Essay

The Single Object

A metric tonne of Chinese-New Zealand history

Consider the kiwifruit. The sweet and fuzzy berry has been grown in Aotearoa since 1906, when Whanganui’s Alexander Allison planted seeds brought back from China by the headmistress of Whanganui Girls’ College. Today kiwifruit is a great New Zealand success story: one of our highest-earning crops and a global envoy of the Kiwi brand. Eaters around the world drop the ‘fruit,’ simply calling it ‘kiwi’. Its jewel-like flesh adorns acai bowls the globe over. And the Bay of Plenty town of Te Puke centres itself as the Kiwifruit Capital of the World, cemented of course, by a colossal roadside sculpture shaped like a slice of kiwifruit.

It’s one of this country’s greatest marketing coups—the transformation of the Chinese gooseberry into a proxy for New Zealandness itself, enshrined at the heart of the Kiwiana canon. A 1927 newspaper column lists the vine alongside the avocado (‘introduced here from Mexico’) among fruits that had recently acclimatised. But kiwifruit wasn’t the only Chinese newcomer taking root in New Zealand soil during the 20th Century. Chinese families were also adapting to the conditions and finding ways to flourish—many of them as market gardeners and produce sellers.

We tend to forget Chinese New Zealand history, and we especially forget its nuances: the twists and turns of exclusion and hybridity that have shaped the lives of Chinese communities in New Zealand. Objects can tell us these stories, but many remain within families, their memories tended to privately rather than publicly. And sometimes they sit dormant in a shed, waiting for the right people to ferry their history into the next generation.

About ten years ago, Lynette Shum at the National Library received a call from the Wai Shing market garden in Pukekohe. Their shed was falling down, and inside that shed was a metric tonne of metal letters and characters, overflowing from wooden printing trays. It turned out to be New Zealand’s only surviving set of printing type in the Chinese language, once used to print the New Zealand Chinese Growers’ Monthly Journal (僑農月刊, published 1949-72).

Today the type is looked after at Victoria University’s Wai-te-ata Press. When I visited some of the type is still laid out as it was to print the Journal’s final issue in August 1972—the page arrangements intact for almost 50 years. I was shown around by Ya-Wen Ho, who has spent many hours tending to the masses of teensy metal blocks. In their frames, the tightly assembled grids of characters are easily recognisable as a newspaper, one that combines vertical columns of Chinese with horizontally composed rows of English.

The Chinese Growers’ Monthly is like a hinge; it connects cultures and eras. First published in 1945 as a single Chinese page in the country’s mainstream growers’ publication, the New Zealand Commercial Gardeners’ Journal, it was the mouthpiece of the Dominion Federation of New Zealand Chinese Commercial Growers. This was a body formed at the urging of the Government during the war, when Chinese growers doubled down to grow enough produce to feed New Zealand and American troops in the Pacific.

The great irony of Chinese gardeners’ contribution to the war effort is that many were still classified as ‘aliens’. While New Zealand’s embrace of the Chinese gooseberry was smooth and sweet, the path to acceptance for Chinese people has been prickly. Official policy denied naturalisation to Chinese people between 1908 and 1951. “Our immigration… is inevitably discriminatory against Asians,’ reads a Department of External Affairs memo from 1953, ‘Whereas we have done much to encourage immigration from Europe, we do everything to discourage it from Asia.”

So, the era the Chinese Growers’ Monthly was leaving behind was an uneasy one. The dominance of Chinese growers had been debated in newspapers throughout the early 20th century. Accusations levelled against them included working on Sundays (Chinese cabbage farmers were fined for this), rumours that they were conspiring to monopolise the market, and their ability to produce suspiciously large harvests.

But the postwar period that sprouted the Journal was a gateway to decades of fresh optimism. Measures designed to keep Chinese people from migrating here began to relax. In 1947 the Government finally allowed the wives and families of Chinese men who were living here to join them. Some of these women and children had already come as refugees after Japan invaded China in 1931, but at that time, they’d only been promised two years of respite. Now they were allowed to stay.

The global political fray that had pushed them to New Zealand was even reflected in the new vegetable kingdom the Chinese community had built here. “Chinese fruiterers in Auckland have decided to boycott Japanese onions,” reported the Auckland Star in May 1939. They quote a boycotting fruit seller: “When you consider that many of us lost our families, homes, and property in the destruction of Canton, you will understand our attitude.” The sense of being here for good was compounded by the Communist revolution in China in 1949. It was time to make New Zealand home.

That same year, the Dominion Federation of New Zealand Chinese Commercial Growers Incorporated broke out of the mainstream New Zealand growers’ journal to publish the first issue of its own bulletin—the Chinese Growers’ Monthly Journal in July 1949.

Today there are online channels like Weibo and WeChat, that knit diasporas together. But back then, community news travelled in person or by ink. Entrepreneurship has been the backbone of Chinese settlement in Aotearoa, with Chinese market gardens, takeaway restaurants, laundries, and fruit and vegetable shops scattered across rural and urban New Zealand. Sometimes their proprietors would be the only Chinese families in their area, and the Journal was one way of connecting with others.

For the Journal’s first three years, every page was laboriously handwritten, then copied on a stencil-type duplicator called a cyclostyle. The monthly carried market garden news: trade information, new cultivation techniques, and translations of government regulations that affected the industry. But it also featured a summary of current events, profiles of community members, and opinion pieces.

A hand-drawn journal from 1949 (image: supplied).

Scratches, pockmarks, and textures of the printing surface at 30 times magnification. (Image credit: Ya-Wen Ho).

The Journal “soon became the de facto voice of the Chinese community, publishing stories on both local and overseas issues” writes historian Nigel Murphy, who dedicates a chapter to the publication in Success Through Adversity, his book on the Dominion Federation of New Zealand Chinese Commercial Growers. As for its distribution, he writes, “It was said that almost every Chinese household in New Zealand had a copy.”

In 1952 the Executive decided the periodical needed to step up its look, and metal printing type was ordered from Universal Type Founders in Hong Kong. It was an investment of £4,000, more than two years of the Federation’s revenue, paid for through donations from local chapters. The type arrived in New Zealand in April 1952 and the first typeset issue was published in August that year.

Typesetting by hand was still time consuming. It took place in the Federation’s offices on Wellington’s Blair Street, and later at 50 Wilson Street in Newtown at the home of Lionel Chan, the then-editor. After the printing blocks had been laid out they were driven to the printers. In the early years they were put on a truck and taken all the way to Masterton for printing. Still, this was nothing compared to the process undertaken to print some Chinese-language publications. A special book produced by the Wellington Anglican Chinese Mission in 1956 was sent to Hong Kong for letterpress production, with the finished publications sent all the way back to New Zealand.

The Growers’ Journal reflected a burgeoning Chinese community that was well and truly acclimatising. As its distribution grew, it began to include some articles and advertisements in English. And at Wai-te-ata, Ya-Wen showed me photographs of the rooms used for typesetting, pointing out that they mixed the Western tradition of storing type in cabinets with the angled, open trays that she’d observed at printers in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

As Chinese residents began to identify as New Zealanders, the anxieties of this hybridity were reproduced in the periodical’s pages. In the early 1950s it ran Chinese lessons, designed to maintain Cantonese among younger generations (most of the lessons centred on market gardening). In 1960 the Journal ran a letter from the Minister of Agriculture, which insisted that it drop its coverage of foreign current affairs and focus only on New Zealand issues—in keeping with the Government’s assimilation policy. And in its twilight years, the Journal published a series of anonymous poems, two of which, Nigel Murphy writes, “lamented the fads and fashions of the young “modern” Chinese and the increasing Westernisation of the Chinese New Zealand Community.”

Despite attempts to keep the Journal afloat by starting up a printing arm that produced Chinese-language wedding invitations and other items that would otherwise have to be ordered from Hong Kong, the Journal was doing poorly by the late 1960s. It folded in late 1972.

So, what of all that metal type? It was decided that it could be held in a shed in Pukekohe, which belonged to Ron Waishing, a member of the Federation Executive. It was moved there in October 1972, and largely forgotten about until the shed began to fall down—prompting that call to the National Library.

It took some time, but eventually a new home at Victoria University’s Wai-te-ata Press was negotiated for the type, an active press where it lives among other historic printing equipment. The wooden trays arrived there in 2016, accompanied by two yellow plastic vegetable crates, filled with individual pieces of metal type that had to be harvested from the shed’s dirt floor.

At Wai-te-ata they treat each sort (each individual piece of metal type) as a precious heritage object. They couldn’t bring themselves to cut even one of them open to find out the exact metal composition—the metal alloy being a clue that can help determine the type’s provenance. Since its arrival in 2016 Ya-Wen has sorted around 25,000 pieces of type—‘a meditative task’, she tells me. Each sort is photographed under a microscope and assessed to see whether it’s stable enough to be cleaned.

Looking at the characters under the microscope is like landing on another planet: glimmering ridges are pockmarked with telltale signs of wear, whispering of once-thriving life. On some of the sorts, Pukekohe earth is still packed in around the characters’ metal crests.

The decade of negotiations that preceded the type’s arrival at Wai-te-ata was filled with discussion about its guardianship and future. Some growers were keen to see it remain in Auckland, some were interested in repatriating it to China, and others wanted to see it return to Wellington, where the journal was edited, typeset, and printed.

What Wai-te-ata has been able to offer is not just the preservation of the type as an object of historical significance, but also an active future. Their ultimate goal is to make the type available for people to come in and actually use to print their own projects. They are working toward the creation of a Chinese Scholars’ Studio to house this vision, and concept drawings show its walls lined with the Chinese heritage types.

This is an approach to history that seeks to keep the objects alive through use. Ya-Wen, herself a poet, has enjoyed playing within the constraints of the available characters to compose and print new texts using the type. She describes the printing sheets, with their grids of unsorted characters, as an evocative ‘found field of language,’ that guides her depending on what the available characters allow her—or what they themselves want—to say.

The type has thrown up many questions that the staff at Wai-te-ata are looking forward to researching. Among their Chinese typefaces is a condensed style they’ve discovered is quite rare. It could be that it wasn’t a popular style in its time. Or, it’s possible that printers in Asia discarded this style during letterpress’ waning years, yet in New Zealand—where it took so much effort and investment to obtain the type—we held onto it for a bit longer.

The latter possibility speaks of the way that certain cultural traditions have been maintained by the diaspora, even as they’ve slipped from use in China itself. In New Zealand, we’ve branched off into our own timeline of Chinese history and culture, one spliced with the new practices that come from being here. Chinese New Zealanders have taken to the soil to produce their own harvests that taste uniquely of the terroir, its fruits both prickly and sweet.

Emma Ng

Emma Ng is a writer, curator and researcher from Aotearoa New Zealand, specialising in art and design.

The Single Object was developed in partnership by Objectspace and The Spinoff.

The journal’s then-editor Lionel Chan (Chan Lai Hung 陳賴洪) working in the office, circa 1960s. (Image reproduced courtesy of Ting Chan.)

The type set out for the Growers Journal August 1972 issue (image credit: Robert Cross).