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An intergenerational love story with Mandarin in Chinese Language Week

Clare de Lore

30 Sept 2021

When Rhiannon McKinnon met her future husband, it wasn’t just the man who caught her attention – she was intrigued by his family’s fluency in Mandarin.

Born in London, Rhiannon was studying at Cambridge University when she met sixth generation New Zealander Alexander “Sasha” McKinnon, also studying at Cambridge. The rest, as the saying goes, is history with the couple now married and settled in Wellington with three children.

Rhiannon was appointed acting CEO of Kiwi Wealth in February this year after 20 years of experience in the finance sector. At 42 she is leading one of New Zealand’s biggest Kiwi Saver funds – it has $9 billion in managed funds for its 220,000 investors.

As well as raising her children, Rhiannon is an active supporter of the arts sector. She is a big supporter of Chinese Language Week.

Rhiannon is half Chinese and half Welsh, and Sasha of English and Scottish heritage. Rhiannon’s parents, Brian Evans and Yuen Chiu, met at the Cricklewood bus stop in north London. The story of their first meeting is romantic – it was raining, her umbrella broke, they shared his. That shared umbrella and bus ride is just part of an intergenerational story spanning decades, China, the UK, New Zealand, love, culture and language.

Yuen Chiu was the youngest of her father’s 17 children who were spread out by age over two generations. There were four mothers to the 17 children – two wives, one of whom died, and Rhiannon’s grandmother, who aged 15, became Wife #2. There were also two concubines.

Rhiannon’s grandmother had six of the 17 children – four of her children survived into adulthood including Yuen Chiu. Yuen Chiu’s full blood brothers were 12 and 9 when she was born; her sister was 5 years old. The family lived in Guangzhou, formerly Canton, and were prosperous and well-educated.

Yuen Chiu was only 3 years old when the Communists took over China with the result being she was the only one of her large family to learn to speak Mandarin from an early age. The others spoke only Cantonese.

The young Yuen Chiu went to Hong Kong for secondary schooling and then to the UK for her A levels before studying biochemistry at university in London. It was while flatting in Cricklewood with three other Chinese girls that she encountered Brian Evans on that rainy day at the bus stop. Brian Evans was immediately smitten.

“Mum went back to Hong Kong for the summer of 1969 and Dad telegraphed her and said “I miss you so much, I am coming out to see you”. She was appalled as she hadn't told her Chinese family she was seeing a westerner,” Rhiannon says, laughing as she recounts the story.

Undeterred, Brian Evans, studying for his PhD in medical physics, made the trip to Guangzhou. Despite an initially frosty reception from his future in-laws, he spent the summer there teaching English and saving for the trip back to the UK, with Yuen Chiu following soon after. They married in 1971 and had three children, including Rhiannon, their youngest.

“When I met Sasha and he could speak Chinese, that was definitely part of the attraction. What got me hooked in large part was this family and this man – the Chinese language was part of my history and these guys had learned it. How amazing.

“I thought if this guy can speak Chinese, I can learn it too because I had always wanted to, and I had tried a few times. I signed up in Cambridge to learn Chinese, but it clashed with my timetable and it's also much easier to learn as an adult if you're in the country as Sasha had been. But it remains an ambition to get better at speaking this language that was never taught to me as a child.

“My brothers and I are half Chinese, but ironically I have three family members on my husband’s side who speak much better Chinese than any of us. John, my father-in-law speaks excellent Chinese, my sister-in-law Sophie's very good and Sasha is good. I was proud of the progress I made in 2006 in Beijing but it definitely needs a boost now, as since I moved to New Zealand permanently in 2007 I haven’t used it on a daily basis.”

Sasha was born in Hong Kong in 1978. The blonde, blue-eyed baby attracted a lot of attention when his parents, then junior diplomat John McKinnon, who’d studied Mandarin for two years before the posting, and his wife Avenal, took him back to Beijing where they were posted. There were few foreigners then, let alone a baby with a shock of thick blonde hair. The McKinnons would return, as a family, to live there two more times, with John McKinnon twice representing New Zealand as ambassador.

With neither Rhiannon nor Sasha speaking Mandarin as their mother tongue, passing it on to 7-year-old Madeleine, 6-year-old Betsy and 4-year-old Percy is a challenge that is being shared with Yuen Chiu, who is now living in Hong Kong again after most of her life in the UK, and Wellington-based grandfather John.

“We've had Mum speaking a million times to the children, over Zoom, in Mandarin, even though it's not her mother tongue either; she is a Cantonese speaker who spoke Mandarin for her education.”

The McKinnon children enjoy speaking some Mandarin with their grandmother and have taken to teaching her some simple Māori words, extending yet again the reach of language across the globe.

But Rhiannon says it is Mandarin that has woven its way through the generations of two families from very different backgrounds.

“When I reflect on what has brought our two families together, Mandarin could rightfully be called the language of love.

“From initial impressions, to moving to China, Mandarin has played its part. And although neither Sasha nor I is satisfied with our family’s current fluency, we will be in future years and future generations, I am sure of that.”

*This article was supplied by the New Zealand Chinese Language Week Charitable Trust.


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