I grew up in New Zealand, the southernmost white settler post on the Pacific Rim – a place known by my forebears as the “New Gold Mountain” 新金山.

In the 1860s, my great-great-grandfather left his home in Toi Shan 台山 county in Kwangtung (now Guangdong) Province, South China to work on the North American railroads. He died in 1874, when the ship he was returning home in was ambushed by pirates in Hong Kong harbour. His eldest son, my great-grandfather, unable to enter the United States due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, ventured to New Zealand in 1884, where he established a laundry business in the capital city of Wellington. His only son, my grandfather, founded a bank, a whisky distillery, a grocery business and a pharmacy, and raised a family of five sons, of whom my father was the third. I treasure this family history, for it affirms my Chinese New Zealand origins, but I have long wondered why my foremothers don’t feature in this narrative.


Authro’s grandmother with friend, Christchurch, New Zealand 1947

Very little is known about them. They are identified only as mothers of sons: critical for the growth of the family tree, but at the same time, not worthy of a storied place on that tree. There are no accounts of the maternal exertions of my grandmothers: the physical and emotional labour involved in the conception, gestation, birth and care of the family’s cherished male heirs. It is not known whether they received help with their domestic chores, if they were treated well by their parents-in-law, how – if – they coped when their husbands were away, whether they knew how to read or write, what they dreamed of, what they yearned for. My foremothers perch precariously on our genealogical tree, their very existence, it seems, contingent on the talk of their sons. The stories my father has told me about his mother – my grandmother – are limited to what she did not do (she did not go to school, she did not leave Hong Kong when she was supposed to); tales of her brother (who was murdered for stealing an apple); and the epitaph on her gravestone: a story written by her sons. She lived, but we know not how.


The stories of early Chinese migration to the gold rush Gold Mountain新金 sites of the U.S.A., Canada, Australia and New Zealand from the latter half of the nineteenth century through to the middle of the twentieth century are overwhelmingly the stories of men. My great-great-grandfather was one of thousands of Chinese men who left an impoverished, and socially and politically unstable China to seek his fortune abroad. For decades, most of these men were sojourners, whose aim was not to resettle overseas, but to work hard to support their families in China, and to accumulate sufficient wealth to return there to retire in comfort. The vast majority were not accompanied by their womenfolk.

Traditional Chinese families preferred wives and daughters to remain home in China to take care of children, families-in-law and ancestral graves – but this preference only partially explains why so few women accompanied their men on Gold Mountain sojourns. A more significant reason for women’s absence was the enactment of discriminatory legislation. In the nineteenth century, European settlers around the Pacific Rim sought to keep their nations white, and Chinese seeking to enter were subject to various taxes and exclusions. Between 1882 and 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited the entry of all Chinese into the U.S.A. except diplomats, merchants, students and tourists. In 1855 and 1881 (respectively) the state of Victoria in Australia,[1] and New Zealand, implemented Poll Taxes requiring Chinese arrivals to pay £10 on entry; in 1885, Canada followed suit with the Chinese Immigration Act, imposing a Head Tax of $50. These taxes increased prohibitively over the years, making it financially unviable for all but the wealthiest of Chinese men to bring their wives and daughters.

While there were occasions when significant numbers of Chinese men were permitted entry to fulfil the demand for labour – for example: on railroads, goldfields abandoned by Europeans, and market gardens – there was no such need for Chinese women. At best, Chinese women were perceived to be potential saviours: in light of the overwhelmingly male Chinese populations across all Gold Mountain sites, there were concerns – about homosexuality, the sexual predation of white women, and miscegenation – that some believed could be alleviated by relaxing the legislation restricting the entry of Chinese wives.[2] The majority, however, perceived the presence of Chinese women to be a threat, which had the potential to corrupt the moral integrity and ‘purity’ of the white race.[3] Accordingly, right up until the late twentieth century, there existed exclusion laws that were targeted specifically at them.

In 1875, the Page Law not only threatened to deport, but barred the entry of any Chinese woman suspected of entering the U.S.A. for ‘lewd’ or ‘immoral’ purposes;[4] the Law effectively targeted all Chinese women, for it was widely assumed that they were all prostitutes.[5] Correlated with an inordinate fear of Chinese women’s fertility and the possibility of Chinese ‘invasion’, beliefs such as these circulated through sinophobic narratives between Gold Mountain sites. In Australia, the Immigration Restriction Amendment Act of 1905 made no provision for the entry of Chinese wives and children; under this legislation, only the families of well-established merchants could be granted temporary (usually six month) exemptions.[6] In 1907, when my great grandmother would have had little choice but to remain in China with her children while my great grandfather laboured in his Wellington laundry, the fear of Chinese women in New Zealand was so acute it was proposed that ‘it would be a good thing . . . to deport [them] . . . even if ten Chinese males were admitted for every Chinese woman sent out of the country’.[7]


There were very few opportunities for my foremothers and their sisters to live with their husbands and fathers in New Zealand. The fear of Chinese women’s reproductive potential endured there well into the twentieth century, giving rise to a raft of exclusionist legislation. In 1925, women were excluded from the quota of one hundred entry permits for Chinese per year; and in 1935, only ten Chinese women per year were permitted to enter the country. During World War Two, a very limited number of refugee wives and children of permanently resident Chinese men were permitted to enter, but only with the payment of a £200 ‘maintenance’ deposit and a £500 bond as guarantee that they and all of their children, including those born in New Zealand, would be repatriated to China after a two year period. After the war, priority for entry was given to the wives of resident Chinese men who had been married the longest, because it was assumed – indeed, hoped – that their wives would be beyond childbearing age.[8]

Across New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the U.S.A., Chinese women were so closely regulated that their numbers remained low for decades, with sex ratios not equalising until the mid-twentieth century in the U.S.A., the late 1960s in Australia, and the 1980s in Canada and New Zealand.[9] But despite this gender parity, and settler Chinese women’s integration into the mainstream, their stories are still not widely known.


Chinese women with pianist Lili Kraus. Photographs relating to Leong and Kwok families. Ref: 1/2-170582-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. 

Their ‘invisibility’ may well be due to an enduring, rather insidious stereotype. In mainstream media, it is the Oriental Chinese woman who prevails over her more ordinary counterparts. Portrayals of this woman: exotic, sexually available, and sometimes dangerous – enacted by the likes of Anna May Wong (U.S.A.), Christy Chung (Canada), and Geeling Ng (New Zealand) – reflect characterisations of Chinese women used to justify the legislation that excluded them in the past, and continue to overshadow ordinary settler Chinese women’s stories.[10] Despite contributions in recent decades by researchers such as Manying Ip (New Zealand), Alanna Kamp (Australia), Jin Guo (Canada), and Judy Yung (U.S.A.), and writers such as Lynda Chanwai-Earle (New Zealand), Maxine Hong Kingston (U.S.A.) and Judy Fong Bates (Canada), whose work has brought to light the lives of ordinary settler Chinese women, their stories are, for the most part, not terribly well-known.[11] While the history of ordinary settler Chinese men – which documents the contributions of gold seekers, railroad workers, and market gardeners – now has a place (albeit marginal) in national narratives of the U.S.A., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the lives of ordinary settler Chinese women like my foremothers remain unfamiliar to most of us.



Grace Yee, Guest Blogger
Grace Yee’s PhD thesis analysed settler Chinese women’s storytelling in Aotearoa New Zealand. She recently graduated from the University of Melbourne.

[1] The other Australian states subsequently enacted their own legislation restricting Chinese immigration.

[2] Chu, Sandra Ka Hon. “Reparation as Narrative Resistance: Displacing Orientalism and Recoding Harm for Chinese Women of the Exclusion Era.” MA thesis. York University, 2004. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. Web. 30 Nov 2015. 9; “The Chinese Curse.” New Zealand Truth 19 Jan 1907: 5. Papers Past. National Library of New Zealand. Web. 9 Nov 2015. “Living with Chinese.” Evening Post 12 Oct 1932: 9. Papers Past. National Library of New Zealand. Web. 9 Nov 2015.

[3] Peffer, George Anthony. If They Don’t Bring Their Wives Here: Chinese Female Immigration Before Exclusion. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999: 103; Chu10, 33-34, 42.

[4] Peffer 8

[5] Peffer; see also Chu 42

[6] Bagnall, Kate. “Family Politics: Chinese Wives in Australia, 1902 to 1920.” Chinese Women in the Southern Diaspora History Symposium. University of Wollongong, Wollongong. 5 Dec 2014. Symposium Paper.

[7] “The Empire Builders. Asia in Wellington.” New Zealand Mail 6 Sept 1907: 64.

[8] Murphy, Nigel. Guide to Laws and Policies Relating to the Chinese in New Zealand 1871-1997. New Zealand Chinese Association, 2008: 85, 89-90, 205, 229. Ip, Manying. “Gender, Racism, and the Politics of Chinese Immigration.” Feminist Thought in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Ed. Rosemary du Plessis and Lynne Alice. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1998. 43-51

[9] Peffer 4; Murphy, Guide 336; Chu 23; Mak, Anita S. & Helen Chan, “Chinese Family Values in Australia”. Families and Cultural Diversity in Australia. Australian Institute of Family Studies. Web. 31 Dec 2016.

[10] Yee, Grace. “Beneath the Long White Cloud: Settler Chinese Women’s Storytelling in Aotearoa New Zealand”. PhD thesis. University of Melbourne, 2016.

[11] Ip, Manying. Home Away from Home: Life Stories of Chinese Women in New Zealand. Auckland: New Women’s Press, 1990. Kamp, Alanna. “Chinese Australian Women in White Australia: Utilising Available Sources to Overcome the Challenge of ‘Invisibility’.” Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies 6. 2013: 75-101. Australian National University. Web. 31 Dec 2016; Guo, Jin. Voices of Chinese Canadian Women. Toronto: Women’s Press of Canada, 1995; Yung, Judy. Unbound Voices: A Documentary History of Chinese Women in San Francisco. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999; Chanwai-Earle, Lynda. Ka Shue (Letters Home). Wellington: The Women’s Play Press, 1998; Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, New York: Random House: Vintage International, 1989; Fong Bates, Judy. The Year of Finding Memory. Random House of Canada, 2010.


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