Chinese Women's Organisations

1955 –

Chinese Women's Organisations

1955 –

Theme: Immigration and ethnicity

This essay written by Manying Ip was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Manying Ip in 2018.

1955 – 1993

Women's organisations have been essentially alien to Chinese culture and society, which are traditionally patriarchal and family-centred. Exemplary women in history were all paragons of feminine modesty and domesticity. It was unthinkable that women should band together in their own organisations for any particular purpose. It was largely because the Chinese community in New Zealand was so small and marginalised that Chinese women decided to form their own groups here.

Chinese women came to New Zealand as a significant group only after World War II. Although Chinese men had come as goldminers as early as the 1860s, their families had been effectively barred by anti-Chinese immigration restrictions. These included the £100 poll-tax (1896), the 'literacy test' of 100 English words picked at the pleasure of the customs official at the port of entry (1907), and the Permit System, under which all Chinese were classified as 'undesirable aliens' and no reason needed to be given for the granting or withholding of the entry permit (1920). Chinese women were therefore taught to know their place, both by an overtly unfriendly New Zealand government and by 2000 years of Confucian tradition which stressed female subservience.

The two women's organisations discussed here were chosen for their long histories and because they were representative, although their nature was very different. Both were still active in the 1990s. The religious fellowship started as a transplanted version of existing organisations for middle class, literate women in Chinese Treaty Ports, where western influence had been strong. The women's league was a specifically 'Overseas Chinese' phenomenon, created by immigrant wives and mothers to counteract the influence of the dominant culture. Both were attempts to preserve Chinese identity, though what was perceived as 'Chinese' was quite different in each case.

Association of Auckland Chinese Presbyterian Women's Fellowship 1955 –

The Association of Auckland Chinese Presbyterian Women's Fellowship was founded by a small group of highly religious Chinese women working within the Chinese Presbyterian Church in Cook Street, Auckland. The congregation was small, reflecting the local Chinese population at the time, which consisted mainly of new arrivals. [1] Founding chairperson Kathleen Chan, who was still at the helm 37 years later, maintained that her purpose was 'to restrict the group to devout believers'. [2]

Group of Chinese women

Manying Ip

Members of the Auckland Chinese Presbyterian Women’s Fellowship as a retreat at Matakatia, North Auckland, May 1957. Back (from left): unknown, Jennifer Wong, Sharon Chan, Kitty Wong, Edie Wong, Eileen Leung. Front: Du Wong-Toi, Molly Findlay, Kathleen Chan, Helen Chan, Gwen Sai Louie.

Chan was exceptionally well educated for her time, trained in the traditional Chinese classics, fluent in English, and well versed in the Bible. She arrived in Auckland in 1948, as the wife of the Chinese minister, Reverend W.K. Chan. In the previous year, Chinese women and children had won the right to stay in New Zealand with their husbands and fathers. Most were the wives of orchardists and fruiterers, tied down to the home and the family business, and generally too preoccupied to commit themselves regularly to religious fellowships.

The group started with a nucleus of seventeen members. The majority were literate in both English and Chinese, a rare attribute even among Chinese men in New Zealand in the 1950s. Several had received tertiary education in China before emigrating. Those born locally were from merchant families whose patriarchs were sufficiently prosperous and enlightened to send their daughters back to China for a 'proper education'. Many early members of the association were bilingual, an accomplishment which reflected their upper middle class background.

The association's activities included Bible reading, prayers and an annual retreat. At the regular meeting on the first Saturday of each month, devotions were conducted, followed by discussions on the Bible and community announcements. On the third Saturday, a meeting was held in a member's home for family worship. To answer the needs of the Chinese community, the group introduced 'dim-sim' making demonstrations, home visits to the elderly and to house-bound mothers, and rosters for visiting new mothers in maternity hospitals; in general it acted as a surrogate extended family. By the early 1990s it had taken on the sponsorship of an orphan through international agencies. The association also maintained a fund to support and assist the work of the Chinese Church. The generosity of the women was remarkable: even when times were hard, the association regularly made an annual donation to the fund of between $1000 and $1500.

The association undoubtedly helped to foster the spiritual life of its members, helping them to accept that being Christian did not necessarily mean becoming foreign. Surprisingly, neither Dunedin nor Wellington, the other two major Chinese centres, had comparable women's groups that were as long-lived. Credit must go in part to the tenacity and outstanding leadership of Kathleen Chan, aged 91 in 1993. The very smallness of the group (by then 21 members) also helped to keep it close-knit and united.

Auckland Chinese Women's League 1971 –

The Auckland Chinese Women's League began as largely a 'grass roots' organisation, formed around the time that the Chinese Association was undergoing a revival and efforts were being channelled into the building of the Chinese Community Hall in Mangere. The league started with about 50 members, most of them married women with teenage families, who saw their children being disadvantaged in a dominant and not always friendly European society. 'We wanted to provide our children with more opportunities to mix with other Chinese young people and maintain their culture', recalled Anne Ah-Chan, one of the founding members. [3] The original membership list showed all the women as 'Mrs', and the majority using their husband's given names, not their own. Although this was gradually changing by 1993, it reflected the nature of the league, which did not seek to liberate Chinese women from their traditional roles as wife and mother, but rather to enhance those roles. Yet for Chinese women to see themselves as having an active part to play in their community was itself a comparatively modern development.

The league's activities, held in members' homes, were largely social: communal lunches, cooking demonstrations (after which all participants shared the delicacies), make-up and haircutting lessons, informal lectures on emergency car repairs and first aid, slide shows on recent trips to China and Hong Kong. While the women were busy in the lounge, their children were encouraged to dance socially to hi-fi music in the garage or rumpus room. The league organised a performance by the children every Christmas, which drew crowds of several hundred relatives and friends.

In the early years, league members tended to be rather modest, down-to-earth women. Most were born in China, some were not formally educated, and a few could not read or write Chinese. Most could speak only a few English phrases. To them, maintaining Chinese values meant passing down culinary skills and having their children marrying within the Chinese circle. The frequent social dances and picnics organised by the league bore testimony to earnest maternal desires that Chinese young people should have more opportunities to meet each other.

Chinese men played an important role in the league. From the very first meeting, husbands were present as 'visitors' and 'advisers'. Newsletters and annual reports of the early 1970s were very formally written in good English, possibly by the husbands of the early office-bearers rather than by the women themselves. The annual subscription was only $5, and husbands' donations, usually much larger sums, were gratefully acknowledged. Men also acted as accountants and auditors.

In 1972, a time of tension between the Left and Right in Chinese politics, the New Zealand Labour government's recognition of the People's Republic of China and its severing of diplomatic ties with Taiwan split the Chinese community. Like their counterparts overseas, most were intensely pro-Nationalist. The league consistently maintained a totally neutral stance, stressing its social role and shunning all political involvement. However, since husbands had long been influential in the league, their political affiliations inevitably affected the organisation. An apparent slackening of enthusiasm among members after the late 1970s was possibly a result of tension among the men.

In the late 1980s, leadership of the league passed to a new generation of younger, locally born women. With a membership of about 45 in 1993, it was maintained as a purely social association, where families shared outings and meals. Social dances and Chinese cultural performances disappeared from the league's agenda, an indication that the third and fourth generation Kiwi Chinese no longer saw the need to maintain Chinese cultural identity by deliberately creating exclusively Chinese social circles for their children.

Manying Ip

1994 – 2018

The years around 2000 were watershed years for the New Zealand Chinese community. Between the censuses of 1986 and 2006, the Chinese population multiplied more than seven-fold: from below 20,000 to 150,000. The 2013 census (which in 2018 was the most recent offering sub-ethnic breakdown) gave the total number of ethnic Chinese as 171,411. By 2018, the ethnic Chinese population in New Zealand was likely to be around 200,000 nationwide. This ‘strength in numbers’ gave contemporary Chinese women’s associations the scope and confidence to be self-sufficient and also to reach out.

The growth of the Chinese population was the direct result of the immigration policy change of 1987, when the special favour reserved for ‘traditional source countries’ (i.e. the United Kingdom and Ireland) was removed, and all prospective immigrants were henceforth to be judged by their personal merits, rather than their race and colour. New Chinese immigrants were chosen for personal qualities, including level of education, business track record, English skills, and professional qualifications.

The ensuing change in the male-female ratio of the New Zealand Chinese community was dramatic. For over a century, this ratio had been severely skewed towards a preponderance of males, a direct result of the white New Zealand policy. Before 1987, New Zealand Immigration policies and legislative measures had discriminated against ‘aliens’ and migrants of colour; but as the 1993 entry showed, they had been especially harsh against Chinese women.

Prior to the 1987 immigration policy change, there was in fact no significant Chinese women’s presence. Gender parity of the New Zealand Chinese community was achieved only in 1991. Thereafter the number of females slowly overtook that of males, largely because of new migration patterns.

From the 2000s on, the number of Chinese female immigrants was consistently higher than that of Chinese males. In general, the personal qualities of Chinese women applying to be migrants, in terms of their education, work and business track record, and especially their language skills, made them highly eligible to enter New Zealand, as well as other countries, which were opening their doors to ‘quality migrants’.

The restrictive measures previously in place had clearly obstructed the robust growth of Chinese women’s associations. Traditionally, these had therefore been modest and restricted communities, narrowly focussed on internal welfare activities. From the 1990s on, contemporary Chinese women’s associations were radically different from their predecessors. Among the new waves of Chinese female migrants, their socio-economic backgrounds, their countries of origin, their educational and career paths, and therefore their aspirations and outlook were much higher, broader and more assertive than for earlier Chinese women. 

All these factors affected Chinese women’s organisations, and by 2018, they were very active. Moreover, female executive members in many Chinese associations for both men and women, especially those catering to the younger age cohorts, were playing key roles.

Chinese Women’s Association of New Zealand
新西兰华人妇女联合会

The Chinese Women’s Association of New Zealand (CWANZ) was founded in 1995, with its headquarters in Auckland. This particular association formed a bridge between the ‘new immigrants’ (mainly from Hong Kong and Taiwan), who had arrived 30 years earlier, and the most recent cohort of arrivals, predominantly from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

By 2018, CWANZ had 190 financial members, paying an annual subscription of $30. In addition it had over 700 members on its WeChat network (the most popular form of social media among the Chinese).

The mission statement stressed its desire to give Chinese women a platform to realise their full potential, to achieve success in their chosen careers, and to offer protection to women suffering from family violence. The association’s vision and aims were noticeably broader than those of their traditional counterparts in the post World War II period, when women’s roles were seen primarily in terms of being good housewives and supportive mothers.  The themes of self-fulfilment, in terms of women’s own careers and wellbeing, were new developments.

The public programme of the CWANZ included working closely with the Auckland City Council on tree-planting and beach-cleaning projects. The association stressed that such outreach programmes aimed to foster ‘horizontal networking with the many non-Chinese communities in the Auckland multi-cultural scene’. [4]

Members also regularly volunteered for social services such as  serving meals at the Mt Albert Church Hall. The association was very mindful of its position in a multicultural scene.

However, a major part of CWANZ’s activities, and possibly its main focus, was the wellbeing of group members. Every weekend members could enjoy singing lessons, both as solo singers and as a choral group.  Their instructors were well-qualified professional performers from China. The women were also trained in both Chinese folk dancing and modern dance.  Their dancing troupes regularly won trophies at the multicultural fusion dance festival Viva Eclectika.  Their innovative choreography, with multicultural themes, drew positive comments from judges year after year.

Spiritual fulfilment and female wellness remained a key driver of the CWANZ programme. Members were offered make-up lessons, flower arrangement classes and even modelling training.  Such activities were noticeably absent in the pre-war women’s associations, when being an efficient housekeeper and good mother seemed to be the criteria for being a successful Chinese woman. [5]

International Women’s Association of New Zealand Inc
新西兰国际妇女会

A highly unusual feature of the International Women’s Association of New Zealand (IWANZ) was that its name did not include the term ‘Chinese’. Both the Chinese and English versions of the name seemed to stress its ‘international’ nature. The logo was not strongly Chinese either: a stylised white dove on a purple background.  On closer inspection, it could be seen that the dove resembled the stylised Chinese character for ‘heart’.

Founded in 2012, IWANZ started off with a distinctive universal outlook and a broad international statement.  Its mission statement showed that it aimed to ‘set up a bridge linking up all the womenfolk of various ethnicities in New Zealand, to share the most up-to-date concepts and news on women’s organisation … to show concern towards underprivileged groups, and champion a healthy and happy lifestyle’.

From the start, membership was explicitly open to all ethnic groups in New Zealand. There was no mention that IWANZ was specifically for Chinese women, although the membership was predominantly Chinese. In 2018, there were around 150 Chinese members, with 50 Māori associate members. They were mainly young, with over 50 percent below the age of 35; most had had a New Zealand education, and some were locally born. Understanding of New Zealand culture was therefore strong.

IWANZ was founded with donations from enthusiastic members of the executive committee.  The annual membership fee was $30 a year in 2018. The association was linked to a number of influential Chinese associations, including the Fujian Clan Association, Fujian Business Association, and ‘Asian Library Association/Asian Library Trust’. 

The association’s major activities – up to four or five per year – were sponsored by various Chinese businesses. Analysis showed that they could be broadly divided into Chinese themes and international (outreach/bridging) themes. Chinese community-centred activities included Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations, Mother’s Day, tea ceremony, flower arranging, Chinese poetry appreciation, Chinese library and book exhibitions, and Christmas gala parties. Out-reach activities included sporting events – badminton tournaments and Round-the Bay races (with members running in IWANZ uniforms) – and the Pink Ribbon campaign.  In 2018, IWANZ also dispatched its own contingent to the ANZAC Day memorial service.

Of particular significance was its formal ‘foster sisterly relationship’ with Māori women.  In 2015 IWANZ formally linked up with Ruapotaka Marae in Glen Innes. The sisterly relationship started with celebrating Chinese New Year together, and sessions learning poi dances.  It culminated in a Joint Art Exhibition of Chinese and Māori art in March 2017. Chinese women and Wāhine Ataahua, Northtec, together with artists from Northland, staged a large scale exhibition of oil and water colour painting, sculpture, weaving, ceramic and metalwork, carving and pottery. This exhibition was timed to coincide with the second Chinese Māori Cultural Day. 

The opening page on the IWANZ website in 2018 stated: ‘Our members are all professionals and educated women, with a heart that strives for personal cultivation, kindness, and elegance’. In the foreword to the catalogue of the Joint Art Exhibition, the Chairwoman of IWANZ, Jennifer Liao, wrote, ‘No matter where we are, as sisters, we partner together to promote Chinese culture, and to encourage cultural exchange with Māori culture in New Zealand.’

Both the CWANZ and the IWANZ shared a number of similarities.  Their membership was drawn from the comparatively newer immigrant women who came mainly from middle class families.  These women were educated and knowledgeable, but did not have long experience in New Zealand.  Most were from the People’s Republic of China, with a smaller minority from Taiwan and Hong Kong. 

Chinese women who had arrived or been born in New Zealand before the 1980s did not usually join these organisations. The language used at the meetings, both socially and formally, tended to be Putonghua (the official Chinese national language), rather than Taiwanese/Hokkien (used in Taiwan and Malaysia) or Cantonese (used among earlier New Zealand Chinese settlers and arrivals from Hong Kong). English was not used except in official correspondence and publications.

These new organisations were supported by sponsorships and donations from Chinese businesses closely connected to the key members, either through their husbands or through the clan associations to which the key members belonged. These helped to fund the premises where they held their meetings, exhibitions, and activities, incurring considerable expenses not usually covered by the $30 annual subscription.

Both organisations enjoyed strong leadership by visionary women.  Their executive committees were made up of women in their early forties. However, IWANZ was adamant that they were actively recruiting younger members, and were very mindful of the importance of ‘new blood’. [6]

WǒMen:NZ Women (WNZW) 

我们:新西兰女性

Younger Chinese women in their twenties and thirties formed their own group under the umbrella of the New Zealand Chinese Youth Federation (NZCYF) 新西兰中华青年联合会.  The federation had a large proportion of women, both in its general membership and on its executive committee, and featured a wide range of activities, ranging from business networking to upskilling technology knowhow. One particular area was reserved for Chinese young women.

Young women were also running an ongoing project involving a series of seminars entitled WNZW, a clever acronym for ‘WǒMen /New Zealand Women’.  The first word, WǒMen, when read in Putonghua Chinese, 我们, means ‘We/Us’.  The title of this seminar series therefore meant ‘We (Chinese) New Zealand Women’.  The target audiences for these events were tertiary students and young employees in the New Zealand workforce. English was used in all these events, held at the Business School of the University of Auckland. The stated objectives were:

‘To create a brand … to provide regular and consistent support and guidance to young women … through sharing insights in work and life … to better develop their careers …’; and ‘to offer a platform for working women in New Zealand to share ideas and experiences.’  Ultimately, the aim was ‘to build up a gender-equal society’.

The target audience was between 16 and 30 years old, from the last years of high school to those newly entering the workforce.  In 2018, three such seminars were held, each with an audience of around 200.  The topics covered included the success stories of female (Asian and non-Asian) entrepreneurs; life experiences, involving how female new arrivals chose their career-paths; interaction with mainstream New Zealanders (Māori and Pākehā); and New Zealand race relations, as well as law and order.

While the events were all well-attended and the subsequent networking seemed to have generated much synergy and useful shared ideas, time would tell how the WNZW Project would work towards more long-lasting results pertinent to the progress and integration of young Chinese women in New Zealand.

It should be noted that the WNZW organisers deliberately sought out Māori and other Asian girls and women to get them involved in their seminar projects.  There was an awareness both of the multi-cultural dimension that young Chinese women realised they should work on, and of the wisdom of approaching and targeting these non-Chinese women as potential allies in the way forward. [7]

Manying Ip

Notes

[1] The Chinese population in New Zealand in 1956 was 6731 males and 2705 females.

[2] Ip, 1990, p. 152.

[3] Interview with Anne Ah-Chan, Auckland, 1992.

[4] 'Mission Statement of CWANZ’ by Kathleen Zheng, Vice President (in Chinese).

[5] Information on CWANZ based on interview with Linda Wei-Ling CHEN, Executive President, on 22 July 2018, and subsequent correspondence in August 2018 with Linda CHEN, Christine CHE, Founding President, and Kathleen ZHENG, Vice President. Kathleen also sent a ‘Mission Statement' (in Chinese) on 6 August 2018 and gave further clarifications subsequently.

[6] Information on IWANZ based on correspondence with Jennifer LIAO, President, and also on a number of interviews with Ling Ling LIANG, Executive Committee member, from mid July to early December 2018.  Ling Ling also supplied a detail PPT on the activities of IWANZ (in Chinese).

[7] Information on WNZW derived from participating in two seminars (15 July 2018, and 16 Sept 2018) and on interviews with Emma Shen, WNZW Project Coordinator, and other executives of NZCYF.

Unpublished sources

Association of Auckland Chinese Presbyterian Women's Fellowship records, 1955–1992, in possession of Kathleen Chan, May Sai Louie, Wan-Tzu Kwok, Auckland

Auckland Chinese Women's League minutes (in Chinese), 1971–1992, in possession of Virginia Chong, Auckland

Auckland Chinese Women's League newsletters (in both Chinese and English), 1971–1992, in possession of Alice Ah-Chan, Auckland

Published sources

Ip, Manying, Home Away From Home: Life Stories of Chinese Women in New Zealand, New Women's Press, Auckland, 1990

Further information

Manying Ip, 'New Zealand Peoples: Chinese', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Chinese language websites and/or WEIBO pages of:

  • Chinese Women’s Association of New Zealand / 新西兰华人妇女联合会
  • International Women’s Association of New Zealand Inc / 新西兰国际妇女会
  • WǒMen:NZ Women (WNZW) 我们:新西兰女性

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