Voices of Asian Aotearoa: The power of language

Can you speak Chinese? 

Or more specifically, can you speak Mandarin, or Hokkien, or Cantonese, or any number of dialects spoken within China, Taiwan, Malaysia, New Zealand?   

Beneath a statement like ‘speaking Chinese’ are layers and layers of languages, dialects, histories and communities.  

Take Ya-Wen Ho for example: a 1.5 generation New Zealander, born in Taipei, with Mandarin as her mother tongue, even though her mother’s mother tongue is Hakka. 

The poet and Wai-te-ata Press researcher told the story of why her mother tongue was different as part of a new initiative out of Te Papa, called Voices of Asian Aotearoa. 

She sat down to talk about it on camera, in Mandarin, in the first of four planned videos featuring people from different Chinese communities talking about their lives and their languages. 

“The project felt urgent and timely, and I remember I said yes easily,” she says.  

Te Papa’s curator of Asian New Zealand Histories Grace Gassin has been working behind the scenes to launch the initiative on July 28. Ho’s video – and other planned ones focusing on Cantonese, Hokkien and Hakka - will be released as the first project, called Chinese Languages in Aotearoa, under the wider Voices initiative. Other Asian-Aotearoa communities will follow. 

Gassin knew a project like this had been a long time coming.  

“I guess [this project] comes from this idea that for a lot of people in Chinese communities, there is a desire to recognise that ‘Chinese’ is not one homogenous group,” Gassin says.  

“I'm of Malaysian-Chinese heritage so I've been having these conversations for quite a long time with different people."  

Ya-Wen Ho, left, at work in Wai-te-ata Press with Te Papa's Grace Gassin, centre, looking on. Image: Supplied/Te Papa

Gassin and Ho met in 2019, during the Australasian Dragon Tails conference discussing Chinese diaspora history and heritage. Since then, Ho says they kept talking, expanding into deeper yarns about their own whakapapa and language journeys and their shared hopes between their various kaupapa.   

So naturally, when Gassin asked Ho if she wanted to join Te Papa’s project on Chinese languages, she said yes.  

"I think it's important that our national museum champions the stories of our diverse Asian communities,” Ho says, “Also, when Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta talked about New Zealand's trade relationship with China 'maturing', the word 'maturing' stuck with me.” 

Ho wondered whether kōrero around Chinese-New Zealanders could mature the same way, especially at a time when much of New Zealand’s media coverage on China focused on foreign policy and trade, rather than people. 

Ya-Wen Ho at Wai-te-ata Press. Image: Supplied/Te Papa

This is where Shijia Chen comes in – filmmaker and producer, and the one who interviewed Ho for her video. 

On Chen’s side, she knew she wanted to be involved with Voices of Asian Aotearoa right from the start. Originally, she heard of the Te Papa initiative when a friend was looking for someone who spoke Hokkien to take part. Chen volunteered but discovered her dialect (Fuzhou福州话,) is quite different from the Hokkien dialect most spoken in New Zealand.  

So instead of being interviewed, Chen drew on her experiences working on the reality show Voice of China, to help on the filming and interviewing side.  

Chinese languages are charming and complicated,” she says, “When I’m in China, I was used to Mandarin and the fact that we have countless dialects. But even back home, not everyone understands each other's languages.  

She found New Zealanders were curious about Chinese languages and the different dialects, accents and pronunciations between them.  

Shijia Chen, left, worked as a filmmaker and producer in the first video of the Chinese language project. Image: Supplied/Te Papa

“Language is a tool. Throughout thousands of years of history, there have been different languages and different language policies at different times, and the stories behind these have all been different,” Chen says.  

Coming into filming, Ho had a long list of things she wanted to talk about. But ultimately, she had to boil it down to a few key points in her life – one of which was her own family’s history of language as a tool.  

Ho’s mother tongue is Mandarin, but her mum grew up speaking Hakka. The reason their mother languages differ traces back through Taiwan’s history, to 1949 when martial law was declared by the national government. 

As Ho explains in the video, at the time the government “brought in a lot of colonial policies, especially in terms of language.” 

Chen and Ho had a lot of topics they covered in the course of making the video. Image: Supplied/Te Papa

For decades, Mandarin was the preferred language, and you could be punished or lose out on jobs for speaking your own dialect. So, Ho’s mother put down her Hakka and picked up Mandarin instead.  

This is one of many stories Ho talked with Chen on and between talks on Ho’s work at Wai-te-ata Press, her life, and her struggle to find a mental health professional who'd work with her in Mandarin, they ended up with two hours of footage, which needed to be edited down to six minutes.  

“It was an opportunity for me to think very strategically about what felt most essential, and where the gaps in our collective storytelling might be,” Ho says. 

The Chinese language project, the first under the Voices of Asian Aotearoa initiative, will look at different Chinese languages and communities in New Zealand. Image: Supplied/Te Papa

Ho’s video is now live on Te Papa’s website and filming for the next video – an interview in Hokkien with Tee Phee, owner of restaurant Little Penang - is underway.  

For Gassin, she’s hoping the project can both educate people unfamiliar with Chinese languages while making Chinese-New Zealanders feel seen. 

“There's something in it for everyone - some people might be surprised to see a representation of Hakka culture at Te Papa. Or there might be someone who clicks on to the page and thinks 'oh I've never seen that before.'  

Alongside the videos, the Voices of Asian Aotearoa initiative will invite people to share their own stories, focus on the conversations around staying connected to your language, and share stories of objects in the museum’s collection that relates to Asian history in Aotearoa.  

 To read more about the Voices of Asian Aotearoa initiative and keep up to date on its projects, check out the website here. The initiative is also calling for project illustrators interested in helping out with the project.

Check out Ya-Wen Ho and Wai-te-ata Press's work with Chinese-New Zealand communities too, in the Chinese heritage type project, with an open invitation to the community to help translate a series of Cantonese and Mandarin poems into English

- Asia Media Centre