A picture is worth a thousand words, and can capture about 175 years worth of history in the Auckland Museum exhibition, Being Chinese in Aotearoa: A Photographic Journey. This curated collection of nearly 100 photographs explores one of the lesser-told stories from New Zealand’s history: the origins and settlement of the Chinese community, which dates back to Appo Hocton – the first Chinese settler in the country who arrived in 1842. Curator Dr Phoebe Li compiled a selection of evocative images chosen from a selection of close to 10,000 photographs from public institutions and private family collections. “As a New Zealand Chinese historian, the once-neglected New Zealand Chinese history is now finely presented at the Overseas Chinese History Museum of China in Beijing and the Auckland Museum,” says Li.
Being Chinese touches on a diverse array of subject matters relating to Chinese life through the years, from settling down and making a permanent home in New Zealand to the community’s relationship with Maori. Exhibition developer Simon Gould says the museum had wanted to do an exhibition around this important aspect of New Zealand history for some time and it was a happy coincidence it came at the time of the 175-year anniversary. “Seeing the exhibition packed full of interested visitors always makes me feel proud, but especially seeing a great number of families and descendants of people in the historical photographs clearly proud to see their ancestors on the walls of the museum,” says Gould.
Chinese-New Zealand creatives have also joined forces to design contemporary contributions. Renowned graphic artist Ant Sang, known for his work on bro’Town, and writer Helene Wong collaborated on a series of comic-strip artworks called The Quiet Achievers. It tells the tale of inspirational Chinese entrepreneurs, musicians, athletes and more. “Sang and Wong uncover a whole raft of Auckland’s Chinese stories from secret jazz sessions in the back of Wah Lee’s shop to meeting Deanna Yang, founder of Moustache Milk and Cookie bar,” says Gould. “Poet Renee Liang and illustrator Allan Xia also bring a fascinating range of stories to life for our visitors in their digital, interactive story, Golden Threads.”
How long has this exhibition been in the works for? And was it always planned to coincide with 175-year anniversary?
Simon Gould: Curator Phoebe Li came to Auckland Museum in 2016 with a proposal for the exhibition. Between her fascinating research and our exhibition making skills, we’ve created something that we believe is a beautiful, informative and accessible take on this lesser known history. The anniversary is a happy coincidence, but Auckland Museum has wanted to do an exhibition around this important aspect of New Zealand history for some time. For over five years we’ve been working with the Chinese community, as well as Korean, Japanese and other Asian communities to create the fantastic Auckland Museum Cultural Festival, as well as celebrating the Lantern Festival and other great events, so this exhibition was a natural fit for our programme and has helped us strengthen these cultural ties and to tell some incredible stories in a more sustained way for the year that the exhibition is open.
How did you select the photographs from the public institutions?
Dr Phoebe Li: I sourced outstanding photographs with both historical and aesthetic merit. Such photographs are not only intellectually informative but also emotionally engaging to the audience. Ordinary shots were cast out.
How did you find the families for the private family collections?
Li: During the course of developing the project, I got to know many supportive people, who further put me in touch with more people with interesting family collections. My collaborator John B. Turner, one of New Zealand’s leading photographic historians, already had sample work in his own collection useable for the exhibition. He also helped me contact his friends and past colleagues to acquire more fine photographs.
What sort of story do you think these photographs help tell? Shed a light on?
Li: Produced at various localities and over a very long span of time, the photographs can speak for themselves, telling how the Chinese, a small ethnic minority, have participated in building New Zealand society from very early on. Their history is also part of New Zealand history.
How did you choose the modern contributors, such as Ant Sang, Renee Liang etc?
Gould: We wanted to work with Auckland’s best creative practitioners from a number of different disciplines. The aim was to commission new work that would give audiences a fun and contemporary twist to the long and rich history of Chinese life in New Zealand, told primarily by historical photographs in the rest of the show. We consulted widely, creating a list of artists and writers, before approaching a short list to invite proposals. Graphic artist Ant Sang (Dharma Punks, bro’Town) and writer Helene Wong (Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s Story, 2016) immediately proposed an amazing series of colourful comic-book artworks called The Quiet Achievers. They would go on to make the series of 12 works for the exhibition, supported by a successful funding application to Creative New Zealand and Foundation North. Sang and Wong uncover a whole raft of Auckland’s Chinese stories from secret jazz sessions in the back of Wah Lee’s shop to meeting Deanna Yang, founder of Moustache Milk and Cookie bar. Poet Renee Liang and illustrator Allan Xia also bring a fascinating range of stories to life for our visitors in their digital, interactive story Golden Threads, focusing on the early settlers coming from Canton to New Zealand as early as 1842! Peter Hayes’ sound design for Golden Threads makes this an even more immersive experience.
Why is this exhibition so important to the museum?
Gould: Auckland Museum is a museum for all Aucklanders and importantly this means acknowledging and sharing the stories and history of all Aucklanders. Despite the large Chinese population today and the fact that there has been an established community for well over 150 years, it’s the first time the museum has developed an exhibition solely focused on New Zealand’s Chinese history – so it’s really exciting for all of us!
Why do you think this part of New Zealand history hasn’t been showcased so much before?
Gould: From Auckland Museum’s point of view there’s no real reason why this hasn’t happened so much before now but certainly Phoebe Li’s particular research has made this exhibition possible at Auckland Museum at this time. The change in population demographics is also a clear factor in why cultural institutions in general have a growing interest in Asian culture more widely, keen to reflect the world around us, and provide content for our ever diversifying audience.
Where did you start in the development of exhibition?
Gould: Looking at a lot of photographs! And working closely with curator Phoebe Li to construct a coherent and engaging narrative for an audience who mostly would not know this history. We always look for personal stories to make it all more meaningful, like that of Matilda Lo Keong, the first recorded Chinese woman in New Zealand or Chinese ANZAC George How Chow. We also think how else we can enhance the visitor experience through art, film (don’t miss Diva Productions’ ‘How Mr and Mrs Gock Saved the kumara’), interactives and stunning objects from the museum’s collections – all things you will find in the show.
What was did you find most challenging about working on this exhibition?
As a historian without previous curatorial experience, I aimed to accomplish an independent international cultural project dealing with many public organisations and private individuals in both China and New Zealand. The lack of funding support was the biggest issue.
What were the challenges in making this exhibition?
Probably the biggest challenge was providing all text in Chinese and English, the first time the museum has done this for a whole exhibition. Beginning to understand the socio-cultural and political landscape of working with the Chinese language was a fascinating but steep learning curve. It was important to make sure the language of the early Chinese settlers, whose stories we tell, was represented while also providing text for present day and overseas Chinese visitors.
What do you think this exhibition shows that has not been told before?
Ant Sang and Helene Wong really wanted to break some stereotypes about areas in which Chinese have contributed, so a number of the people they show in their artworks will be new to most visitors – for example in sport Li Chunli (the Martina Navratilova of Table Tennis) or current rugby sevens star Tyla Nathan Wong.
Overall I’d say the whole exhibition will be new to most museum visitors. There will be familiar stories of course but seeing so many facets of Chinese life from 1842 to 2017 should be a first for most. And the photographs are just stunning. It’s a great way in to this lesser known history.
What are you most proud of with this exhibition?
Seeing the exhibition packed full of interested visitors always makes me feel proud but especially seeing a great number of families and descendants of people in the historical photographs clearly proud to see their ancestors on the walls of the Museum.
I’m also really pleased with the overall visitor experience we’ve been able to create to tell this rich and varied history. It’s a stunning space to be in, beautifully designed with hints of traditional Chinese architecture and big splashes of colour for a contemporary celebratory feel. It’s an environment that lets the photographs, artworks and other content sing.
What did you find most fulfilling about working on this exhibition?
As a New Zealand Chinese historian, I am pleased to see that the once-neglected New Zealand Chinese history is now finely presented at the Overseas Chinese History Museum of China in Beijing and the Auckland Museum, one of the prominent cultural institutions of New Zealand. The publication of the bilingual exhibition catalogue will further help the public to access this rather complicated history.