惠靈頓竹枝詞: Wellington Bamboo Branch Songs

惠靈頓竹枝詞 : Wellington Bamboo Branch Songs is a collection of eighteen poems originally written for and printed in the NZ Growers Journal between 1967-69 by its third editor, Lionel Chan, under the pseudonym 葉飄零 (Falling Leaves).

These poems, about to be re-printed by Wai-te-ata Press in  Wellington, form part of a long tradition of diasporic verse published in NZ newspapers and feature an innovative blending of dialect forms. Graeme Acton went along to a special Moon Festival celebration at Wai-te-ata Press.

Chinese vegetable growers — and their role in New Zealand history — became prominent in 1943 when Labour Prime Minister Peter Fraser asked Chinese farmers across the country to supply vegetables for Allied troops in the Pacific as part of the war effort.

As a result, the New Zealand Chinese Growers’ Association (later to be known as the Dominion Federation of New Zealand Chinese Commercial Growers) was formed as a central body to co-ordinate this huge cooperative, and to liaise with officials. Its history is told in books Success through Adversity, by historian Nigel Murphy, and Sons of Soil by  Lily Lee and Ruth Lam.

To help with communication across the association, a newsletter was distributed among the hundreds of farms and market gardens. This publication was the New Zealand Chinese Growers Monthly Journal and soon became the voice of the Chinese community across the country. It provided Chinese growers with information on farming, modern methods of cultivation, and the use of machinery.

The journal was originally hand-written and then cyclostyled (stencil copied) on a Gestetner machine. 

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A front page from the Growers Journal set up for printing/ photo AMC

It was later published on an offset printing press using lead types — all imported from Hong Kong at a cost of £4,000, a huge investment at twice the growers’ association’s annual operating budget.

The journal was initially a success, as market gardens grew from strength to strength. By the 1960s, Chinese growers were producing 80 percent of the country's green-leaf vegetables.

However, with the war long ended, the relevance and the future of the Chinese Growers’ Association came into question.

In a Cold War environment, the New Zealand government of the day held a general assimilation policy. It didn’t help that the journal was found to contain more political and overseas items than articles on agriculture.

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A copy of the Growers Journal from 1967, with Lionel Chan's poetry featuring at top left / photo AMC

In June 1960, following a ministerial letter, the association decided to stop reporting any politics. 

Instead, the journal was revamped so that only matters related to agriculture, Chinese business and community events, and New Zealand news would be published.

The third and last editor of the journal was Wellington's Lionel Chan,  an accomplished poet, calligrapher, and photographer. 

He decided the journal would also carry poetry. Poems he would write himself.

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Wai-te-ata Press researcher and curator, Ya-Wen Ho

Now, some of those poems are seeing the light of day again, courtesy of the Wai-te-ata Press at Victoria University in Wellington.

Curator Ya-Wen Ho had the job of typesetting and printing a keepsake of one stanza from one poem, a tricky process involving meticulous matching of metal type.

"We have about a tonne of type we had to sort out when the press was restored," she says, "We had nine different fonts, and about 300, 000 individual pieces of type which weren't all quite where we thought they were."  

While just one stanza has been printed so far, the project is at a very early stage and Ho says Wai-te-ata will be working closely with the Chinese community in Wellington on text translations, setting the type, and publishing the book.

"Good things take time and we're wanting to gauge what the community can help with, and how they would like to shape the project as we go through," she says.

Poem script2Stanza Four, Poem 1 of Wellington Bamboo Branch Songs / photo AMC

 Translation of Stanza Four , Poem 1 ( above )

 Monday and Thursday are the big fruit and vegetable days.

No need to put your hand up, there’s always plenty of bananas and oranges.

Husband goes to pick up the produce, wife stays and looks after the shop.

Two people working confidently together, this is the way to a successful business.

 (Translated by Colin Lee)

Today the types used by Lionel Chan and his family remain New Zealand's only surviving set of original Chinese printing types for use in a traditional printing press. It's now a permanent part of the Wai-te-ata Press, serving as a focus for further community-based research into the history of Chinese-New Zealand print culture.

Academic Duncan Campbell, a teaching fellow in Chinese at Victoria University, notes that the type will provide a better understanding of the various trajectories of the Chinese-New Zealand diaspora.

“The more that it becomes visible, the more that we will learn about its workings and about the community that it served and which it helped form," he says.

"Projects like this are exactly where we should be looking for new insights into the Chinese diaspora experience in this country."

 [Banner photograph: NZ Chinese Growers Journal Editor Lionel Chan]

- Asia Media Centre