A precious collection of Chinese-New Zealand history has had a special airing at the National Library in Wellington, where historians have joined family members of the late Doris Chung to view a remarkable collection of items detailing the history of the Chee Kung Tong in New Zealand. Graeme Acton went along for a look.
Once a part of life for many Chinese in New Zealand, the Chee Kung Tong Society lost its members and faded away in the 1970’s, despite continuing to be a going concern in parts of the US, Canada, Asia, and Australia.
A “Tong” is the name for organisations established by Chinese migrants communities across the world.
In Chinese the word means “hall” or “gathering place”, often involving sworn brotherhoods, and sometimes involving Chinese crime gangs, or triads.
The Chee Kung Tong ( “Society for the Public Good” in Cantonese) was one of the first established in mainland China, following the overthrow of the Ming Dynasty by the Manchurian Qing in the 1600’s.
“Up with the Ming, down with the Qing” was their catch-cry, with the Chee Kung Tong setting up as an underground organisation based in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, the home of many future migrants to the US, Canada , Australia and New Zealand..
The society’s history in this country goes back to around 1900, as many members decided to leave their their homeland – for places like New Zealand.
In Wellington, the Chee Kung Tong was an integral part of the Chinese migrant world, with dozens of members, and their own building, which opened on Frederick Street in 1925.
It also worked hard to rid itself of the “triad” label, which drew suspicion and distrust from many New Zealanders, who saw the society as a dangerous criminal threat.
In 1919 the name was changed to the “Chinese Masonic Society“, although there was never any real link to the by then well-established Freemasons movement in New Zealand, despite the adoption of some parts of the Freemason regalia.
“ Auntie Doris was moving from her home in Jessie Street, and inside these boxes was this amazing collection of objects once owned by the Chee Kung Tong .. silk banners, flags, emblems, stamps, and even Cantonese musical instruments” she says.
“Her husband’s uncle was a key member at one time.” she says.
With help from Chinese historian and museum curator Nigel Murphy, the chests and their contents became part of the Doris Chung Collection at the Alexander Turnbull Library, a priceless archive of Chinese life in this country.
Nigel Murphy says the story of the Chee Kung Tong in New Zealand is a fascinating one, and a subject still being researched.
“It’s a remarkable collection have and we’re very lucky to have it.” he says.
That’s a view shared by Victoria University Cultural Historian Duncan Campbell, who has done extensive research into the demise of the Ming dynasty at the hands of the Qing, and the period in which the Chee Kung Tong was created.
He says the archive material held by the library is a rarity outside China. “This collection is of on-going interest to international scholars of Chinese history .. it’s a really extraordinary treasure trove.” he says.
“With collections like this at the National Library, and in both Dunedin and Auckland we have an extraordinary archive of material on the Chinese- New Zealand historical experience.” says Duncan Campbell.
“In part, this has been the result the efforts of certain individuals, in Dunedin, James Ng and Eva Wong, here in Wellington, Nigel Murphy, Kirsten,Wong and so on, working with interested institutions.”
“The history of the various Chinese communities of New Zealand is comparatively short one, but in some respects the archives are more complete and comprehensive than those elsewhere, and certainly better preserved and more accessible.”
“In Wellington, the Doris Chung collection at the Turnbull, and the Chinese Growers typeface collection at Wai-te-ata Press at Victoria are probably the real treasures”.
For Kirsten Wong, the Doris Chung collection remains a living history, a tangible link connecting her family back to an earlier time in New Zealand, when Chinese families faced significant challenges just in surviving, and finding their feet in a raw and often difficult new home.
“The collection as a whole has become hugely important, with diasporic studies increasing around the world” she says.
“ It’s still revealing its secrets” she adds. ...“There are loads of stories still to tell.”
( Banner image shows badges used by Chinese Masons, adapted from those used by the Freemasons)
- Asia Media Centre