My Book Club Recommends: Being Chinese, A New Zealander's Story

by Helene Wongbeing-chinese

Reviewed by Jeanie Brigham


“You can go anywhere you like,” her mother said. “This is your home.”

In 1980, at the age of about 30, Helene Wong was in China for the first time in her life. She had accompanied her parents to her father’s ancestral village of Sha Tou in Canton. She was surrounded by her relatives and oddly-familiar things. But could she really live here? Was this drab, rural village with appalling sanitation really her home? Surely, New Zealand was home, and yet . . .

Born in New Zealand to Chinese parents, and growing up in the Hutt Valley in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Helene just wanted to be accepted as a New Zealander. For this reason, she didn’t take advantage of her parents’ willingness to teach her Cantonese, something she was later to regret. Her parents had a fruit and vegetable shop, and in many ways her childhood was much like that of many other Kiwi children at the time, although she did get to go to many Chinese weddings with her family – big, elaborate affairs, often held in the Winter Show Buildings or the Majestic Cabaret in Wellington.

She did well at school, and although she was sometimes the target of hurtful racist taunts, she was assertive enough to stick up for herself. As an adult she had a successful career in the Public Service, culminating in a position in the Prime Minister’s Advisory Group under Robert Muldoon. It was in this official capacity that Helene made the trip to China. It was a life-changing experience. In the Prologue, she describes it thus:

“I went to the village as a tourist, and left as a Chinese. A tiny village in China had made me feel more like a citizen of the world than the nation I was born in, and now that nation seems like a village.” 

The experience jolted her into a quest to explore her identity. She embarked on a journey of discovery, tracing both sides of her family back to the “1st generation” in the 11th century. The histories become more detailed after about the mid 19th century, when her Cantonese ancestors began to emigrate to New Zealand.

I was surprised to read how children were often sent back to China for their Chinese education, and sometimes, as in the case of her mother Dolly, to be married. The detailed descriptions of this very traditional, arranged marriage are fascinating. The text is complemented with a good selection of family photos, and family trees for both sides going back to about 1860. She also tackles the issues of racism and multiculturalism, so relevant to all of us living in New Zealand today. We had plenty of good discussion about these issues at our book club meeting, and I would definitely recommend this book to other book clubs.

About Jeanie

jeanie-brighamI submitted this review, not because I consider myself to be a good judge of books, or an expert, but simply because I love not only reading, but also writing.

I was born in England but spent five years of my childhood in the jungle of North Queensland. We moved to New Zealand when I was ten years old. We lived in Wellington for a couple of years before moving to Hawke’s Bay.

I trained as an English teacher, worked in the Public Service for a number of years, and spent the latter part of my working life as an ESOL teacher. I’ve been lucky enough to travelled quite a lot, including spending 3 years living in Iran.

Our Book Club was formed over 20 years ago and is an important part of my life. I love reading and discussing the books with the others in our Club!

Apart from reading, I also enjoy horse-riding, not-too-strenuous hiking, a bit of sailing, as well as the old perennial favourite, gardening.

I live in Napier with my husband Duncan and Lucky the cat. We have two grown-up children, and two young grandchildren.



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