Although the number of Chinese who have become Christians in Aotearoa1 New Zealand has never been particularly large, the impact and influence of the Christian church on the Chinese communities in this country has been significant. Chinese and European Christians have consistently presented the good news of Jesus to the Chinese and have offered them practical assistance. Up to the 1950s, Christian missionaries at their best presented reliable, first-hand perspectives of events in China and of the Chinese. They have informed and altered public attitudes, often towards more positive views. The churches have also provided places for all to meet, which in turn allowed for positive interaction between Pākehā, Māori, and Chinese.
Over recent decades, there has been increasing interest in the history of the settlement of Chinese people in Aotearoa New Zealand.2 However, there has been less research on the impact of Christian mission and ministry among the Chinese community here.3 In this article, I will attempt to identify some key themes and offer some suggestions for new lines for further research.
In 1865, the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce invited Chinese goldminers in Victoria, Australia to come to Otago to work the goldfields. The Chinese were known as being hard workers and skillful at finding gold, and the intention was to stimulate the regional economy. Notably, Chinese women were neither invited nor permitted to come to New Zealand until the 1940s. This policy was born out of a fear of China and the Chinese “taking over New Zealand” if they were to settle here.4 During the 1890s, a “poll tax” was imposed on Chinese arriving here to limit numbers.5
Until the 1890s, the Chinese population in New Zealand was mainly located in Otago and Southland and on the West Coast of the South Island. When the gold ran out, many of the Chinese did not return to China as expected but drifted north to Wellington and to the surrounding market gardening areas.6 Later, many moved to the Auckland area.
Public Attitudes towards the Chinese
For decades, while the Chinese were admired for their hard work and thrift, they were often perceived to be too successful in business. They seemed to dominate vital industries, such as market gardening and food supplies. Moreover, the Chinese were thought to be unsanitary and dishonest. In 1895, The Observer claimed that the Chinese vegetable sellers were washing their vegetables in filthy water that ran out of the local sewerage ponds in the Arch Hill area in Auckland, and out from the Symonds Street cemetery. This allegedly contributed to the “exceptional prevalence” of diseases at the time. The editor wrote, “But this is what we can reasonably expect from the Mongolian invasion. We give the preference to Chinese-grown vegetables, because they are larger and juicier than those grown by Europeans, but we ignore the fact that the Chinese product is forced from a bed of filth.”7
For Christians there is “neither Jew nor Gentile” in Jesus Christ, no Pākehā, Māori or Chinese, “for you are all one in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:28). So, in 1805, Robert Morrison, the first Christian missionary to China, arrived in Macau from Britain.8 Thousands of New Zealand Christians followed. Mary Moore, to take one outstanding example, left for China in 1896, and served there for 51 years.9 During their visits back in New Zealand, missionaries often spoke to large groups and their first-hand reports often significantly influenced public opinion of China and the Chinese. In 1950, Miss Eileen Reid returned to Auckland after training Chinese nurses in a missionary hospital for over 20 years. She was reported in the New Zealand Press as saying: “the Chinese girls made excellent nurses. They were very clean and were particularly good at looking after children.”10
Mission to the Chinese in New Zealand
The challenge of cross-cultural mission was always here in Aotearoa New Zealand. In 1848, the first settlers arrived in Dunedin and built their iconic Presbyterian churches in the style that they had known in Scotland. However, Māori people were living in the nearby village of Ōtākou, from which we get the name Otago. A mere 18 years later, the first Chinese gold miners stepped ashore and within a few years, there were 2,000 Chinese miners in the region.
In 1871, the Presbyterian Church in Otago called Paul Ah Chin from the mission in Victoria to work among the Chinese miners. Ah Chin was intelligent, witty, and effective. In 1873, at a meeting in Lawrence, he noted the saying that there were too many coaches and too many churches in Lawrence. However, if everyone went to church, there would not be enough churches, he said, which was met with applause. He also said that “there should be an interchange of Christian kindness between the European and Chinese Christians” and quoted Ephesians 3:15 where the whole earth is referred to as one family.11 By 1873, he had baptized six new Christians. In 1879, the church also appointed a young European, Alexander Don, to work among the goldminers.12
The mission to the Chinese in Auckland began in 1893 with a group of 12 European Christians. In Wellington and on the West Coast of South Island, mission work to the Chinese was supported by the “Christian Endeavour Movement,” a remarkable youth movement of the time.13 In the mid-1890s, Chinese missioners were called from Australia and Hong Kong to the West Coast, Wellington, and Auckland.
General attitudes towards Chinese people, however, remained ambivalent. Sir George Grey supported the Auckland mission by saying that he would rather that the Chinese were not here, but since they were, we should share the gospel with them.14 On the other hand, many Christians showed Jesus’ love and grace in abundance. Miss Emily Stone, for example, was a quiet, persistent, and gracious supporter of the Chinese people living on the West Coast of the South Island for over 20 years.15
Mission work has raised new challenges. Relatively few Chinese, in proportion to the population, have ever become Christian in New Zealand. They regarded the Christian faith as a religion for Western people. Christians have never quite answered the charge, “one more Christian, one less Chinese.” Moreover, the abusive behavior of many Western, allegedly Christian, people towards the Chinese did not reflect the love of Christ. Church leaders realized that large sections of the European settler community werealso a significant mission field.
However, those Chinese who did become Christians often had amazing stories. A miner named Ah Ming became a Christian through Paul Ah Chin’s ministry. When he died in 1890, the Tuapeka Times wrote: “his quiet cheerfulness made it a pleasure to know him, and his honesty and neighborliness made him a favorite of the Europeans of his acquaintance.”16
The period from 1900 to 1940 saw a fluctuating, uneven consolidation of mission to the Chinese. The poll tax, the prohibition on the entry of Chinese women, and hard and uncertain economic conditions made life difficult for the Chinese. In 1944, the poll tax was finally abolished. After 1949, the Communist takeover in China meant that Chinese immigrants could not return “home.” The Chinese Association of New Zealand and the Presbyterian Church successfully advocated for Chinese families, who were waiting overseas, to be allowed to settle in New Zealand permanently. From the 1950s forward, “Chinese missions” in New Zealand were gradually recognized as “Chinese churches.”17
A Seismic Change in Immigration
In 1987, the New Zealand government changed its immigration policy. People from around the world arrived under a new business and investment policy, including people from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea. Asian people were again invited but this time with their families and to stay permanently. Many of these migrants were already Christians.
The Auckland Taiwanese Presbyterian Church (ATPC) was begun in 1989 by a group of Christians who had been members of the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan. They looked for a “Kiwi” church in the eastern suburbs of Auckland where they could worship as Taiwanese people were settling there. St. Andrews Church of Howick welcomed them, and in 1991 the first Taiwanese minister arrived as assistant minister at St. Andrews. In 1995, ATPC became a member congregation of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand. In doing so, the ideals of the church as a multi-cultural body worshiping together in some ways clashed with that of a missional body set up to minister to a particular group of people in their own language and styles of worship. In 2017, ATPC opened its own church building on Pakuranga Road. ATPC continues to worship in the Taiwanese vernacular while many Taiwanese migrants chose to worship in Mandarin-speaking churches. Others joined English-speaking churches.
Many Asian churches were established independently of any local English-speaking churches. The Holy Word Church began in 1994 when Pastor Clement Man and a group of Cantonese-speaking Christians began meeting in his home. Pastor Man was supported by the Evangelize China Fellowship and met in school halls until 2006 when they opened their church in East Tamaki. In 2002, they began services in Mandarin, and in 2007, they began an English language service.18
The Auckland Chinese Presbyterian Church (ACPC) was founded in 1924 by Rev. William Mawson, and its first Chinese minister, Rev. Y. S. Chau, arrived in 1930. In the 1990s, ACPC’s Cantonese service was enriched by new members from Hong Kong. The English ministry had begun in the 1960s, and today ACPC has a non-Chinese pastor and understands itself to be a multicultural church with a Chinese ethos and history. It is about to open its new church building and start a Mandarin ministry.
The Power of Dynamic Christian Leaders
Over the decades, Chinese Christian leaders have provided articulate, well-educated, and powerful voices for the gospel.19 A remarkable number of the Chinese Consuls in New Zealand, representing the Kuomintang government, were Christians. Jackson Yue (1881–1955) was highly influential as was the impact of the visit of the great ecumenical leader K. T. Zoo in 1931.
In 1922, Mr. Ma Hsiao Chin, a member of the Chinese Parliament, visited Christchurch and spoke at Oxford Terrace Baptist Church. He was only 24 years of age. He spoke English eloquently and fluently to a large crowd of Europeans and Chinese. He stated that he was a Christian, that he had heard New Zealand was “God’s own country” and here he was in Christchurch!20
Despite early restrictions on the entry of women to New Zealand, the ministry of Chinese Christian women has been outstanding. Mrs. Mary Wong, the wife of Rev. Daniel Wong, was a tower of strength to Chinese women in Wellington from 1903 to 1925. Mrs. Chau in Auckland was a trained midwife and helped and comforted many Chinese women who were having their babies in a foreign land far from their families. She brought their other children to the manse for their baths and meals. Mrs. Chan, wife of Rev. W. K. Chan, moved into the house of a Buddhist family to care for sick family members. They were so impressed that they became Christians.21
The Chinese churches which were established after 1987 mostly did so under Chinese leadership without significant help from non-Chinese missionaries who had returned from China. Many rented schools and churches. As time has passed, ministry in Mandarin Chinese has become necessary as well as Cantonese. New areas of challenge have emerged.
Mission to migrants from China who have no experience of the Christian faith has provided a challenge. The 1.522 and second generation of church members who have grown up here in New Zealand have often struggled to maintain faith in congregations that have not changed or adapted to New Zealand life. Many Chinese churches have added English language services. Such developments require a new vision of what it means to be a “Chinese” church.
Most English-speaking congregations in the larger cities now have Chinese members and often have major ministries in Asian languages. This fact masks a harsh truth. The number of European people attending Christian church services has fallen drastically over the last few decades. Without their Asian (and Pacific Island) members, many of the historic Christian churches would be in far worse state than they are now.23
In conclusion, we give thanks for the amazing faith of those who have gone before us, both Chinese and European. We face challenges that will require the same degree of faith to overcome.
- “Aotearoa” is the name of New Zealand in the Māori language. “Pākehā” is the Māori term that refers to Kiwis of European descent but can sometimes refer to all non-Māori “foreigners” or “immigrants.”
- See as examples Windows on a Chinese Past by James Ng, vols. 1 to 4, Otago Heritage Books, 1993 and Fruits of Our Labours, Chinese Fruit Shops in New Zealand, vols 1 and 2 by Ruth Lam et al, Chinese Poll-Tax Heritage Trust, 2018. Works by Professor Emerita Manying Yip cover recent migration and Māori–Chinese relationships among other topics.
- There have, of course, been histories of particular congregations. In my book Rich Treasure in Alien Soil, which is expected to be published in late 2022, I try to take a wider look at the churches, Chinese people, and poll tax in Aotearoa New Zealand in the period 1865–1960.
- The exclusion of Chinese women is a story of loneliness and isolation. Some Chinese men did not see their wives for decades, if at all.
- A “poll tax” was a sum of money every Chinese person had to pay on arrival in New Zealand. It was set at 100 pounds, which was a great deal of money.
- Many miners felt that they had not earned enough money here and were embarrassed. China was also in turmoil during this decade and life, despite everything, was better here.
- “John and His Filthy Vegetables,” The Observer, Issue 855, May 18, 1895, p. 2, accessed May 17, 2022, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/TO18950522.214.171.124. The Chinese were often referred to as “John” at this time. Generally speaking, it can also be argued that the attitude in New Zealand to the Chinese was less harsh than was the case in Australia and Canada.
- See: T. H. Barrett, “A Bicentenary in Robert Morrison’s Scholarship on China and His Significance for Today,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 25, no. 4 (2015): 705–716, accessed May 17, 2022, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-the-royal-asiatic-society/article/abs/bicentenary-in-robert-morrisons-scholarship-on-china-and-his-significance-for-today/7CF7969BC3492E0E81A8A181BE71B51B.
- See “Moore, Mary Emelia” by Yvonne M. Wilkie in Teara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed May 17, 2022, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3m59/moore-mary-emelia#:~:text=Smith%2C%20a%20trained%20nurse%2C%20and,a%20mission%20established%20in%201878.
- “Current Notes,” The Press, October 19, 1950, p. 2, accessed May 17, 2022, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/CHP19501019.2.4.6. The influence of missionaries on public opinion regarding the Chinese and China needs further examination.
- “Wesleyan Church,” Tuapeka Times, December 20, 1873, p. 2, accessed May 17, 2022, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/TT18731220.2.8.
- See “Don, Alexander” by James Ng in Teara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed on May 17, 2022, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2d13/don-alexander. Don’s records of the Chinese in New Zealand are a primary source of information.
- The first Christian Endeavour Movement was formed at Ponsonby Baptist Church, Auckland, in 1892.
- New Zealand Herald, April 14, 1893, p. 3. Sir George Grey was a former Governor of New Zealand.
- Julia Bradshaw. Golden Prospects: Chinese on the West Coast of New Zealand (Greymouth, NZ: Shantytown (West Coast Historical and Mechanical Society), 2009), 97.
- Tuapeka Times, July 2, 1890, p. 2.
- Up to the 1950s, the mission to the Chinese in New Zealand sought to make Christians of the Chinese so that they could return to China and convert their own people.
- The Evangelize China Fellowship was begun in Shanghai in 1947 by Pastor Andrew Gih and is now based in California. See: https://holywordchurch.org.nz/en/about-us.
- The influence of visiting Chinese politicians and church leaders on the public perception and understanding of China and the Chinese would, in my view, be an excellent subject for a masters, or PhD student to pursue.
- The Press, August 17, 1922, p. 9.
- Personal interviews by the author.
- “1.5 generation” refers to people who immigrated to a new country as children or young teenagers. They maintain some ties with their country of origin but spent their formative years in the new country. Dr. Rubén G. Rumbaut is generally credited with inventing the term.
- The presence of Asian and Pacific Island members at worship is a point to be celebrated. The issue is that churches have been losing members who are of European descent at an alarming rate. Why this is the case is an issue beyond the scope of this article.
Image credit: Rev. W. K. and Mrs. Y. H. Chan Presbyterian Research Centre
Stuart Vogel completed a PhD in Auckland in translation studies, focusing on the translation of the Bible into Southern Min. He has written an article on the role of native assistants in the Union and Southern Min Versions in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society and published an article …View Full Bio