Fleeing Canton: Aotearoa’s Welcome

This article examines how the efforts of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand enabled the Chinese refugees fleeing China during World War Two to resettle and permanently reside in New Zealand. Interaction between the Church and early Chinese immigrants from the mid-nineteenth century, both in New Zealand and Canton (now Guangzhou), led to a relationship of trust and reliance forming, particularly on the part of the Chinese. Therefore when news of the Japanese invasion of China reached New Zealand, the concern felt by the Chinese men residing here naturally spread to the Church. The Church took up that mission on their behalf and petitioned the New Zealand Government to allow Chinese women and children to seek refuge in New Zealand, temporarily at first, and then permanently so that the unification of families could be achieved without the fear of being sent back to China. The involvement of the Church extended to assisting with the assimilation of the refugees into this new society and we can see from correspondence and reports of the Mission Committee how they helped families and taught them the basics of New Zealand society. This special part of our history has shown how the Church’s efforts led to a ‘new’ New Zealand, with shared cultures and ideas, and how the Chinese refugees and their descendants have gradually come to feel right at home.


History is repeating itself in 2018 Aotearoa, with the arrival and resettlement of Syrian refugees. The New Zealand Government has recognised its international humanitarian responsibilities and has now put in place a plan to increase the annual refugee quota to 1500 in 2020. Whether or not New Zealand should be doing more is a question up for debate and I strongly believe we can look to our recent history, in relation to the little-known subject of the Chinese refugees, to understand the benefits of enabling refuge for those who desperately need it. Unlike immigrants, refugees are involuntarily fleeing horrific conditions as a result of war, and even though they may wish to stay in their homeland, those conditions make their life there untenable. Understanding our own history gives us not only an appreciation of the efforts of the Church and New Zealand society but also shows us that we, as a nation, can make the same efforts again and give a warm welcome to new refugees from other parts of the world. 

Through my time as intern at the Presbyterian Research Centre, I have had the opportunity to explore the Church’s efforts in enabling Chinese war refugees to remain in New Zealand after the Second World War. The archives held by the Centre provide a wealth of knowledge on a range of aspects relating to the history of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand and the role it has had to play in our society. Over the course of my research it became clear that the first-hand accounts, experiences and interactions that the missionaries had were the primary source of information about the War and society in the Canton region. This was then used to petition the government to allow refugees to, first, seek refuge in New Zealand and, second, to remain here as permanent residents after the War was over.

Early Chinese Immigration

“Eighteen years work among the Chinese have given me new eyes and ears” – Rev. Alexander Don (c. 1898)

Since the early arrival of the Chinese, the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand has featured widely in their settlement and assimilation. Early Chinese immigration to New Zealand in the nineteenth century saw men from Canton arriving in Otago and Southland in search of gold. By 1871, there were 2,576 Chinese working in the Otago region and over the next couple of years this figure made up 6% of Otago’s total population. These men came as sojourners, not settlers, with the intention of returning to their families in their native homeland. Many of these men stayed permanently, however, turning to other sources of labour around New Zealand, becoming market gardeners, fruiterers and laundrymen. It was through these three main industries that the Chinese proved themselves to be hard workers and able to contribute to New Zealand society. This was so particularly during World War Two, with the New Zealand Government asking the Chinese growers, who grew 75% of New Zealand’s green vegetables, to provide food for the American soldiers stationed in the South Pacific. By 1916, 881 market gardeners, 362 fruiterers and 290 laundrymen joined the 130 goldminers to make up the Chinese population in Aotearoa.

            Rev. Alexander Don with Chinese goldminers in Roundhill Camp (c. 1903)
            Rev. Alexander Don with Chinese goldminers in Roundhill Camp (c. 1903)

Societal Reaction

“In early New Zealand, Chinese and Irish Catholics were at the ‘bottom of the social pile’, where presumably they competed for work against each other.” – Dr Jim Ng (1993)

New Zealand society, however, was tainted by an anti-Chinese prejudice which had emerged during the period of their early arrival and lasted until the mid-twentieth century. The Chinese were perceived to be as “weak and poorly regarded” as their homeland of China; an inferior race from a backward nation. The early appeal from missionaries to better integrate them into society fell on deaf ears, “partly because of suspicion, prejudice and persecution meted out to them by many of the white population, particularly in the mining areas”, as Reverend George McNeur wrote in the early 1950’s. As a result, the Chinese suffered physical, emotional and legislative abuse and struggled to put a dent in the White New Zealand policy. Furthermore, as a result of the New Zealand Government not wanting the Chinese to settle here in large numbers, the Chinese population in New Zealand was nearly all male. This was also reflected in discriminatory legislation that required English-language tests on arrival and empowered Customs officers to deny entry to “undesirable aliens” without justification. Arguably the most prominent piece of legislation was the poll-tax, which was branded “a blot on our legislation” by the Minister of Finance, Walter Nash, and was not abolished until 1944.

During the 1930s, however, societal attitudes towards the Chinese improved and the Church played a significant role in this. Missionaries of the Church were not only stationed in Otago and Southland, but would be sent to the Canton region, where they provided assistance in the local community, particularly in hospitals and schools. They were liked by the Chinese in the area and there was a common ground and increased understanding between them of each respective culture.

The War in China

“The reverberations [of the Canton bombings] reached farther than the Japanese expected and have aroused worldwide condemnation of this type of warfare. I hope New Zealand did not take it silently.” – Secretary Mission Council (June 1938)

Correspondence between the missionaries in Canton and the Superintendent of Missions in New Zealand give great insight as to what the Chinese people were living through. The 1930s was a particularly tumultuous period for the Chinese people, with the Japanese invasion of China in 1931. By the end of 1937, the Japanese had occupied much of the north, including the main centres of Beijing and Shanghai, and by the end of 1938 their forces had moved into Canton in southern China. The Chinese men who were residing in New Zealand became more and more concerned about their families back in China and the lack of communication between the two nations did not help. The American Presbyterian Church also had missionaries based in Canton and had built a medical centre and a hospital. Writing from Kong Chuen, the Secretary wrote, “whole blocks of houses have been demolished, the Hackett Medical College and Hospital wounded. The whole thing is utterly barbaric.”

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The group-orientated structure of the Chinese family assisted the Chinese people in coping with the dire situation they were in. Very different to the European family structure, it embraces the values of Confucianism, an ethical social structure often viewed as the Chinese religion from the Western perspective. Throughout history, the idea of the ‘family’ for the Chinese has always been at the top of the hierarchy in terms of importance and it is a very group-orientated, rather than individual based, concept. Over 200 refugees were sheltered in the Missions’ buildings, most of whom had lost their houses and possessions, relying completely on the support of the missionaries. This was reflected in correspondence dated late 1939, in which the Secretary Mission Council wrote that they “will have to depend on other folk until they make a fresh start” and that “the clan system with its corporate family responsibility will help such through time.”

The Arrival of Refugees

“Their dire need should appeal to our Church in New Zealand and also many outside of it”. – Secretary Mission Council (November 1939)

The New Zealand Presbyterian Church joined the Chinese Consulate and the New Zealand Chinese Association in conveying the fears of the resident Chinese and urged the government to do something. As a humanitarian gesture, in 1939 Cabinet allowed the wives and children of Chinese permanent residents in New Zealand to come here as refugees for a period of two years. There were various conditions attached to this: children had to be under the age of 16, they had to have adequate housing on arrival, and they had to pay a £200 bond towards their departure after the two years. 249 wives and 244 children successfully arrived in New Zealand as refugees between 1939 and 1941.

In 1940 this scheme was cancelled as a result of complaints that these refugee women and children were being employed in Chinese fruit shops. Those who were lucky enough to arrive here in time knew it, and while their permits were extended to allow them to reside in New Zealand until the end of the War, the government’s intention for them to be in the country temporarily remained unchanged. Consequently, their stay was tinged with a sadness that they knew they would have to return to China eventually.

Life as Refugees

“They were treated with goodwill by the general public who sympathised with their war experiences.” – Dr Jim Ng (1999)

During those first few years in New Zealand, their lives continued. Refugee women who came over to join their husbands often had up to four or five children during their stay. As a result of the extension of their temporary permits, those “refugee babies” born early on in the war years went to school in New Zealand, and Church volunteers noted that “they love school life.” The Presbyterian Church had a significant role to play during these years in providing assistance and support to the Chinese who needed it and its members realised very quickly that the refugees who were here had a longing to stay in New Zealand, rather than return to China. In an Annual Report of the Missions Committee from 1944-45, Mrs A.L. Miller reported on her work among the Chinese women and children in the South Island. She wrote that they “frequently express the hope that they may be allowed to stay in this good climate until the children are a little older.”

A particularly striking letter that I came across was one written by Mrs Miller, who recorded an encounter she had with a young Chinese girl in 1945, the year that the War ended. She wrote:

A small girl saw me and said “Isn’t it lovely that the war is over and there will be no fighting in China. Our friends there will get more to eat and they won’t be bombed or have their houses destroyed.” She drew a breath and asked, “We won’t need to go back to China, will we Mrs Miller? New Zealand is the best country in the world. I have lots of nice friends here and there is no plague, no small pox, no malaria, no mosquitoes, no fevers, no sores, no boils, and no fleas. There is plenty to eat here and you always have peace. Say that we will be allowed to stay here always.

Chinese refugees in Auckland
Chinese refugees in Auckland

Petitioning the Government

“To sunder families so happily united here, and after enjoying the peace and plenty of New Zealand to force the return of women and children to such conditions, would be disastrous to body and soul”. – Rev. George McNeur (1951)

In late 1947, the Government granted the wishes of the Chinese refugees, their families and the Church: the Chinese refugees who were residing in New Zealand temporarily could now become permanent residents if they so wished. But getting to this stage was not easy and certainly would not have happened in the same way without the involvement of the Church.

The Otago-Southland branch of the New Zealand Chinese Association and the Chinese Consulate approached the Church during the years of the War. They were extremely grateful that their families had been able to reunite, but the concern had shifted to the refugees having to return to a country that was in turmoil. It was that uncertainty that shrouded their lives in New Zealand and created anxiety for the resident Chinese community. In the annual report of 1946-1947, Rev. George McNeur, the Minister of the Dunedin Chinese Presbyterian Mission Church, wrote that “visitation in the homes and the evident anxiety of parents has impressed on us the unsatisfactory position of the Chinese women allowed to join their husbands as war refugees”. He went on to write:

Someone may ask “Why should not these women and children be sent back to China as arranged by the Chinese Consulate with our Government when they were admitted?” That question is easily answered by anyone knowing the facts. Destroyed homes, food shortage, multiplied cost of living, lawless conditions, unhealthy surroundings, lack of shipping accommodation, all unite to make their forced early return from the plenty and peace and health of New Zealand an unjustifiable policy.

Rev. George McNeur
Rev. George McNeur

The Presbytery’s Public Questions Committee brought this matter to the Assembly Public Questions Committee in May 1947. A deputation was then formed between the Public Questions Committee and the Inter-Church Council, with the aim of going directly to the Prime Minister, Peter Fraser. Rev. George McNeur and Rev. Herbert Davies were the individuals who took the questions to the Prime Minister on 1 July 1947, and there is a typewritten account of this deputation in Rev. McNeur’s papers at the Hocken Library. The questions brought forward for conversation delve not only into their main purpose of enabling the refugees to stay, but also on political issues going forward for the government:

  1. That the Chinese refugee women and children be allowed to remain in New Zealand, both because of China’s unsatisfactory conditions and because united Chinese families enable their contribution to the country to be “healthier and happier”.
  2. That permanent Chinese residents who were not able to have their wives and children join them now be able to do so.
  3. That naturalisation of qualifying Chinese should be granted when desired.
  4. That our government negotiate a treaty of friendship with China’s Government and appoint a diplomatic representative.
  5. That one of the New Zealand University Colleges form a chair of Chinese studies and that interaction between professors and students be encouraged.

Their efforts were successful. Those now able to apply for permanent residency included the refugee women and children, children born in New Zealand to refugee women, men who had been admitted on business replacement schemes and Chinese students. The impact was huge: 560 wives and 677 children were granted entry permits over the next seven years. Early in 1948, the government enabled the wives and minor children of 50 approved Chinese residents who had been in New Zealand for more than twenty years to come here. This also took place in 1949.

Passport from 1949
Passport from 1949

Giving Thanks

“Very grateful they are to be in a country which treats them thus generously.” – Rev. George McNeur (1945)

In December 1949, Rev. McNeur wrote both to Prime Minister Peter Fraser and the Minister of Customs, Walter Nash, thanking them for their “great service” and noting that the influence this had was not only felt nationwide, but also around the world, and it was good to show New Zealand in this humanitarian light.

But it was not the government who received the greatest thanks. The efforts of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand were recognised by the whole Chinese community – both by those who had settled in New Zealand and those who were still residing in South China. This gratitude was shown in various ways. The Chinese Association of Otago and Southland sent out a circular urging Chinese to attend Church services and persuaded many towards the Christian way of life. On Anzac Day in 1948, the Chinese Association held a special meeting in the Church to thank Rev. McNeur and Rev. Davies to show their appreciation for their efforts with the refugees.

Resettlement in Aotearoa

“You may not be able to speak their language, but in other ways you can reach their hearts and cheer them on their way” – Mrs A.L. Miller (1944)

The immediate reunion with family members was remarkable and there was a sense again that much could be achieved with the family together. The next challenge for the Chinese refugees and their families was that of assimilation into a new country, one that was vastly different to their homeland in terms of culture, society and environment.

Historian Dr Jim Ng states that assimilation required both a friendlier atmosphere on the European side and a young generation who could best absorb a new environment and culture on the Chinese side. With the War having just ended, there was a general feeling that it would be beneficial to New Zealand and world peace if international relationships were strengthened. As the Chinese were now freely living in New Zealand, these relationships started at home, particularly with the young. Education became a means of encouraging contact between children and young people of all ethnicities. Schools were a place for children to interact and they were of an age to not realise the divide that often separated those of their parents’ generation. Soon enough, school teachers were teaching hundreds of Chinese children in their classes at all levels from kindergarten to high school. Many Chinese students also undertook university studies, with 24 Chinese students enrolled in the University of Otago in 1952. They became prominent particularly in professions such as medicine, law, engineering and teaching. While the business structure continued in many Chinese families, with new opportunities sprouting, young people gradually spent more and more time away from the family business and instead pursued their own careers. 

After the Second World War, Rev. McNeur and the Church continued to provide assistance to the Chinese community in New Zealand. In his annual report for the year 1947-1948, he wrote:

Look on the healthy happy faces of the young folk gathered on some festive occasion or in the classrooms and playgrounds of our schools, and then try to imagine what might have been their fate in the war-ravaged, famine-stricken, bandit-ridden districts of South China, and you will understand the feelings of these Chinese parents, and your own gratitude will deepen for the peace and plenty of this favoured land.

A ‘new’ New Zealand

“The new migrants will naturally introduce new ideas”. – Dr Jim Ng (1999)

By 1966, more than half of the total Chinese population in New Zealand was born here. As a result of the refugees being allowed to stay in New Zealand, families were able to grow as permanent residents, without the fear of being forced to go back to China. The bridge that had separated the Chinese from New Zealanders since the nineteenth century had been broken. The discrimination that the Chinese people had previously faced declined, and the Chinese people who resettled here took every opportunity that they could to improve their lives. Family, education and hard work were values that they held, and still continue to hold, very close to their hearts and their integration into society since the arrival of the refugees has enabled later generations to become true New Zealanders today.

George McNeur wrote a pamphlet in 1951 sharing his experiences with the refugees. He ends with an encounter that perfectly sums up the efforts of the Church in bridging the divide between the Chinese and New Zealanders. The Chinese Association of Otago and Southland presented a pulpit lectern to the Chinese Church in memory of the late pastor, Rev. Andrew Lindsay Miller. The inscription in Chinese and English were arranged on two separate brass plates, leaving a blank space between them. A suggestion was then made by a Chinese friend of his that a cross be carved in that blank space, with its arms reaching out toward both sides, “uniting East and West.” It is this unity that has enabled future generations of all New Zealanders to live alongside each other today.  

The Dunedin Chinese Church
The Dunedin Chinese Church

The value of the archives

My time at the Presbyterian Research Centre has been extremely fulfilling and it has allowed me to strengthen and develop further my research skills in a wonderful environment. This topic in particular has been of great interest to me and is a reminder that history is constantly repeating itself in one form or another. This emphasises the value of the archives in that they are not only stagnant documents waiting to be found, but they are kept alive by reflecting our changing society today. Humanitarian gestures shown by New Zealand, and in particular by the Presbyterian Church, are echoed in today’s modern society with the arrival of Syrian refugees, further stressing that an understanding of our history is vital in moving forward and in helping us help others.

I am very grateful to have been able to complete my internship at the Presbyterian Research Centre as part of the University of Otago’s Humanities HUMS programme and it has been a fantastic way to enrich my History major. The people at the Archives do wonderful work that future generations will be thankful for and it continuously adds value to our understanding of where our country has come from.

This article has used the following sources from the Presbyterian Archives Centre:

Sons of the Soil: Chinese Market Gardeners in New Zealand, by Lily Lee and Ruth Lam.

The Church and the Chinese in New Zealand, by George H. McNeur.

The Chinese in Our Midst, Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union 1951-52, by George H. McNeur.

The Evangelist Magazine (1878)

The Outlook Magazine (1904)

The Presbyterian Church of New Zealand and the Chinese, Annual Lecture by Dr Jim Ng.

The Fruits of our Labour: Chinese Fruit Shops in New Zealand, volume 1, by Ruth Lam, Beverly Lowe, Helen Wong, Michael Wong and Carolyn King.

Recollections of a Distant Shore: New Zealand Chinese in Historical Images, by Phoebe H. Li and John B. Turner.

Windows on a Chinese Past, volumes 1 and 3, by Jim Ng.

Missions Committee, Annual Reports (AA 18/7/11); (AA 6/5/7); (AA 18/7/10)

Photographs, Original Prints, Album 3 (Chinese/Hong Kong Missions)

Session and Management Committee Minutes: Chinese Mission Church Dunedin (1941-61).

Sources also used from the Hocken Collections:

McNeur Family Papers, ‘Diary (1946-48)’.

McNeur Family Papers, ‘Miscellaneous papers including clippings, photographs and correspondence’.

McNeur Family Papers, ‘Notebook, draft of New Zealand Chinese Challenge the Church’ and correspondence’.