Topic: Donald Kwok - Chinese Community Leader

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Donald Kwok is a long-time Hamilton resident, a Justice of the Peace, and became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2005 New Years' Honours List.

Donald Kwok, Chinese community leader - interviewed 3 Aug 2010 by Hamilton City libraries staff. [Mr Donald (Kee Chong) KWOK, J.P., of Hamilton.]

My father came to New Zealand in 1890. His first wife died in China at the time of World War I. After the war he went back to China, remarried in 1922, and came back to New Zealand. He had to pay a Poll Tax of $100 pounds. I was born in Napier; I had one older sister and two younger sisters. In June 1930 we moved to Wellington.

During the depression we returned to China, and I went to school in China. Because of the war with Japan it was no longer safe in China, so we returned to New Zealand in August 1938. I stayed with my older brother (by my father's first wife), in Wellington and went to school there, I was eleven years old, but as I couldn't speak English I had to go in a class with younger children.

In 1939 when war broke out, the Labour government allowed Chinese in New Zealand to bring their families out from China. The Chinese community in Wellington increased quite a bit; there were 30 or 40 Chinese children at my school, and none could speak English. Schooling was difficult because of language and there were often fights in the playground between Chinese and other children. We were called names and teased. Then the first Chinese teacher in New Zealand, a lady, came to our school.

In 1941 our family moved to Hamilton. My father had a fruit and vegetable shop, in Garden Place around the corner from Victoria Street, and remained there until 1961. I went to Whitiora Primary School, starting in Standard Four. I then went to Hamilton Technical College. There were two other Chinese boys there, and we were all enrolled in the engineering department. I knew China would need engineers.

In 1946 I sat University Entrance, but my parents died, and as the only boy with three sisters I had to carry on the fruit and vegetable business. This changed my life completely.

 Hamilton Chinese Association

I was co-opted into the Chinese Association; there were not many Chinese in Hamilton then. As I could read and speak both English and Chinese, I helped with the circular, which was manually duplicated. I would create the Chinese stencils and then print them. I was 16 or 17 years old, and this is why I got co-opted into the Chinese Association. I speak Cantonese, but my Mandarin is not so good.

We ran Cantonese classes after World War II, but most kids weren't interested. About ten years ago some wanted to start classes, but interest has now waned. There is now some talk of teaching Chinese in New Zealand schools. One school in Hamilton did start night classes, as did Wintec, but they didn't last, as Europeans and young Chinese were not very interested. Fairfield College found a teacher for night classes, but now funding has stopped.

During World War II the Chinese Association got involved with the general community in the war effort. At the end of the war, in 1947, I was elected to the executive; I was the youngest on the committee at about 20 years of age.

In 1948 a New Zealand Chinese sports tournament was organised in Wellington. The Hamilton Chinese Association sent down men's indoor basketball and table tennis teams, and the Hamilton basketball team won the trophy. The tournament was rotated each year around the four main centres - the next one was held in Auckland and we retained the trophy. After that everyone was too busy with businesses and families to play sports.

Hamilton thought its Chinese community was too small, with only about six families, but there were other families in the Waikato, and in 1952 we agreed to hold the fifth tournament in Hamilton. This turned out to be one of the best ever held. Hamilton won the soccer cup. The Hamilton City Council helped with the tournament - we held the soccer at Seddon Park, the indoor sports at the Bledisloe Hall. Hamilton Technical College let us use their facilities in Collingwood Street. Hamilton City Council waived all charges - the mayor at that time was Mr Harold Caro.

 Life in Hamilton

My wife came out from China in 1939 as a refugee, through the good will of the New Zealand government. At the end of the war the Chinese Association with the help of the Chinese Consul-General negotiated with the New Zealand government, and those who came out in 1939 were all granted permanent residency, and the Chinese community started to grow. In 1939 my future wife was aged nine or ten, and her parents had a fruit shop in Victoria Street opposite the Hamilton Hotel. She went to Hamilton West School and Hamilton Girls High School. She passed away 11 years ago. There were arranged marriages to a certain extent in my generation. We had five daughters, who all grew up in Hamilton. They are all married now and have their own families. The eldest still lives in Hamilton, the others are in Auckland, and the youngest lives in Australia.

When I came to Hamilton I found it very pleasant with wide streets and open spaces. The southern boundary was just past the hospital, and in the north at Te Rapa. The library was in Victoria Street where the BNZ is now. The City Council building was in Alma Street by the riverbank. The south end of town was the centre, from Collingwood Street to Ward Street. Garden Place was all car parking, though there were not many cars in Hamilton then. On Tuesday all the farmers came to Hamilton to the sale yards while their wives did shopping. Tuesdays were the busiest days of the week. Victoria Street was called the Golden Mile, from Hood Street to Rostrevor Street. The railway line went right across Victoria Street - it was later put underground, with Claudelands Bridge having the road on top and the railway line underneath.

City Councillors would often stop by for a chat with the shopkeepers. Frankton was almost another town, it was quite busy, there were three greengrocers there, one run by a Chinese family, another by an Indian family, and another by Europeans. There was a hardware store, a Post Office, and Forlongs had just started up in the 1950s on the corner of Commerce Street. Hamilton East was also quite a busy town - it hasn't changed very much. Frankton has changed a bit; it is now dominated by Forlongs.

At the time that Whitiora Bridge was built, Hamilton City Council, under the Public Works Act, wanted all the properties near the bridge to widen the approaches, so we moved our house. Our first house cost six hundred pounds; it was weatherboard with three bedrooms. It is still standing.

The Chinese Association, in the 1960s, didn't have many young people coming on, and it went into recess for lack of members. It started up again in 1971 or 1972, when there were more Chinese in Hamilton. In 1991 the association bought its own property in Lewis Street, Glenview; the 20th anniversary will be in 2011.

We didn't hold many festivals until the early 1980s, when new families came to Hamilton and started these up - the Chinese New Year, the Moon festival in August/September, the Dragon Boat festival in June. There were a number of different groups so the community was not all together. The new Chinese community was able to organise concerts every second year in September.

Q. Was Chinese food available when your parents first arrived?

A.  When my parents first arrived they had to go to a shop in Greys Avenue, Auckland, to get Chinese food ingredients. We travelled to Auckland by motor vehicle. Market gardeners were the first to have vehicles, most had a truck, as did the fruit and vegetable shops.

Q. Do you have a message for the Chinese community?

A.  All the different groups need to come together; there should be only one Chinese community instead of several, to speak with one voice.

New European friends often ask how long have I been in New Zealand? Because I learnt English when I came back to New Zealand aged 11, I still have an accent.

In 1957 I was invited to join the Hamilton Rotary Club. I was the second Chinese person in New Zealand invited to join Rotary. The first was in Thames, a friend of mine. At first I found Rotary quite awkward, as most members were in their 50s & 60s, and one member was my old school principal! A couple of members took a while to accept me. I became close friends with Luke Rangi, the first Maori dentist in New Zealand, as the Chinese market gardeners employed quite a few Maori and we became very friendly with them.

A Hamilton Member of Parliament asked me to become a Justice of the Peace, as they needed some new types of people. I said I was too busy. He asked me again twelve months later and my wife advised me to accept as I wouldn't be so busy with the business then. I went through the process and had an interview with the head of the JP association of the Waikato. In 1988 I became the first Chinese JP in the Waikato. I have helped with lots of interesting cases. I was not there just to provide service to the Chinese community. In the last ten years there have been lots of new Chinese coming to New Zealand, lots of them to study, and they need documents in Chinese to register. They need their documents certified by a JP as to authenticity, and to be translated.

My children can all speak Cantonese, the eldest is more fluent, and the youngest can just get by. At home we tried to speak Cantonese but often they couldn't quite understand. My grandchildren mostly can't speak Chinese. My extended family now is almost a United Nations. My eldest granddaughter has just married a European.

Q. Have you been back to China?

A.  I couldn't go back after the war or during the early communist period. My father was blacklisted as an absentee landlord (he had owned about five acres in China). The communists confiscated all the land and all overseas Chinese were put under the category of absentee landlord. It was too dangerous to go back. In the late 1980s things changed. My youngest daughter was one of the first Chinese woman civil engineers in New Zealand. She went back to China in 1997 with a group of others from Australia, New Zealand and England - they cycled from the border into the interior for 600 kms to see the real China. She visited our ancestral villages where villagers asked me to go back for a visit, so I went with my sister-in-law and her children in 1998 for four weeks. But New Zealand is now my home. In 2000 I went back for another visit, my last trip. But I encourage all my children and grandchildren to make a visit and see where their ancestors came from.

In November 2004 I received a letter from Government House; I had been nominated for honours in the New Year honours list of 2005. I was awarded the M.N.Z.M. Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to the Chinese community.

2001 was the International Year of Volunteers - locally about twenty people were chosen to attend a function at the Waikato Museum. Photographs were displayed and these are still held by the Museum. I was the first Chinese in the Waikato to feature in the volunteers group, and to be honoured by the Queen.

To all young Chinese people, I say assimilate into the local community as much as you can, make serving the community your first priority, don't isolate yourselves. You are much better off than earlier generations, but you are not paying back by serving the community. This attitude should change. There is still some discrimination in the community, but in China foreigners would be discriminated against also. Overcome this by mixing in the community.

In the early 1950s Chinese were finally allowed to buy property and to naturalise. Now we are almost fully accepted. In the mid 1980s there was a change backwards again; more Chinese came, and people in small towns didn't know any Chinese and were suspicious of the unknown. But things were much better than when earlier generations came. Nowadays most already come with money, and look down on earlier generations.

Two boys I went to school with in Hamilton still live in Hamilton. I think Chinaman's Hill was named because of the Chinese market gardeners there. Arthur Leong is the only Chinese to have been selected in a New Zealand national sports team - the New Zealand soccer team in the 1960s. Friends my age are now starting to disappear.

Donald Kwok

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Donald Kwok - Chinese Community Leader


First Names:Donald (Kee Chong)
Last Name:Kwok
Place of Birth:Napier, New Zealand
Subject:Chinese, New Zealand, Biography
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License
Donald Kwok - Chinese Community Leader by Rae is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License