how long the Chinese refugees could stay and the requirements to pay a bond and deposit. You can encourage ākonga to think critically and ask questions such as: ‘How would this article be different if written by one of the people who made this difficult journey?’

From the article, you can view the whole newspaper by clicking Text above the article image and then, in a footer under the text, click the link ‘View the full page’. Next, click on individual news items to read what other news was reported on the same day in our history.

Learning history is about understanding different viewpoints, and here I have shared just one.

How did this piece of our history play out?

So, what do you think happened to the Chinese refugees? After two years, did they go back to China, or did they stay here?

I will leave it to you and your ākonga to explore this piece of Aotearoa New Zealand’s history.

A selection of books about refugees that are available through the National Library's school lending service.
Books on refugees from our school lending service.

Resources to learn about refugees

Here are some resources you might find handy.

Resources from the National Library

Check out Topic Explorer, Many Answers, Te Kupenga, and Papers Past, which have information, stories and digital resources to support learning about refugees. National Library's school lending service also has books that you can borrow through your school loan coordinator.

Topic Explorer and Many Answers

Topic Explorer helps you find quality, curated resources on a range of topics to support and inspire inquiry.

Check out our Refugees topic.

Many Answers provides an overview of topics and helps to guide ākonga to websites and other resources. Explore Refugees (New Zealand) and Refugees (worldwide)

Te Kupenga is a collection of stories from Te Kupenga: 101 Stories of Aotearoa from the Turnbull, curated with resources to inspire learning about Aotearoa New Zealand's histories. Read Cambodian journeys — a story about recording the experiences of Cambodian refugees.

Books about refugees in our school lending collection

We have these great books in our collection:

If you're not already using our lending service, read about what we offer and how to borrow from us.

Papers Past

Papers Past delivers digitised, full-text New Zealand and Pacific newspapers, magazines and journals, books and other formats.

Read page 4 from the Manawatu Times, 5 September 1939.

Resources from other organisations to learn about refugees

The UN Refugee Agency: World Refugee Day

New Zealand Red Cross: Refugees in New Zealand

Stuff article: Farewell Guangdong: A history book told by its own people

Britomart — To Grow Roots Where They Land 落地⽣根: A Lunar New Year art project by Talia Pua explores the turbulent history of Chinese immigration to New Zealand

New Zealand China Friendship Society: History of Chinese People in New Zealand — Helen Wong and Bill Willmott

RNZ: Growing Roots Chinese Refuge

Let’s explore refugee experiences past and present

As the war in Ukraine continues, the world watches and wonders how this piece of history will be brought to a close. As I take a moment to reflect, it strikes me how similar and yet how different the experiences of refugees can be, both in the past and the present.

I encourage you and your ākonga to use our resources to learn about refugees who have travelled to Aotearoa New Zealand and other parts of the world in search of safety because ‘Whoever. Wherever. Whenever. Everyone has the right to seek safety’.

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