Time to Say Goodbye
Herbert Wong's account of the journey he took as a young child, from his war-torn Chinese hometown to settle in New Zealand. The story was submitted to the NZCA Short Story Writing competition.
In 1938, three years before the Japanese forces occupied the entire Eastern seaboard railway line of China, from Beijing to the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, my parents decided that my mother, my sister and I would weather the Japanese occupation of Kwangtung Province of Southern China. My father and my older brother had already settled in Mosgiel, N.Z. Japan was not yet at war with Britain, so she could only push her military forces up to the Chinese border town of Shen Zen, about 15 miles from Kowloon City. Thus, an escape corridor existed between China and Hong Kong until December 25, when Hong Kong surrendered to the Japanese forces after a short battle.
Towards the eve of the Ni Yin Xue murder trial in Auckland and the closing date of the NZCA Short Story Writing competition, I am suddenly faced with the personal challenge as to who and what I am. The question of what I am, is easily answered by a quick look into the bathroom mirror each morning. I am unmistakably an elderly Chinese man living in quiet retirement in Dunedin, N.Z. The question as to who I am requires more thought. I am the 4th generation of male Chinese members of our family from Southern China to sojourn in N.Z. mainly for reasons of survival rather than for riches. I was a child WWII refugee who was sent from our western homeland in southern China to N.Z., about 9,000 miles away. I came with a kinsman to join my father and my older brother who were already settled at Mosgiel in the Taieri Plain. It was 1940.
Two years previously, when the Japanese were about to take our southern city of Guangzhou, there was disturbing news of young Chinese boys of my age being abducted by the Japanese soldiers to be trained as future soldiers of Emperor Hirohito's army. At the age of 8, and being the only male member of our family left behind to face the invading Japanese soldiers, my mother did not fancy my chances of surviving the war, and decided to flee the impending battle scene with my sister and I. It was early summer, so we prepared to travel light.
With the Japanese soldiers in close pursuit, we joined a large refugee group walking to Hong Kong, about 50 miles southeast of our home. Because the Japanese soldiers had already captured the entire railway line in Eastern China, from Beijing to the border town of Shen Zen, which was only a stones throw distance from the New Territories of Hong Kong, our refugee group only dared to follow the railway line to Hong Kong at nighttime so as not to confront the enemy.
The journey took 30 days and by the time we reached the Hong Kong border, our group numbered less than a dozen. The majority of our group had dropped off, some retraced their steps back to their homes, and others stayed with friends and relatives they had along the way.
My mother, sister and I spent a peaceful 18 months in Hong Kong before my father and brother sent for me. My passage to N.Z. from Hong Kong by steamship cost over one hundred N.Z. pounds. We could not afford to pay passages for my mother and sister who weathered the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong and eventually returned home after the war.
The time for me to leave Hong Kong with a kinsman had arrived. In May 1940, at the age of 10, I said goodbye to my mother and sister and boarded a steamship that carried passengers and goods between Hong Kong and Sydney. There were no tears - we had cried our farewells weeks before with the knowledge that it would be many years before we would meet again, if ever. I was told to learn as much housekeeping skills as I could from my aunt and cousins in Oamaru, 60 miles away, during the school holidays and most important of all, because I was the last child to fledge the family nest, it was my duty to care for my father should illness or old age limit his working ability.
Because my father had to remit money to Hong Kong every 3 months to support the women members of our family, we could not save money to better ourselves in N.Z. We had no motor car, no warm housing and no expensive foods. For us, it was not much better than the gold miners who came before us 77 years ago. However, life improved after my brother's graduation from Otago University, when he quickly found meaningful work in the field of medical science research. With one member of our family having graduated from university, there was no need for me to pursue an academic career, so I was prepared to take over our family's fruit and veggies trade.
Both my brother and I enjoyed our childhoods at Mosgiel. We each had our own circle of friends and had no racial discrimination towards us at all. We had assimilated into the kiwi communities with ease. Here is a passage from my holiday diary that I kept in my student days. It is dated Wednesday, May 15, 1952:
From the yet unsecured tent entrance, I could see a full moon highlighting the snow-tipped mountain tops which were reflected by a mirror-like lake surface. It was a magical moment that only a night amongst the quiet mountains and the company of jolly companions could bring. For the first time in my life, I realised how lucky I was to be bicultural in the most beautiful country in the world. My adopted kiwi culture made my spirits soar like the mountains aspiring to the sky, but at the same time, my Chinese heritage made me feel thankful that my feet were in constant touch with Mother Earth."I see the sky, I feel the earth beneath my feet. I walk in between, like any man."
(- film script, "Illustrious Energy." 1987)
My brother and I made life-long friends with a good cross-section of the N.Z. citizens - especially with those who were our classmates at high school and at the University. My brother still communicates with his science alumni members, and I have a yearly school classmates get-together. Sad to say, our numbers keep depleting until,"One by one, back in the closet lays."
(- a quote from Edward Fitzgerald's Omar Khyyam)
Although I had only 18 months of Chinese education in Hong Kong before my departure to N.Z., I learnt enough Chinese to correspond with my mother and sister on a regular basis. When I intimated that Father's time to retire from working in the shop was near, my mother advised that I must marry and that my wife remain never far away from my father who tended to over-exert needlessly. It took months to find a suitable wife with enough Chinese upbringing to care for an elderly father-in-law. She was a new Chinese arrival from the Kwangtung County who had all the attributes of a good wife, a mother and a carer of the elderly and sick, unlike the N.Z. born Chinese young women who thought that institutions for the elderly is the only acceptable practise in N.Z.
Both my brother and I made successful marriages and enjoyed bringing up our small families in N.Z. Our greatest joy was to see that although our children were N.Z. born they do not fully embrace the N.Z. culture like most of their N.Z. born friends and relatives. They are proud of their Chinese heritage and will always maintain contact with their homeland. Of this, I am sure.
As the time for me to end my story draws near, I will refer again to the impending murder trial of Ni Yin Xue, who tried to emulate the life-style of ungodly characters created by Hollywood screenwriters who have little or no public morals. Try to live meaningful lives. My brother and I rejoice in the knowledge that we have carried out filial promises to our parents and hope that our future family members will embrace the best of both worlds - namely China and N.Z.
My final message to the present and future generations of Chinese New Zealanders is to remember our roots, and always remember that wherever the sun shines, there will be a Chinese influence in the scheme of things.