Janie Cameron talks to Wellington-born, Chengdu-based writer and musician Kristen Ng about what it means to be ‘Kiwese’.
Kia ora Kristen, tell us what you're up to in China.
I've been in China for almost four years now – one year in Beijing and three in Chengdu. I originally came as a language student and now I manage bookings and promotion at a venue in Chengdu called NU SPACE, and run a website called Kiwese, which is an online publication based on indie culture in Aotearoa and China, and also operates as a touring label for New Zealand bands in China and soon for Chinese bands in NZ. I also play music under the name Kaishandao, which means ‘machete.’
What inspired you to start Kiwese?
I started Kiwese in 2013 while on an internship at the New Zealand Centre at Peking University, where I liaised an English course about NZ history and culture. It was my first real insight into the structures that bind the ‘New Zealand-China relationship,' underpinned by the government’s trade and business-based strategy. Cultural encounters were full of tired panda-kiwi clichés. As a Chinese person myself, I found this direction troubling and misleading.
When Chinese people are represented in the NZ media, it tends to be in a negative light or as tokenised cultural decorations – dirty restaurants, airport security, undercover camera exposes, pesky international students, shit drivers, “foreign home buyers”, etc. Conversely, the Chinese understanding of NZ is basically dairy, South Island scenery and the haka. In starting Kiwese, I felt an alternative perspective could center Chinese people, primarily in the spheres of music and art, as well as bringing amazing Kiwi bands to Chinese audiences. After touring Orchestra of Spheres in 2015, there are now people in China whose understanding of NZ is a vision of floating eyeballs and alien spaceship commanders. To me, this is a success.
How did you end up in Chengdu?
The first time I visited Chengdu in 2013, some friends took me to a bunch of places around town that all had this kind of hippy, psychedelic vibe. They took me to a party at an outdoor swimming pool and a pop-up DJ rave on a footbridge. It felt so much more chill than Beijing and I loved it. When I had the opportunity to choose which university to go to for a second year of study, I chose Sichuan University. I wanted to get better at Mandarin and lessen the temptation to speak English, so moving to Chengdu was a good way to do that.
What was your experience of moving to China, looking but not speaking Chinese?
I’ve had my fair share of identity crises while living in China, especially in the first few years when my Chinese really sucked. There’s a whole world of missed cultural cues and communication problems that arise from being a non-native speaking Chinese. I’ve experienced a lot of alienation and helplessness, as well as a real sense of inclusion among the community and my peers. My appearance allows me to blend in. In China, I’ve had white friends say, “you’re so lucky you’re Chinese,” and Chinese people say “you’re so lucky you were born overseas.”
How did your upbringing in Aotearoa influence where you are now?
Even at a young age, I was aware of Chinese stereotypes and enjoyed being able to subvert people’s expectations – being that crazy dancing chick at the front of every mosh pit was one way to do that.
I was born and raised in Miramar, Wellington. When I was ten, I picked up guitar through waiata with our primary school kapa haka teacher. I’ve always been obsessed with rock ’n’ roll, collecting and documentation; I’d record cassette mixtapes off The Edge as a kid, and always followed the countdowns on C4. I used to busk down Cuba Street, meeting and jamming with loads of musicians, spending all my money at Real Groovy and Slow Boat Records, covering my walls with posters and sneaking into gigs on my sisters ID. There were a lot of free, all-age shows in Wellington during the mid-2000s, which exposed us to bands like The Mint Chicks, Connan and the Mockasins, The Phoenix Foundation and So So Modern, as well as local reggae, dub and D&B. That Wellington music community and the unofficial life mentoring I got from it definitely led me to what I do today.
On a more personal level, before my Por Por passed away she was so happy I was going to be studying Chinese at university. Since then, I’ve always wanted to do her proud by sticking with it and coming to China.
What are your thoughts on the general attitude towards Asian people in New Zealand, specifically towards the Chinese community?
NZ is a lot more culturally diverse than it was when I was growing up in the 90s, largely due to the abolition of race-based immigration selection processes in the late 80s. I remember reading an article by Manying Ip which looked at the ways young NZ-born Asians behaved in reaction to greater Asian visibility in Auckland, including avoiding sitting near other Asians to minimise the impact of an Asian presence, or speaking with an exaggerated Kiwi accent when around groups of non-NZ born Asians. I realised that I’d probably subconsciously behaved like that too, because we’ve been conditioned to feel like our presence is only acceptable in small doses. The dominant group will never understand what that is like.
There is no such thing as the Chinese community. There’re a whole bunch of Chinese people from different parts of the world with different roots, backgrounds and languages. The same goes for Pākehā in NZ, yet it would be unheard of to refer to the “European community” or the “British community.” As the dominant culture that controls NZ law and governance, Pākehā never have to think of themselves as an ethnic group. Many white people feel uncomfortable talking about their own ethnicity, as it brings forth feelings of guilt and privilege. Most liberal Pākehā tend to speak in favour of greater cultural diversity in New Zealand, but only to the point of having a greater range of Asian restaurants in town.
We all want to be recognised for who we really are; who we feel like on the inside. But first impressions will always be formed from how you look on the outside, regardless. I think for Asian people to feel safe, welcome and respected, NZ needs to confront and dissect its history of colonialism towards the Māori tangata whenua. Asian people in NZ are often viewed as this kind of foreign enemy invader, yet the British history of colonisation is quietly left untouched.
"Cultural encounters were full of tired panda-kiwi clichés. As a Chinese person myself, I found this direction troubling and misleading."
What’s the best thing about living in China? Same for New Zealand?
China has a lot of really convenient apps that let you get things delivered to your house, like Taobao and food delivery apps. I was back in NZ last month and buzzed out at how archaic Eftpos and phone top-ups felt in comparison to Alipay or WeChat.
Living in China has been very humbling. Sometimes I feel like people in NZ get so hung up on little things like ‘oh my God, she bumped me and didn’t say sorry,’ perhaps because it’s so quiet and isolated there’s more room to be overcritical and anxious. Living in China makes you realise you are just a tiny speck upon the face of the world; to embrace the present because nothing is permanent.
As for NZ, I can only speak to living in Wellington, but: familiarity, fresh air, fresh food, feminism, free speech, ocean, bush walks, coffee, friendly people, an amazing creative scene, record stores, book shops, great venues, op shops, brunch, Vogel’s, bird song, chill pace and cultural diversity. But on the other hand: generally shit weather, increasing inequality, binge drinking culture and that awful macho bullshit behavior that can come with it. When I was back in Wellington last month I saw they’d literally constructed a pen on Courtenay Place to hold all the drunken rugby fans. Then this wasted white guy came up to me reeking of alcohol and was like “ni how ching chong?” I was so shocked, not because of the racism but just because I’d kind of forgotten I was Asian. I don’t have people constantly reminding me I’m Asian in China.
Do you think you will ever come back to New Zealand to live? Why/why not?
New Zealand is my home and will always have my heart. I will probably return in the future but for now I love the excitement and momentum of life in China. Now when I visit NZ I am more aware of the challenges Chinese people might encounter, little things often to do with language. Menus in China tell you exactly what the food is in four characters. In New Zealand, dishes can have some weird hipster name with no relation to the actual food, then like three lines of fancy ingredient description. In the future, I hope to be able to help people bridge some of those cultural gaps. I think that’s why I love working in music, because it's a language of its own.
Any other comments about literally anything?
It is so important for Asian people and People of Colour to voice their opinions, speak their minds and tell their stories, because if we don’t who else will? Like black American writer Barbara Christian said: “If black women don't say who they are, other people will say it badly for them”. We shouldn't just sit around waiting for the dominant culture to acknowledge us or throw us a token segment on TV or in print; we need to build our own audiences with our own voices.