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Second-Generation Chinese Youth—Kiwi and American

A Reader Responds

My immediate reaction to reading about the second-generation Chinese in New Zealand in the 2022 summer issue of ChinaSource Quarterly1 was that it shares numerous similarities with the experience of second-generation Chinese in America, especially from the 1960s to the 1980s. Prior to 1965, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had limited the annual number of Chinese immigrants allowed into the United States. Similarly, New Zealand imposed harsh restrictions on the Chinese with the Chinese Immigrants Act of 1881, including the levying of a poll tax.

Even after the Exclusion Act in America was overturned in 1943, a quota system was still in place which severely restricted the entry of Chinese immigrants. It wasn’t until after the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act in 1965 that the Chinese population swelled.

The life issues presented in this article were also very prevalent in America at a time when Asians were vastly outnumbered:

  • Casual racism (How many older immigrants grew up without hearing taunts such as “chink,” “ching chong,” or were mocked with slanted eye gestures?)
  • Conformity to a dominant culture (“Speak English—this is America.” “Eewww, what’s that smell? What are you eating for lunch?” Or being ignored in the classroom or the playground because you were not white.)
  • Not belonging (Experiencing marginalization in the world and, to some extent, even at home, being hybrid, bi-cultural individuals, having no firm place on which to stand.)

The description of church teaching (and probably home teaching) by the authors is more than vaguely familiar. “Honor your parents, study hard, do well in school, be obedient, follow the rules and don’t bring shame upon your family!” Meanwhile, the spiritual issues confronting the second generation as they grew up were ignored.

The over-reliance on older youth to disciple others at a time when they themselves should be discipled by more seasoned Christians also rings a bell. I began teaching Sunday School to younger teens when I was in high school. There were few older adults who could speak English without an accent and who could understand our cultural experiences growing up in America and give us guidance. As the authors note, “If the harvest is plentiful among the second generation, the laborers are certainly few.”

Their prescription for advancing second-generation ministry and moving the church from a mono-ethnic to a multilingual ministry echoes advice that has been given for a few generations in the United States. The biblical foundation they advocate from 1 Corinthians, unity rather than uniformity, is certainly on target. However, if the example from North America is a prognosticator of the future, the departure of English-speaking younger members from their Chinese-heritage churches may well continue and even snowball.

Philosopher George Santayana’s quotation, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is often paraphrased as, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Will Chinese churches in New Zealand learn from those who have already traveled down this road?

My observation is that Chinese church leaders are reluctant to call on a church consultant for advice, especially from those who are not first-generation like themselves. To do so would be to admit that they do not know what they are doing, and that would be a loss of face.

As the parent generation, they are expected to know best how to raise their children. Moreover, Confucian philosophy presents a hierarchical model of leadership with the young respecting their elders. To give equal standing and “mutual respect” to the younger generation, as the writers advocate using the illustration of parallel railroad tracks separated by the ties, will not be easily accomplished. The status of equality has often come only after long, contentious, and costly battles in Asian American churches.

The more common scenario is for second-generation Asians to leave in a “silent exodus” as described in an article published in 1996.2 That was the outcome of the situation of the Chinese and Asian churches from the 1960s to the 1980s. When the youth grew up, they largely left, although some did remain behind to continue to serve in their multi-generational immigrant churches.

The transition to English-speaking Kiwi churches or parachurch ministries is already taking place as youth find their spiritual needs better met there. The smaller size of the typical New Zealand Chinese church (an average of 100) also makes it more difficult for the younger generation to stay. The lack of a critical mass of young adults sufficient to have a thriving community is yet another obstacle to remaining in the church that initially nurtured their spiritual development.

Churches in the States that are situated in communities where there are few Asians also have a difficult time retaining their youth. And churches that are smaller in size, regardless of where they are geographically located, encounter this same obstacle.

Zhou Bin’s article in this same issue, “Chinese Churches in New Zealand Today,” forecasts exponential growth in the Chinese population over the next 20 years. The number of Chinese will grow from 247,000 to 500,000. The unstable political situation in Hong Kong may spur even greater immigration to New Zealand. While this population trend will undoubtedly be a boon to Chinese churches, it is no guarantee that the trajectory of the second-generation in these churches will change.

In the United States, multi-Asian church plants and multi-ethnic churches have emerged as attractive spiritual homes for the English-speaking Chinese.3 It would not be surprising for this to be a future development in New Zealand for the growing number of Chinese Kiwis.

Having served in immigrant Chinatown churches over the course of four decades of ministry, my heart remains with Chinese-heritage churches. I pray that the lessons learned and the parallels with North America will be beneficial to our brethren on the other side of the world.


  1. See William H. C. and Rev. E. Ting Wong “Reaching the Second Generation” in the Summer 2022 issue of ChinaSourceQuarterly.
  2. Helen Lee, “Silent Exodus,” Christianity Today, August 12, 1996, 50-53.
  3. Helen Lee, “Silent No More,” Christianity Today, October 6, 2014, 38–47.
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Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is the Associate Director of the Global Diaspora Institute at Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. He has served at the largest Chinese churches in New York City and Chicago. He has also been a seminary professor at several institutions and has written for both the academic and ministry …View Full Bio

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