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Ebb and Flow of Immigration

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Ting On To, wife Mo Ching To, Ruby Chan with son Ashton To, 21 months, and James To.

Ebb and flow of immigration



Last updated 05:00 27/09/2014
Ting On To, left, his wife Mo Ching To, Ruby Chan with son Ashton To, 21 months, and James To.

FAMILY BUSINESS: Ting On To, left, his wife Mo Ching To, Ruby Chan with son Ashton To, 21 months, and James To.


Saturday evening, it's just gone dark, and the cars are circling, struggling to find an empty parking space behind the shops at Riccarton's Church Corner.

My goodness. The old Mitre 10 hardware store has gone. The building has been turned into an Asian mall, divided up inside to make space for ethnic butchers and fishmongers, travel agents and beauty salons.

The whole block now so throngs with Asian restaurants, supermarkets and internet cafes that for a moment, pushing through the people and smells in a bright-lit alleyway, it is the tiniest bit like being in Hong Kong.

And this is Church Corner which - dare it be said - used to be about the whitest, deadest, most tired looking collection of shops in pre-quake Christchurch.

Yes, it is the China century and in Christchurch that is a story which is only going to grow.

The latest census figures show Christchurch's Asian population expanded from 5 per cent in 2001 to 9 per cent in 2013, and is predicted to reach 13 per cent by 2021.

This includes Indians and Filipinos as well as Koreans and Japanese of course. But mainland Chinese now make up the largest component of the recent migrants. And it is China that has taken over as New Zealand's most significant trading partner.

So you wonder about the changes as they might be seen from the other side. Is Christchurch considered a good host destination? As a city, is it a natural melting pot?

Over a latte and hot chocolate, I chat with Dr James To, national secretary of the NZ Chinese Association and a political scientist who recently returned to Christchurch to run the family supermarket, Sun Tai Salute in Upper Riccarton's Middleton Rd.

To is only in his early 40s but counts himself as "old Chinese". His parents arrived from Hong Kong in the 1970s after his father got a job as a mathematics lecturer at Canterbury University.

To went to Christchurch Boys' High, got a doctorate researching the overseas Chinese community, and then taught for some years at Palmerston North's International Pacific College, before earlier this year bringing his Nelson-raised Taiwanese wife and baby son back home to take over the family business.

To says Asian immigration to Christchurch needs to be understood as a succession of waves, each with its own particular dynamic.

The very first was the 1840s Otago goldrush. Scattered around the country are Chinese who have been Kiwi longer than most Kiwis, To points out.

And as a child, he remembers a Christchurch community which was specifically Cantonese. "Everyone came from Southern China or Hong Kong so was Cantonese speaking and shared the same culture and food."

Many were market gardners, green grocers or owned restaurants. And the numbers were so few - only a couple of thousand - that To says everyone felt like they knew everyone.

"There was a lot of intermarriage, so people were related. And shops were closed at weekends then, so the weekends were family time. Growing up, we had a lot of weekend events which made for a very strong community bond."

To says the presence of the Chinese community excited little comment.

"The old Chinese were known as hard-working people, keeping their head down, just getting on with it."

To says it was unusual that his parents wanted him learn to speak Cantonese.

"For many old Chinese, there was a feeling you're in New Zealand now, so fit in. We should speak English to our kids even at home, give them a Kiwi upbringing. This extended even to the food they were eating - they would grow up on steak and two veg."

For the Chinese community, having a mixture of heritages - being caught between two worlds - felt like it was going to be a disadvantage in life, so the desire to become fully assimilated was strong.

To says the new Chinese story then began with a bang in the late 1980s.

"In 1987, the Government deregulated a lot of the immigration policies, wanting to attract investment migrants, for example."

That in turn sparked a series of distinct waves of Asian immigration, each having its somewhat different reasons for leaving its home country, and consequently each arriving in Christchurch with somewhat differing expectations.

The early influx was mostly from Hong Kong and Taiwan, driven abroad by fear of an imminent Communist China takeover. Then there were Koreans who came more to seek educational and economic opportunity for their children. And the Japanese, who were perhaps the most likely to come for New Zealand's great outdoors.

To is embarrassed that we may be

stereotyping too much here. But in a broad brush way, he says the analysis helps explain some of the perceptions Christchurch people have about Asian immigration.

For a start, there is a difference when incomers are wealthy middleclass professionals rather than those who might have to start off at the bottom of a social hierarchy and work their way up.

In local eyes, migrants who have to "fit in" are going to feel less of a threat, whereas those who can buy good houses and join good golf clubs - afford to form their own expat enclaves - will provoke more jealousy.

To says it is a natural social dynamic. No one is particularly to blame. But that is when you saw the talk about an Asian invasion - Avonhead being tagged Asianhead, or Howick in Auckland being called Chowick. The sense that lives were being lived in parallel.

Equally, To says Christchurch was a disappointment for many of these migrant professionals who did not understand the small size of the New Zealand economy or had not anticipated the many job barriers.

"It's a common story with the Taiwanese and Hong Kong families that you had these very well qualified engineers or doctors who came all the way out here, thinking they would walk into a good job and finding you had to be registered locally or whatever."

The result is that Christchurch's Asian community has seen considerable churn, says To. It might not be so evident to outsiders, but it is striking to him the number of 1980s or 1990s migrants who have come to Christchurch only to move on after a few years.

For the Taiwanese, Koreans and even Hong Kong Chinese, the political and economic situation in their own countries has improved so much that skilled migrants find it temptingly easy to return home.

Then there are those whose children have been through 10 years of school and university in Christchurch and - like everyone's kids - begin heading off to Auckland or Australia to start their careers. To says at that point, the parents often pack up and follow.

Sometimes it feels like whole ethnic groups have been and gone, says To.

"The Vietnamese who came here as refugees in the 1970s after the war - they stayed for 10 or 15 years, then once they had made enough money, the first thing they did was move to Sydney."

The hard truth is that most migration is economically driven. To says few Asians would pick Christchurch purely because of its scenery or culture.

"For most it is about their families and a stepping stone to a better life. So if an opportunity in Canada or somewhere opened up, it would be silly for them not to take it."

The past decade has now seen another new story with the mainland Chinese starting to arrive for the first time. To says judging the current wave of immigration on the experience of previous ones may be a mistake if the dynamic is different again.

Again stereotyping is risky, but To says the mainland Chinese migrants are mostly in their 30s, well educated professionals with a commerce or science degree, usually with a young family, and often with parents in tow to help look after the children.

"Through family reunion, they can bring over the grandparents. That's why in Christchurch you see a lot of elderly Chinese now."

Their English will be better, as it is an important entry qualification, and they are now much more informed about what to expect. Most are coming to jobs that match their abilities.

To says psychologically they are a new generation of globalised Chinese. They have an international outlook so are less likely to bounce back to China through disappointment. Yet still they will be viewing Christchurch in terms of what it can offer, and as a possible stepping stone to more attractive locations.

"They want to hang on to their ancestral roots, so they will encourage their children to study Mandarin. But they are committed to establishing themselves long term in another culture, even if New Zealand might not be their last destination."

To says the size of this latest wave of migration is notable even within the Asian community.

"I used to belong to the Chinese Lions Club in Christchurch. When it first started in the mid-1990s, it was about 80 per cent Taiwanese and 20 per cent Malaysian Chinese. But over time, a lot of the Taiwanese moved back or went to Australia. Today it would be about 70 per cent mainland Chinese and 30 per cent other Chinese."

However, To says because China itself is such an amalgamation of cultures, there is also a feeling of greater diversity within the local Asian community now.

In his childhood, it was all Cantonese. Then it became a split with Koreans, Japanese and Taiwanese forming their own Christchurch clubs and associations.

"But within China, there are over 50 different ethnic groups. So while there was one Chinese association in the 1970s, which became three or four in the 80s and 90s, now in Auckland you have about 100 Chinese organisations; in Christchurch, about 20. You have all the provincial groups with their own dialects and customs, like the Guangdong association or the Fujian association."

So it is not a homogenous block of new immigrants. And To says he feels that himself. Even if Christchurch has identifiably Chinese areas emerging, like Church Corner or Riccarton Rd, the experience has become more properly multicultural.

"It's great because there is more choice of everything. But you don't have that immediate sense of community any more, the sense you know everyone. Now, even if you are both Chinese, you are actually alien - because do you speak Mandarin or do you speak Cantonese? What type of Chinese are you?"

Talking to To makes it plain that the first instinct to frame the immigration question as "are we good hosts/are they good guests" is quite wrong.

Migration decisions boil down to more basic judgments about opportunity and security. And as the equation changes, it will develop its own ebb and flow.

Philip Burdon, a former National Government minister and chair of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, says overall his impression is that New Zealand's relationship with Asia is evolving smoothly.

"We've achieved a very radical change in our ethnic composition without any great turmoil or ghetto-ising. The figures really are remarkable. Nationally, Asians were at 3 per cent 20 years ago and now it's nearly 13 per cent."

But Burdon agrees in any city like Christchurch, the question of how it is going will be viewed largely in terms of self-interest - both how new arrivals feel about their local career prospects and whether locals feel the new arrivals are taking jobs or creating jobs.

A problem in Christchurch is that the city's economy is so domestically focused. It has lost most of the large manufacturers and corporate headquarters that give bigger cities their international dimension.

This in turn impacts on how migrants are seen by the typical employer. Languages and foreign experience are not the same asset they might in Auckland or Melbourne.

But Burdon says with China trade becoming so important to the region's major export industries like tourism and dairying, the mainland Chinese community is now likely to be regarded in a more self-interested light.

Burdon says consider another of Christchurch's recent migrant stories, the number of Filipinos arriving to work as dairy farm hands, to nurse in hospitals and retirement home, or to help in the earthquake rebuild. Change is embraced when the economic payback is so clear.

To says he also feels the changes are developing of their own natural accord - just like the way Church Corner has decided to become its own mini Hong Kong without any official planning.

And To says for Christchurch's Chinese community, what has shifted is that a multicultural heritage now does feel like a plus.

In his childhood, the pressure was to assimilate, lose his Chineseness. But To says for his own children, it will be an advantage to have a foot in two camps.

"We speak Mandarin at home, so even though he's only 20 months old, my son can switch languages like changing channels. His whole upbringing and culture will have that globalised identity."

Again, opportunities for yourself and your children are what it mostly boils down to. And Christchurch will be a good host, a successful multicultural city, to the degree it offers those.

- The Press

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