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A Brief History of the Chinese Language in New Zealand

By Nigel Murphy

In the 118 years between the arrival of the first Chinese immigrants to New Zealand to the first tentative easing in 1961 of the heavy restrictions against Chinese migrants imposed after WWII, 99 percent of the Chinese migrants to New Zealand came from the Pearl River Delta district of the south-eastern province of Guangdong. Throughout Chinese history emigration has occurred in only two provinces, Guangdong, and its immediate neighbour to the north, Fujian. The Fujian people restricted themselves to migrating to the Southeast Asian countries, in particular Malaya, Thailand, Indonesia, and Thailand. The Cantonese also migrated to these countries but in fewer numbers. People from the north-eastern part of Guangdong, in particular from Chaozhou (Teochew) focussed on specific countries as destinations, and they were followed by family members and fellow villagers. Therefore, almost all the Chinese in Cambodia came from Teochew, while most Chinese in Indonesia and Malaysia came from Fujian and northern Guangdong. These people speak a number of versions of the Min language broadly known as Hokkien.


When the Pearl River Delta residents heard of the discovery of gold in America, Canada, and later in Australia and New Zealand, large numbers of Cantonese men migrated to what was known as “Gold Mountain.” These immigrants were the foundations of the Chinese communities in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. All of these immigrants were Cantonese, the Fujian people preferring to stick with their traditional Southeast Asian destinations.


In terms of numbers, the Cantonese immigrants to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the US, were tiny in comparison to the numbers of Chinese emigrants in Southeast Asia, making up just 1.5 percent of the around eight million overseas Chinese population prior to WWII. Of the Chinese who emigrated to the Americas, Australasia, and the Pacific Islands between 1848 and the 1940s, at least 95 percent came from a group of 14 counties nestling around the provincial capital, Guangzhou. Of these 14 counties around nine sent migrants to New Zealand.


The people from each of these counties spoke distinct local variations on standard Cantonese, each with its own inflections, names, and local slang. These dialects of Cantonese were known as village languages which, while certainly sounding rustic to the city dwellers, were full of vibrancy, expression, and a unique type of poetry. In the capital Guangzhou, which provided the model and standard for the Cantonese language throughout Guangdong, local dialects also existed. The varieties of Cantonese spoken in Guangzhou were distinct enough for a Cantonese speaker to tell where in Guangzhou the person was from.


Contrary to popular belief, however, Cantonese was far from being the only language spoken in Guangdong Province. Guangdong is one of the most linguistically diverse provinces in China, and it is generally acknowledged that the people known as Cantonese refers only to those who come from the Pearl River Delta, a number of districts north of the capital, and a significant part of the eastern part of neighbouring Guangxi Province. The people from the other parts of Guangdong Province are known by the languages they speak, all of which are unrelated to the Cantonese language. The largest groups are Hokkien, Teochew, and Hakka. Even within the Pearl River Delta there are a mix of dialectical variations. In the middle of Zhongshan county – the home of the “father of modern China” Sun Yat-sen – the people of Longdu district speak a form of the Min-Hokkien language of north-eastern Guangdong as well as standard Cantonese.


To the west of Guangzhou, across a spider’s web of rivers and craggy hill ranges lie the Four Counties, known in Cantonese as the Seyip district. It was from these four counties that the majority of Cantonese immigrants to the United States, Canada, and Australia came, with the majority of these coming from just one county – Taishan.

In the United States and Canada over 80 percent of the Chinese migrants spoke the Taishan dialect. The Seyip version of Cantonese has absorbed a number of influences from the original indigenous languages of the region resulting in a unique variety of Cantonese largely unintelligible to the other Cantonese speakers of the region. The geographic isolation from the districts surrounding Guangzhou has added to the creation of the unique dialect spoken in the Seyip region.


Unlike the other three Anglo-Pacific nations the majority of the early Chinese migrants to New Zealand came not from the Seyip region, but from the upper Poon Yu district immediately north of the provincial capital Guangzhou.


Language formed the basis of identity for the Chinese in New Zealand. Each group kept very much to themselves, regarding the others with a certain degree of suspicion. Each group worked, socialised, and when able, married within their county groupings. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Chinese New Zealand community was largely divided along district of origin and linguistic lines. This caused a number of problems in the community in terms of a unified Chinese New Zealand identity and the ability to work together on issues that affected the community as a whole.


When the first Chinese Consul arrived in New Zealand in 1909, he, like many Chinese officials, was a northern Chinese, and spoke only his native provincial language and the official language, Mandarin. Like almost all northern Chinese he found the local Cantonese people deeply clannish, traditional, fractious, and rustic, and their regional languages crude and completely indecipherable. When he had meetings with the local Chinese he would address them in English, which was then translated into Cantonese by a local Chinese person. Of all the Consuls who served in New Zealand between 1909 and 1972 only one was a native Cantonese speaker. This added to the difficulty of relations between the local Chinese and the Consulate. The Consuls generally favoued the well-to-do urban merchant class, many of whom spoke English. Until the second World War most of the Chinese in New Zealand spoke their local Cantonese dialects and enough functional English to make a living in New Zealand. Despite the linguistic divisions in the social and occupational life of the Chinese New Zealand community at the time, at the many community events, musical concerts of Cantonese music put on by local musicians, and the plays written and acted in by the local Chinese, all county groups mixed together, enjoying the occasions and the bonding over their slowly growing overarching Pearl River Delta identity.


There is a question whether all the Chinese in New Zealand were Cantonese speakers. The poll tax records record that a small but significant number of Chinese migrants came from places such as Shanghai, Fuzhou, Beijing, Ningbo, and even Korea. However, the Cantonese were renowned not only for emigrating overseas they were also well-known for migrating to places within China, as well as Japan and Korea. In fact, there were so many Cantonese in Shanghai that on many occasions the Mayor of Shanghai was a Cantonese, and many of the council members were also Cantonese. Therefore, the men who were listed as originating from Shanghai, Ningbo, Beijing, and Korea were not bringing new Chinese languages into New Zealand, they were Cantonese people from the same districts as the majority of the other Chinese migrants in New Zealand who had migrated to locations within China and Korea, and then transmigrated to New Zealand.


The only other non-Cantonese Chinese spoken in New Zealand in the pre-WWII period was Hakka, the language spoken by the ethnic minority Hakka people. Most of the Hakka who came to New Zealand came from the eastern counties of Zengcheng, Dongguan, and Xin’an.


The overwhelming predominance of the Cantonese language in New Zealand remained until the immediate post-war period. The situation only began to change with the arrival of a small number of professional Chinese migrants who had been recruited by the New Zealand government to fill serious gaps in professions such as medicine and engineering. As most of these people came from countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong, the Chinese language landscape in New Zealand was enriched by the addition of Hokkien, Teochew, and Hakka. The same applied to the small number of Chinese from Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia who came to New Zealand under the Colombo plan, which operated from 1951 to the 1990s. Refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam who came in the 1970s and 1980s added further Teochew and Cantonese speakers.


In 1987 a dramatic change in New Zealand’s immigration policy was introduced, a change that would transform the Chinese New Zealand community forever. The new immigration policy did away with the last vestiges of the White New Zealand immigration policy and introduced a system based on the qualifications and personal qualities of each applicant instead of their race or country of origin. This new policy resulted in a spectacular rise in the size of the Chinese New Zealand population, increasing from 19,506 in 1986 to 247,767 in 2022.


The initial migrants came primarily from Hong Kong and Taiwan, the Hong Kong people bringing the Hong Kong variation of Cantonese, and the Taiwanese bringing Taiwanese Mandarin. The Taiwanese migrants were the first significant group of Mandarin-speaking Chinese in New Zealand.


This soon changed. By the early 2000s large numbers of new Chinese migrants came from the Peoples’ Republic of China, most of them from the wealthy coastal Tier One cities. Most of these people spoke the PRC’s official Mandarin Putonghua. By the 2020s the PRC immigrants made up around half of the Chinese in New Zealand. As of 2022 the Chinese New Zealand community is divided into seven main linguistic groups: Mandarin speakers, Cantonese speakers, Malaysian Hokkien, Min, Hakka, Teochew, and those who don’t speak any Chinese language.


The 2018 census records that 36 percent of Chinese New Zealanders speak Northern Chinese Mandarin, 20 percent speak Cantonese, 6.9 percent speak other varieties of Chinese, and just under a quarter of all Chinese New Zealanders do not speak any form of Chinese.


Despite the very large increase of the Mandarin-speaking population in New Zealand, it was only in 2018 that Mandarin overtook Cantonese as the most spoken Chinese language in the country. The Chinese government’s current policy of mandating that Mandarin be the only language to be spoken in schools and major social and official environments poses a serious threat to the many regional languages in China. The first 168 years of Chinese New Zealand history was a Cantonese-speaking history. It appears the future of Chinese in New Zealand history will be a mix of the many languages that are used in China and overseas, continuing the diversity of languages and communities that have marked the Chinese community since its beginnings in New Zealand.

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