Racism in peril? Mutual aid and solidarity in the face of New Zealand’s history of white supremacy against Chinese and Māori

Pounamu Jade Aikman and Mengzhu Fu  

Artist: @fufighterarts. Subversion of Richard Goodall’s “Yellow Peril” cartoon below, depicting a statue of James Cook representing white supremacy being pulled down.

COVID-19’s outbreak has seen the resurgence of old racisms towards our Māori and Chinese communities in Aotearoa. Sinophobia — anti-Chinese racism — has virally spread across national borders, seeing East Asian-looking people attacked, assaulted, and murdered throughout the Anglo-colonised and European world. As we witness yet another misogynistic, white supremacist attack on East Asian women, this time in Atlanta, we are reminded of the insidiousness of whiteness in our society today. And with grief-tempered rage, we lament once more.

Yet it is these moments of vehement, racist violence that equally display our collective ability to stand in solidarity with one another. In what follows, we reflect on the long-standing, anti-Chinese racism in Aotearoa, and the solidarities between Māori and Chinese communities central to resisting these colonial prejudices.

In doing so, we ask, ‘How do we centre decolonisation in working towards racial justice?’, and similarly so, ‘What can we learn from our own history?’ 

We are writing this together as friends who intimately know the experiences of white supremacy in Aotearoa. Our scholarly pursuits have been dedicated to making sense of how whiteness operates on a day-to-day basis in New Zealand, and what strategies of resistance are used to challenge this. With our nerdy research skills and lived experiences, we want to tell a different story about the history of racism in Aotearoa: a story that is still unfolding and incomplete. Allow us to begin by introducing who we are.

Ko wai māua? Who are we?

Pounamu: Ko Kakepuku te maunga, ko Waipā te awa, ko Te Kōpua te marae, ko Ngāti Maniapoto taku iwi. He hononga tāku hoki ki a Ngāti Awa me Ngāi Te Rangi, i Whakatāne me Tauranga moana. I tipu ake ahau i ngā rohe o Tāmaki, Ōtautahi, me Te Tihi o Maru, kātahi ka peka atu ki Ōtepōti, Canberra hoki ako tohu ai. Kai Pōneke au ināianei e noho ana. 

I’ve been privileged to have been raised by strong wāhine Māori throughout my life. Together, they’ve taught me to listen to my puku when I feel that something is wrong, and imparted the strength to stand up and speak back when I get that feeling. That passion saw me explore histories of colonial violence against Ngāi Tūhoe for my PhD, and how recent police incursions into Tūhoe’s homeland — such as the 2007 raids — form part of this long, violent continuum.

Mengzhu and I have been friends for nearly a decade now. We met at an anthropology conference in Te Wai Pounamu, where we waxed lyrical about anthropological theories, mana motuhake, and state violence. Since then, we have shared a love of good kai (they and their parents are manaaki extraordinaires!), terrible (excellent?) puns, and critiquing whiteness in society.

Mengzhu: Ko Panshan te maunga. Ko Haihe te awa. Ko Tianjin te rohe. Ko Haina tōku tūrangawaewae. Nō Guizhou tōku whaea tūpuna i te taha o tōku matua. Nō Sichuan tōku matua tupuna i te taha o tōku matua. Nō Henan ōku tūpuna i te taha o tōku whaea. I mua, i nōhia ki Tāmaki Makaurau. Ināianei, e noho ana ahau ki Tkaronto, te whenua o te Mississaugas o Credit First Nation, te Haudenosaunee Confederacy, te Huron-Wendat, te Anishinabek Nation, me te Métis hoki. He tauira tohu paetoru ahau. 

I moved to Aotearoa as a child in the 90s, during the “Asian invasion” era of New Zealand xenophobia. Based on witnessing state violence targeting Māori communities and activist friends from the 2007 so-called “anti-terror” raids targeting Tūhoe, the 2004 confiscation of Māori foreshore and seabed, reading zines such as Mellow Yellow, I shifted my priorities towards grassroots solidarity activism to support Māori movements for tino rangatiratanga, mana motuhake and land rematriation.  

When I first met Pounamu, he told me about his PhD research ideas on the raids in Ruatoki and state surveillance/violence. We became friends instantly and stayed in touch over the years. One of the first phrases I taught Pounamu in Mandarin was 哪里有压迫,哪里就有反抗. This roughly translates to “wherever there is oppression, there will always be resistance,” and he said it with perfect pronunciation. On one New Year’s Eve a few years back, we were playing the cooperative board game ‘Pandemic’, and managed to contain the outbreaks and save the world. It feels uncanny that we are now writing this together, during an actual pandemic.  

With that in mind, let us turn to the histories of colonial racisms, and the solidarities of resistance that have emerged in response.

New pandemic, old racisms 

All racism has roots in colonisation, emphasises the Human Rights Commission’s recent report on the spike of racism throughout COVID-19. Colonisation, the wrestle for control of Indigenous bodies, lands, and resources, is as apparent during the pandemic as it was following the signing of Te Tiriti.

The outcry against iwi-run checkpoints to contain the spread of the virus, coupled with the proposed increase in police powers of warrantless searches of marae, reflects an anxiety around assertions of tino rangatiratanga in upsetting this settler colonial status quo.

Anti-Chinese racisms are similarly tied to these colonial prejudices, and stretch back to the Opium Wars. What we’ve seen during the pandemic isn’t new at all. In a word, it all began with colonisation.

Colonisation and white supremacy: two sides of the same coin

Colonisation sailed to Aotearoa’s shores aboard ships like the Blenheim, Coromandel, and Tory. With them came a different way of making sense of the world, and white supremacy was the implicit, goes-without-saying assumption that carried them here. Both tangata whenua and migrants from Asia were considered inferior – in culture, and in people. We were a threat to this new white society, and concerted efforts were made to ensure we didn’t jeopardise this way of life. Throughout Aotearoa’s colonial history, Pākehā took a paternalistic role and attempted to control relationships between Māori and Chinese, engineering divisions when the threat of intimacies became apparent. Tracing the origin of the ideas leads us back to white supremacist racialisation. 

In the twentieth century, this saw the state actively prevent Māori from building alliances with Chinese migrants. This is typical of white supremacy, in making it difficult for similarly marginalised peoples to band together. Following the Gold Rush era, the Chinese whānau that stayed in Aotearoa moved to the cities, and developed market gardens. Together with Māori, they worked on the gardens, and relationships grew between the two peoples – particularly between Māori women and Chinese men. The response to these intimacies from the state and media was fervent: ‘Scathing Indictment of Asiatic Intrusion/Danger to Maoris’, wrote The Sun in 1929, and a Select Committee investigated such relationships in the same year.

Thinking back to Year 9 social studies, this sentiment was captured by Richard Goodall’s infamous cartoon of a decade earlier. ‘The Yellow Peril’, published in the New Zealand Truth in 1907, depicts a wahine Māori reaching desperately away as she is ensnared by the tentacles of a caricatured Chinese octopus, each choking extended limb tattooed with tropes such as ‘greed’, ‘evil habits’, and ‘licentiousness.’ As Professor Margaret Mutu and Manying Ip have shown in their research, these framings of the ‘yellow peril’ were sold as a threat to Māori interests. The result? An orchestrated divide and conquer: two oppressed peoples are stronger allied, but much weaker apart. 

Artist: Richard Goodall. Published in 1907 in the New Zealand Truth

From the 1960s, a different stereotype emerged. Where the ‘yellow peril’ had once decried Chinese as dirty, diseased, and immoral, the later twentieth century gave rise to the ‘model minority’ figure. Here, Asian peoples were typecast as hardworking and high-achieving, equipped with diligent determination to succeed in a white capitalist world. This ‘positive’ depiction was weaponised against Māori, who were alternatively stereotyped as lazy, dole-bludging, and underachieving. ‘Take a leaf out of the Chinese book’, echo the demands for Māori. These ‘bootstraps’ narratives of successful minorities were revived again in the 1990s and served to hide the structural causes of these inequalities. This ostensibly absolves colonial capitalism of any blame for such injustices.

Pitting Asian communities against tangata whenua sought to sow seeds of discord, and in the process, distract us from realising our potential strength together.

More to the point – maintaining this antagonism diverts attention away from the real issue: the centrality of whiteness and capitalism in our society and across its institutions. 

Fast forward to 2004, and we see Don Brash’s Ōrewa speech, and soon after, the rise of ‘Hobson’s Pledge.’  Appealing to multiculturalism and migrants of colour to construct the fiction of ‘Māori privilege’, this anti-Māori racism again seeks to erode solidarities between tangata whenua and migrant communities. Here, anti-Māori racism is sold to migrants of colour, recruiting them into white colonial strategies of undermining Te Tiriti, tino rangatiratanga, and mana motuhake.

Contemporary Sinophobia takes on a different charge. As it continues to scapegoat Chinese peoples and immigration for the pandemic, housing crisis, and so on, it once again wilfully ignores the role of the state and capitalist economy. Increasingly, we’re also seeing a dangerous conflation between the Chinese state and its corporations, and Chinese peoples and cultures. Massive diasporas of Chinese peoples have grown up out of China for generations, and yet they remain targeted because of this assumed fusion.

But are the actions of one’s government fait accompli a representation of who one is as a person? This isn’t to draw critique away from government, but rather emphasises that what our leaders do at a macro level, and what we believe at a micro level, are not universally one and the same.

In making these distinctions, we want to point out that Chinese nationalism or chauvinism isn’t the answer to Sinophobia either. Being critical of the nature of white supremacy in society, in solidarity with tangata whenua, strikes more powerfully at the heart of this issue.

Solidarities of resistance and mutual aid

But the white supremacist attempts to sever ties and break alliances did not (and will not) fully succeed. In our memories and recently unearthed histories, examples of Chinese-Māori solidarity exist. In 1902, the SS Ventnor, a ship carrying the bones of 499 Chinese miners en route to China to be buried, sank off the coast of the Hokianga harbour. The bones subsequently washed ashore. Whānau from Te Roroa and Te Rarawa collected and cared for the remains of these Chinese tūpuna, burying them in local urupā. This story did not resurface until 2007, when Wong Liu Sheung was told of this history. Since then, the New Zealand Chinese Association has organised several trips with descendents of early Chinese to visit their ancestors, and pay respects to Te Roroa and Te Rarawa. A new memorial was unveiled to commemorate and honour that relationship, during this year’s Qing Ming (tomb sweeping) festival. 

Dr. Moana Jackson has also spoken of how tūpuna from Parihaka, forcibly sent to Dunedin to build roading infrastructure, protested British assaults on Chinese miners. They sat in front of the miners to protect them from the abuse, “…as they had done [when] Parihaka was invaded.” Later, Te Puea led resistance movements against the conscription of Māori for the First World War. Visiting Waikato men imprisoned by the state in Auckland, her party was regularly fed by Chinese market gardeners. We are incredibly fortunate these stories are remembered as they can so easily be lost and ignored.   

This kind of solidarity endures today. Racial Equity Aotearoa, a tangata whenua-led roopū, vocally called out the scapegoating of immigrants during the 2017 election, and Asians Supporting Tino Rangatiratanga have a dedicated to engaging Asian communities through Te Tiriti education outreach and translation kaupapa. Similarly, Dr Arama Rata has consistently spoken out against xenophobic racism, and with Dr. Tahu Kukutai, called for Māori approaches to immigration based on manaakitanga. These examples of solidarity offer possibilities for the wholesale elimination of white supremacy in Aotearoa. By centring Māori values, we live and breathe decolonisation in transforming how power flows in society today.

There is a growing consciousness among Chinese migrants, and Asian folks more generally, that eliminating racism in Aotearoa means restoring tino rangatiratanga and mana motuhake. Central to this is the return of land, in working towards the type of constitutional transformation envisioned in Matike Mai’s He Whakaaro Here Whakaumu mō Aotearoa. Through such critical and courageous action, may we realise how our great potential for solidarity is key to eroding the foundations of white supremacy in our world.

But a lot of mahi still lies ahead.

Solidarity, in upending our white supremacist colonial reality, involves strengthening relationships, healing divisions, and getting involved in grassroots organising.

It requires long-term commitments, beyond the fleeting outpouring of words and actions after a tragedy befalls us. We might make mistakes, it might be hard and messy at times, but our call to action is here. We all have a part to play, in continuing the legacies of solidarity in the face of white nationalism and colonial injustice. With our hearts and minds combined, the possibilities are endless.  


Ngā mihi aroha ki a Kassie Hartendorp, nāna nei i tuku whakaaro ki a māua hei whakakaha i te kōrero o runga nei. We are indebted to Kassie for her generous and inspiring feedback on our early drafts, which allowed us the space build and deepen our thoughts and reflections. Ō māua mihi aroha ki a koe, e te rangatira.


Further readings:

Ip, Manying, ed. 2009. The Dragon & The Taniwha: Maori & Chinese in New Zealand. Auckland: Auckland University Press.

Ip, Manying. 2003. “Maori‐Chinese Encounters: Indigene‐immigrant Interaction in New Zealand.” Asian Studies Review 27 (2). Taylor & Francis: 227–52.

Kukutai, Tahu, and Arama Rata. 2017. “From Mainstream to Manaaki: Indigenising Our Approach to Immigration.” In Fair Borders?: Migration Policy in the Twenty-First Century, edited by David Hall, 10–18. New Zealand: BWB Texts.

Lee, Jennifer. 2007. Jade Taniwha: Māori-Chinese Identity and Schooling. Auckland: Rautaki. 

Mutu, Margaret. 2009. “Māori Media Depictions of Chinese from Despised and Feared to Cultural and Political Allies.” In The Dragon & The Taniwha: Maori & Chinese in New Zealand, edited by Manying Ip. Auckland: Auckland University Press.

Ng, K Emma. 2017. Old Asian, New Asian. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books.

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