Yellow Peril by Tze Ming Mok

Banana Battle II: the fruit flies

‘Whither the New Zealand Chinese community?’ people were asking. ‘How oh how shall we navigate the perilous and two-faced seas of political identity?’ But the most important question was ultimately this: ‘Where are all the hot Chinese guys at?’

You’ll have to wade through to the end for the answer to that. Sorry. It does say 'ultimately', doesn't it?

Before the full Banana report, may I briefly note four things.

1. Screw the Australian government.
2. Screw the Chinese government.
3. Free Ching Cheong (please follow this link).
4. Make any jokes about Ching Cheong’s name and I’ll smash you.

Right. Bananas.

The crowd was Old. Old Generation, and largely, well, just Old. This was a reflection of the organisers - the New Zealand Chinese Association, which is an Old Generation Association, and full of old people. But there was a younger contingent, including a fair amount of overseas-born Southeast Asians, 1.5ers, and on the first day of the conference, probably about 20 international students. A hand count on the first day put the proportions at about 70-80% old Generation Chinese.

There’s too much to cover, the speakers will be putting their notes onto the conference site shortly, and you want to get to the end to find out about the hot guys. But these were some highlights:

Yuk King Tan talking quiet mellifluous iconoclasm, in front of a video of her artwork, which consisted of burning down art galleries. Stunning.

Mua Strickson-Pua, pointing out (and I keep saying this without anyone ever believing me) that Tana Umaga is Chinese.

The snippet of Roseanne Liang's documentary on her parents' ruling that she can only marry her Pakeha boyfriend if he asks for her hand in marriage in Mandarin (screening at the International Film Festival).

Mayor of Gisborne Meng Foon, in between talking a fair amount of assimilationist nonsense after the conference dinner, coming up with an absolute gem that I’ve been waiting a long time for someone to say: that Chinese people really need to chill out and relax.

After which I went home and studiously wrote my speech between 11:30 pm and 2:00 am.

And then there was the final throwdown. The heavyweight clash. This was nothing to do with me, I assure you. There were noticeable growing pains on display as the new generations outstripped the old, and we strove to hold it all together. But there was certainly no clean 'Old Generation'/'New Generation' split.

I was the last scheduled speaker of the conference, and after my speech, we broke for afternoon tea, whereupon lots of Old Generation types came up and said nice things to me. Eventually struggling out of the lecture theatre, and back to the company of my younger comrades and media hacks, I was granted the full benefit of the Errol Kiong kacang-sweet buttercup glow, and the Keith Ng anarcho-Hobbesian pixie-grin. Said Keith: “You fucked some shit up man!”

“What?” I said, “What do you mean? What do you mean?” I didn't know what he meant.

Then, Tony Chuah of the conference committee came by to alert me to the fact that I had “really pissed everyone off” including himself, although I still can’t quite figure out who he meant by ‘everyone’, or what exactly in my speech had pissed them off, and he didn’t tell me. He might have thought that I would automatically know, or that I had even written my speech expressly to piss someone off. But actually, I’m just so totally out of touch with the Old Generation, that I have no idea what they expect from me.

Given that the conservative element of the Old Generation community seems to think that everything I say is controversial in some way, I have no way of differentiating one degree of their perception of controversy from another. None. I honestly have no freakin’ clue. I generally assume they are mortified by my behaviour, not because of my actual opinions, but because I’m fairly honest, direct, and outspoken about my opinion. The great thing about being a Chinese person subjected to the approbation of the conservative end of the Old Generation Chinese community for being outspoken, is this: they find being outspoken so unnerving that they never actually tell you that you suck, why you suck, or …well …anything to your face at all actually.

So you can just ignore them.

But this is not very productive. I was totally bemused about Tony’s comment even by the end of a lunch the next day at which Keith Ng (even less Old Generation than me) made an exhaustive and heroic effort to explain it to me, or at least come up with a hypothesis. And sure, I can see why my speech might have confused or unsettled some people’s idea of their own identity… but still can’t figure out what was so specifically angering.

The existence of the Old Generation Chinese community only dawned on me properly when Dragons on the Long White Cloud came out in 1996. My father gave it to me for, I think, my eighteenth birthday - and you know, I was damn excited. It was election year. I thought it would be a radical ethnic-pride touchstone with which to fight The Enemy Who Shall Not be Named. So I went through the bloody thing looking for my own family, but all I found was this: "...and this figure does not even take into account that some Southeast Asians, such as Indonesians, Malaysians etc, may be 'Chinese'..."


I may be…


‘Thanks a lot Manying!’ I thought. ‘I’m Chinese! If this book isn’t about me, who the hell is it about?’

It was only then that it really hit home that there were all these Chinese people in New Zealand with …big extended families! Who all spoke English with Kiwi accents, even the parents and old people! Who couldn’t speak Chinese! Who clumped together in these… things called …communities! Who really were all related and that this is why when white people met me they would ask if I was related to blah-blah-blah Wong-Doo and I’d say ‘no, and that’s not even a real name’ but actually, it is! That some of these people based their sense of New Zealand belonging, and their sense of entitlement to belong, on the fact that they’d been in the country five times as long as my family. Suddenly, a lot of things made sense.

It was also around this time that I heard elements of the Old Generation community were actually disapproving of people who spoke out to criticise racism and defend Chinese people.

Now that was a total mindfuck.

Because I never had any contact whatsoever with them growing up here, I find it quite difficult to gauge Old Generation community reaction to my opinions. This is why I’ve inserted all the audience reactions to my speech that I recall, to help me figure it out. From the comments I received after the speech, there had to be, in that lecture theatre, a split in opinion between the conservative older leadership and the majority of the crowd. But the bulk of the crowd was Old Generation. And they were behind me (though they didn’t necessarily always share my sense of humour).

Wong Liu Sheung who was chairing that session, said in her introduction that she thought that my opinions are courageous, and that I rush in “where angels dare not tread”, but I don’t believe this is true at all. All I do is express my opinion, and that is not an act of courage when I have no disapproving community to slam me down or throw me out. Aside from Derek, my parents are my only family in this country and they generally agree with me. Even when they don’t, they’re happy that I participate in political discourse, given that they grew up in countries that paid lip-service to democratic procedure, but where meaningful democracy was not possible. That’s a large part of why they came here. So it’s no big deal for me to say what I think.

But what would be courageous would be if someone from the Old School did what I did. Now that would be putting your balls on the line. And somebody did so that day. It was the most impressive moment of the conference.

The issue was exclusion and exclusivity, and it all happened in the final open-slather forum session, entitled ‘Where to from here?’, chaired by NZCA Chairman Kai Luey. This was after I had ‘pissed everyone off’ with my speech, so what I’m about to describe doesn’t factor into my bemusement over that issue (sure, I can see why they might be pissed off at me now, but not because of the speech). Kai Luey had just rebuffed a suggestion from the bright young president of the International Students Association of Unitec. Ben had suggested that International Students had been somewhat underrepresented, and could play a greater role in the next conference – perhaps even by hosting it at Unitec. Kai said, in essence, that International Students are not real New Zealanders and therefore not the NZCA’s concern. And that they could have their own conference if they wanted. I responded in a fury to this, as anyone could have expected, slamming Kai for being divisive, ungracious, and being out of touch with the importance of the transient yet permanent International Student presence in our cities – particularly the impact it has on the cultural life and cultural identity of Auckland. I didn’t make the obvious point that the first generation of his family in New Zealand were probably not permanent residents when they arrived either. Neither were mine. In fact, my parents were interns at Auckland Hospital when they came to New Zealand. That’s right - international students.

I didn’t expect anyone to back me up, but lively discussion continued. And suddenly, Kai Luey came under sustained attack from Dr Jim Ng, prestigious historian and Chair of the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Fund - the Oldest of the Old Generation. It was OG vs OG. Jim seemed truly outraged that Kai had drawn these lines around language, citizenship and communities, and harangued him for missing the point of the whole conference.

It’s terrible to say that a lot of the old Chinese guys there looked similar – but I suppose that’s what you get at a certain age, especially if you are all Cantonese, originally from the same few villages, and often somewhat related to each other. Kai and Jim are two similar looking solid grey Cantonese men, with cheerful jowls, dark ochre skin, and pouchy eyes. And one of them was yelling, bawling at the other from back row centre, “that doesn’t equate to leadership!”

Kai, in classic Old Generation style, said nothing.

When it all drew to a close, myself and a bunch of my friends who have taken to calling ourselves ‘The Movement’ in not entirely facetious terms, clamoured around Jim Ng who emerged from the theatre looking shaken, accompanied by his frowning wife. We were slapping his back, and pumping his hand, shouting "people’s hero!"’ and "you da man!", and he was overwhelmed and surprised. “I was getting kicked in the leg, and elbowed” he said mock-querulously, gesturing to his wife and relatives, “I’m not going to get any tea tonight!” I'd believe that. Now that’s courage.

Kai is now proposing a series of seminars to keep the momentum and debate going, and has written me a very gracious email.

So, this is as exciting and dramatic an ethnic political community as I've ever been a part of. It's laudable that the NZCA had the vision to even bring people who disagreed with each other together into the same space so that we could disagree face to face. For some people, it's the first time they've met other young Chinese people with an interest in political and community engagement and activism. And you know what? There are more of us than you might think. It would be lazy and cliched to say 'the Chinese community has finally come of age', but tonight, I'm taking Meng Foon's advice about slacking off to heart.

So where were the hot Chinese guys at? My favourite relative in the world (we made a deal I'd say that, but it's still true) step-cousin-in-law Derek Cheng, notes that he was in Hamilton, and also, later, speaking to The Enemy Who Must Not Be Named. Manying Ip's son was marking Law School test papers. Wait a minute, no he wasn't - that slacker was blogging! Chris Cheung and his other hot friend just wanted to talk about identity. Word of advice: 'let's talk about identity issues babe' no longer works as a pick-up line. Chinese guys really do just want to talk about identity. For god's sake. The rest were either gay or journalists. And still wanted to talk about identity. I think I got more attention from the Old Guys. I suppose that's not all bad.

Edit: this just in from Tony Chuah

Oh god I hate being misquoted, and what's worse, cut short to look like some kind of old school conservative bigot. That's the last thing I'd want to be identified with (completely). Maybe in terms of geneology I can make some (half) claim to belonging to the old crew. [...] I wasn't speaking for all of "us". It was just me that was "pissed off" because you mainly right. I hope that clears some things up for you.

No wonder I didn't get it. Frankly, I'm still confused, but will get back to Tony on that one.