Self Portrait Of A Sinophobic Killer: Thankfully, New Zealand history boasts only one self-confessed homicdal racist - Lionel Terry. To ensure we never have another, the issues of race and immigration must be kept entirely separate.
LIONEL TERRY was waiting for Joe Kum Yung as he came limping up Haining Street on the evening of Sunday, 24 September 1905. The 70 year-old veteran of the Otago gold rush knew nothing of the 32 year-old English adventurer lurking in the shadows of Wellington’s notorious “Chinese Quarter”. As Joe shuffled past, Terry stepped forward, raised his revolver and fired. The elderly man collapsed in the street. Stunned neighbours rushed to render assistance but, by the time he arrived at the nearby hospital, Joe Kum Yung was dead. Terry, meanwhile, had disappeared into the Wellington night.
The next morning, however, Terry turned himself in to the authorities. “I have come to tell you that I am the man who shot the Chinaman in the Chinese quarters of the city last evening”, he explained. “I take an interest in alien immigration and I took this means of bringing it under the public notice.”
Convicted of Joe’s murder, Terry was sentenced to hang. But this was New Zealand in 1905 and English gentlemen did not die for killing elderly Chinese. Declared insane, the murderous white supremacist spent the rest of his life in psychiatric institutions where, in later years, he was allowed to paint and write poetry. With his long white hair and neatly trimmed beard he was treated as an eccentric minor celebrity.
It takes a special kind of prejudice to kill a man for the purposes of bringing an issue “under the public notice”. But the anti-Chinese feeling which Joe’s homicide highlighted was by no means exceptional. Nor was it a phenomenon restricted to the political right. Indeed, in the early years of the twentieth century, anti-Chinese agitation was associated much more closely with the political left. Terry himself was a staunch anti-capitalist who railed against employers who imported “coolie-slave labour” at the expense of honest Britons who expected a fair day’s work to be rewarded with a fair day’s pay.
For most of New Zealand’s history, racism and immigration have been inseparable. At issue, always, was not the number of immigrants arriving in New Zealand, but the extent to which the new arrivals either challenged, or conformed to, the expectations of the non-immigrant population.
Foremost among those expectations was the working-class prohibition against selling one’s labour for less than the going rate. This was an article of left-wing faith all around the Pacific Rim: adhered to with every bit as much fervour in New South Wales and California as New Zealand. That Chinese workers represented a deadly threat to “White Men’s” wages was part and parcel of the same working-class gospel, fuelling European workers’ racist antipathy towards the “Yellow Peril”.
For Chinese New Zealanders the consequences of this deeply-ingrained racial prejudice were severe. The legal barriers to their full acceptance as New Zealand citizens (poll taxes and administrative restrictions on travel) took a scandalously long time to dismantle, and the social barriers lasted even longer. It was only fifty years ago that Kiwi schoolchildren regaled each other with “Ching Chong Chinaman” rhymes and jokes.
In 2002 Helen Clark issued a Prime Ministerial apology to Chinese New Zealanders for the treatment meted out to them by the New Zealand state. Ten years later, however, a senior New Zealand politician was still willing to entertain his audiences with the jocular observation: “Two Wongs don’t make a White.”
There has been considerable consternation at the Green Party co-leader, Metiria Turei’s, uncompromising criticism of NZ First’s “racist” immigration policies. When placed in the shameful context of this country’s long history of anti-immigrant (especially anti-Chinese immigrant) prejudice, however, the Green Party’s progressive sensitivities on this issue are a lot less surprising.
Where they do lay themselves open to criticism, however, is in their refusal to cast an equally large accusatory stone at their preferred coalition partner, Labour. The latter’s willingness to mix race and immigration issues has a long history. Whether it be Bill Rowling’s backing of Rob Muldoon’s 1982 legislation stripping Samoans of their New Zealand citizenship, or the more recent “Chinese-sounding names” debacle, Labour’s record on this crucial progressive litmus test is, on the face of it, no less worthy of criticism than NZ First’s.
Thankfully, New Zealand history boasts only one Lionel Terry. To ensure we never have another, the issues of race and immigration must be kept entirely separate.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 July 2017.