Underbelly of the Dragon by Phil Taylor in the Herald last week, was a salacious Scorsese retelling of the Tam Yam Ah assassination, but was actually excellent. It covered a lot of the same ground as the Coddington article - so why was it good, and 'Asian Angst' toilet paper?
Aside from the exoticising headline and the sensational goriness that you'll get with any crime story, Taylor doesn't fall into single one of the usual pitfalls on bad reporting about 'Asians' and crime, almost as if he read that handout me and Tessie Chen gave to the Herald people a few years ago:
Refusal to use the pointless contextual descripter 'Asian' to describe any of the people involved? Check.
References to specific ethnicity, dialects and provinces? Check.
Understanding of the difference between East, Southeast and South Asian? Check.
Specific reference to a specific gang, named, and its specific origin, rather than pointless generic reference to 'Asian gangs'? Check.
A comparison to the Sopranos, followed by: "...organised crime differs little between place and ethnicity. "Human nature doesn't vary between cultures, does it?" notes Mark Benefield, a sage detective on the police investigation team." Check.
Reference to involvement of specific Pakeha and Maori people/gangs in the murder case and in paua smuggling? Check.
No suggestion that this specific crime was a part of a creeping "Asian menace" to New Zealand society? Check.
Taylor's was the article that Deborah Coddington should have written, but was either incapable of, or was steered away from. In fact, even though it's a long gory story about a Triad assassination, there's nothing in Taylor's article that anyone could really complain about - compared with ten pages of officiously detailed complaint that I just posted in to North & South, on behalf of various interested parties...
...One of whom has just fallen prey to its front cover call to 'send some back', taking the extreme step of deporting himself.
So long Keith, nice of that cop to take the handcuffs off for the photo. He must have been one of those liberal multicultural cops you read about in the Herald sometimes.
Here's the text of the opinion I wrote with an actual Asian doctor that was in the Herald on Sunday last week. I think they gave it a headline like 'Time to stop Asian stereotypes' or something, although my original suggestion was 'Not every Asian is an innumerate Asian.'
Although we are two Asian Aucklanders, it may surprise Deborah Coddington that we have no prior convictions, don’t like chardonnay, 50% of us are allergic to shellfish (and therefore have no interest in poaching paua), we have no idea who Kelly Swanson-Roe is, and 50% of us aren’t even Chinese. When Ms Coddington discusses ‘Asian crime’ or ‘Asian health’ our greatest concern is not PC sensitivity, but basic numeracy. Who cares about political incorrectness when we have plain old mathematical incorrectness to contend with?
There is no PC cover-up – Asian communities want to increase awareness about the problems some of us face. For too long, we have been invisible in policy, service provision and national consciousness. Key issues faced by our communities are low levels of employment, difficulties in accessing services and racism.
Last week, delegates at a conference on Asian New Zealanders’ health at the University of Auckland discussed the seemingly high Asian abortion rate. Unfortunately, Ms Coddington did not attend as evidenced by her surprising and false claim in the Herald on Sunday that four in five pregnant Asian women in New Zealand terminate their pregnancies. That rate is for teenage pregnant Asian women – and Asian New Zealanders have the lowest rate of teen pregnancy of any broad ethnic category. For all Asian women the actual rate is about 1 in 3, compared to the national average of about 1 in 4 – high, but not 80%.
Worse statistical problems crop up in the so-called “gathering crime tide” of Asian offending highlighted by another recent article of Ms Coddington’s. This magazine article referred to “our unacceptable level of Asian crime”, reporting that arrests of Asian New Zealanders (excluding South Asians) increased 53% between 1996 and 2005. It failed to mention that this slice of the Asian population more than doubled in that time, going from being under-represented in crime statistics by a factor of about 2 to 1 in 1996, to about 4 to 1 in 2005. We can only assume that the “gathering crime tide” is going out rather than in, and that the level of “Asian crime” is “unacceptable” because, like a hill country water table, it’s getting too low.
Where there are genuine issues about crime or health for Asian peoples we welcome debate in good faith, and direct engagement with communities. For example, a New Zealand study has found that Chinese international students do have a high abortion rate - this signals a real issue for young people from conservative societies arriving in New Zealand lacking knowledge about contraception and finding themselves isolated. As a country, we need to do better for these young women, not demonise them or label them “bad Asians” for having abortions – and the situation is not helped by mistakenly suggesting these statistics apply to all Asian New Zealanders. Asian communities – nearly as over-represented in the health sector as we are under-represented in crime – are qualified and ready to participate in and support inclusive policy and practice based on sound evidence.
However, all too often, people wanting to debate our community issues are not seriously interested in those productive outcomes; nor in the hard evidence; nor in what ‘Asians’ actually think; nor in who ‘Asians’ even are. Obviously, most Asians in New Zealand are not Chinese international students having abortions – most Asian New Zealanders aren’t even Chinese. “Asian” is a problematic term generally used by the media to mean East Asians, but the population of 400,000 Asian New Zealanders widely quoted from Statistics New Zealand projections refers to a much larger and more diverse group of people. About half of New Zealand’s Asian population is South Asian or Southeast Asian.
For all of us though, being placed as “Asians” in a false dichotomy against “Kiwis” or being described as not part of the general “public”, as Ms Coddington did to us recently, are familiar attitudes that we’ve faced for a long time. Contrary to Ms Coddington’s wistful belief, there was no ‘golden era’ before new migrants ruined our reputations, when Asian New Zealanders were loved by all within an inclusive rainbow nation.
To move towards that utopian state, the most basic of “Kiwi” values is called for – fairness. If there’s a problem, find the real numbers and we’ll talk. But we shouldn’t need to prove that we are “Kiwis”, nor as citizens and residents be considered fair game for being “sent back” if we aren’t “good Asians.” Ms Coddington notes that ‘not every Asian is a good Asian’ but would anyone make such a banal claim about any other ethnic grouping in New Zealand? More to the point, not every journalist is a good journalist, and where on earth are we meant to send them?
If people are serious about addressing the problems Asian communities face, we need to be acknowledged as New Zealanders in our own right: not as outsiders who have to earn our stripes, not as people who can’t read or speak, and definitely not as people who can’t count.
Tze Ming Mok is a writer
Kumanan Rasanathan is a public health medical doctor
This column first appeared in the Herald on Sunday, 26 November 2006