First in English, then Mandarin, NZ’s apology was delivered to Chinese over poll tax – and now it has been issued in Cantonese

Buzz from the Beehive

Helen Clark, our Prime Minister at the time, issued a formal apology in 2002 to the early settler Chinese community who had been forced to pay a poll tax from 1881 until 1944 and to their descendants.

She and George Hawkins, Minister for Ethnic Affairs, had hosted a function at Parliament for members of the Chinese community to mark the Chinese New Year.

The apology for the poll tax and other discrimination imposed by statute marked the beginning of a “formal process of reconciliation with the Chinese community”.

It was accompanied by a government contribution of $5 million to establish a Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust to support community initiatives to preserve Chinese New Zealand customs and language.

This was the long-overdue consequence of New Zealand – along with Canada – following the Australian precedent of using a head or poll tax to restrict Chinese immigration. The tax was repealed by Canada in 1923 and by New Zealand in 1944.

Commenting on the apology, the New Zealand Herald observed in an editorial:

 Encouragingly, the initial response of many Chinese seems spot on. They see Helen Clark’s apology as a step towards understanding and reconciliation, a step that, above all, allows the Chinese community to take its rightful place in our society.

The plan to talk to descendants of poll tax-payers had surprised leaders in the Chinese community, according to the Herald’s report.

New Zealand Chinese Association past chairman Ron Hoy Fong said only an acknowledgment of past wrongs had been expected.

“I think this is great; it’s the end of a sad part of New Zealand’s history.”

Was this the end of the matter?

Fair to say, some members of the Chinese community said there had not been enough consultation for the apology to be offered.

Peter Kohing, of Wellington, said he was “pleased the Prime Minister wants to set the record straight … but the story isn’t being told properly”. There needed to be “full, frank and open consultation” with descendants and Chinese groups.

The Herald’s report made no mention of the apology failing a language test.

But it turns out the apology was delivered in English and Mandarin and the early settlers did not speak Mandarin.

More than two decades on, the government has had another go at apologising.

At an event in the Beehive’s banquet hall last night, the apology was  re-issued in Cantonese and a ministerial speech was delivered to mark the latest Chinese New year:

Chinese New Year 2023 speech

It is my pleasure today to welcome all of you to the 2023 Chinese New Year celebration here at the NZ parliament, your parliament.

This was posted on the Beehive website along with news related to the national emergency and the implications for the sitting of Parliament:

State of National Emergency Declared extended to cover Tararua

The New Zealand Government has this morning declared a State of National Emergency, to assist in the response to Cyclone Gabrielle.     

Proposed Parliament sitting plan for week ahead

Following the declaration of a national state of emergency the plan for the week ahead at Parliament has changed.  

State of National Emergency Declared

The New Zealand Government has this morning declared a National State of Emergency, to assist in the response to Cyclone Gabrielle.

Point of Order has posted (HERE) on the national emergency.

Diversity, Inclusion and Ethnic Communities Minister Priyanca Radhakrishnan, who delivered the latest apology to the Chinese community, said she understood how important language was as a “connector to one’s heritage, history and identity”.

“While I understand that the 2002 formal apology delivered in English and Mandarin was welcomed by our NZ Chinese communities at the time, I know that many of the early settlers who were subjected to the poll tax, and their descendants, spoke Cantonese.”

Radhakrishnan mentioned the 2018 census showing the New Zealand – Chinese population had continued to grow to nearly 250,000, about 5 per cent of our total population.

Then she recalled it had been 21 years since Helen Clark hosted the first-ever Chinese New Year celebration at Parliament in 2002 when a Formal Apology had been issued to Chinese New Zealanders.

The Apology, in English and translated to Mandarin, was made to Chinese communities who were made to pay a ‘poll tax’ to migrate to Aotearoa New Zealand.

Tonight, that same 2002 apology is now formally delivered in Cantonese to value and honour those who suffered the indignity of the poll tax, in their language.

As context, in 1881, New Zealand Parliament had passed the Chinese Immigrants Act.

This was a racist piece of legislation designed to tax, and restrict migration from China.

The initial tax was 10 pounds per person – equivalent to roughly two thousand dollars today.

There were also restrictions imposed on the number of Chinese migrants allowed to land from each ship arriving in New Zealand. Only one Chinese passenger was allowed for every 10 tonnes of cargo.

Then in 1896, the tax was increased and the passenger restrictions became even more stringent.  

The poll tax was finally abolished in 1944 by the first Labour government.

The apology of 2002, extended to the descendants of those impacted by the tax, expressed the Government’s sorrow and regret that this and other discriminatory practices were once considered lawful and appropriate.

Helen Clark delivered the apology in English, and it was interpreted into Mandarin.

In her speech, Radhakrishnan said she understood that some of the Chinese New Zealanders who were in the room for the original apology were unable to fully understand either the English or the Mandarin version.

I also know how important language is as a connector to one’s heritage, history & identity.

Many from our Cantonese-speaking communities have advocated for the apology to be delivered in Cantonese.

Today, we do just that. The 2002 apology will be formally delivered in Cantonese to value and honour those who suffered the indignity of the poll tax and their language.

Chinese settlers were the only ethnic group required to pay a poll tax to enter NZ.

It was set at £10 in 1881, then raised to £100 in 1896, which was greater than the average annual wage at the time.

Adjusted to today’s dollars, £100 is about $23,000.

One thought on “First in English, then Mandarin, NZ’s apology was delivered to Chinese over poll tax – and now it has been issued in Cantonese

  1. This is nonsense on stilts. But OK then, if apologies and reparations are in vogue, I want grovelling from Xinnie the Pooh and dosh to compensate for the WuFlu that cost me parents, health, & career. Pay up!


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