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Here to Stay

Sunday at 1pm | TV ONE

The Chinese - Bernadine Lim


Bernadine Lim - Chinese
London-based TV Director

My dad tells what I think is a great story about one of his early New Zealand experiences. He's a doctor and came here during the professional labour shortages of the 70s. When he turned up for work at Whakatane Hospital, he was presented with a welcome gift - an electric blanket.

Sure, that's a really practical present for a new arrival, but coming from a tropical country he had absolutely no idea what it was. All he saw was a strange pink blanket with cords coming off it. What could it be? He had no clue but grew to love it!

He says that soon after that he made another genius discovery, long johns.

My ethnic Chinese parents came from Malaysia to New Zealand in 1975, wanting to find a better life for them and for me, then nine months old.

They knew almost no-one and almost nothing about New Zealand. My mother - a famous pop singer who had given up her career - knew only what she'd gathered from a postcard of the Southern Alps. Yep, things were a bit different.

And we were different too. I grew up in Bell Block, Taranaki, as the only Chinese person in my school. I always knew I wasn't like the other Kiwi kids, and unfortunately I was teased by some of the kids - even at Kindergarten.

I remember when I was six, saying to my mum that I wanted to have blonde hair. It wasn't that I wanted to be European; I just wanted to play and not be hassled anymore.

When I was asked to tell the Chinese story in "Here To Stay", I knew parts of it would be a struggle - analysing what happened to me, and how I felt both then and now.
Especially because as a TV director and reporter, I'm more used to telling someone else's story.

I also really felt the weight of representing the Chinese experience. There have been several waves of Chinese immigration, each with their own stories and reactions to making New Zealand a home. 

Also, the Chinese story was always going to be a difficult and sensitive one to tell since, arguably, no other immigrant community has been discriminated against as much simply for the colour of their skin.

New Zealanders might know about the poll tax only the Chinese settlers had to pay (equivalent to two years' salary), and they probably know of the hardships and ostracism the Chinese goldminers faced.

But do they know that because of the poll tax, Chinese women were effectively barred from coming to New Zealand? Between 1925 and 1948 they were officially forbidden, aside from some (sometimes) temporary family reunions during and just after WWII. This left many Chinese men without family for decades and many of them never saw loved ones again.

Do they know about Kim Lee, the so-called "leper", who was banished to Mokopuna Island, just off Somes Island in Wellington Harbour? He survived eight months in a damp cave before finally dying a lonely, bitter death.

And do they know about the Haining St shooting? When Joe Kum Yung, an elderly Chinese goldminer, was shot by Englishman Lionel Terry in 1905? Joe - who'd been in New Zealand much longer than Terry - was Terry's protest against "alien invaders" like the Chinese immigrants.

Terry, who wasn't considered an alien because he was English, had the white settler community, including Premier Dick Seddon, on his side.

But, trust me, the whole programme isn't difficult and heavy. Chinese people have a wonderfully quiet humour to them and in doing this doco I got to know some amazing New Zealand Chinese people.

Meeting them and being forced to examine this part of my life was at times cathartic. It was so great to listen to these people examine their own experiences, which are often a lot like mine, and to hear how they dealt with their Chinese-ness within, or alongside, their Kiwi-ness.

Often too, they'd be trying to fit into another culture; Maori, Samoan, English, Scottish, whatever&.

So, that was really rewarding. And so was interviewing my family. It was fantastic because I got to hear all the old stories again - along with a few I'd never heard. Conveniently it was also a great way to show them what I do for a living as a TV director (not the lawyer they hoped I might be!)

What I am is a New Zealander. Being Ming Ming, or Bernadine, a Kiwi of Chinese-Malaysian decent. I love being a Kiwi, but I also know where I come from.

We regularly go to Malaysia, and next year we're planning a family trip to the village in China that my great grandparents left behind when they immigrated to Malaysia. They too were seeking a better life.

I'm now living my life in London, where interestingly I rarely have to explain where I come from, unlike at home in New Zealand.

If I am asked I say I'm a Chinese New Zealander. And yeah, my English is really good, thanks. So's yours.

 




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