Opinion & Analysis

NZ's racism against Asians

Marching in the streets in support of controversial causes is a tightly-held right for all New Zealanders, and while marches can bring issues out into the public eye, Portia Mao finds the issue of racism against Asian New Zealanders is not always discussed openly. Within the Chinese-New Zealand community, she discovers a divide between first generation immigrants and following generations on how these issues are perceived.

Hundreds of people turned up to a rally against anti-Asian racism in Auckland on March 27, most of them young Asians who grew up in New Zealand.

Compared to their parents, the second - and following - generation of Chinese immigrants to this country seem better equipped to speak up against racism.

People’s views on racism are largely dependent on their own personal experience and identity: for the first generation of immigrants from China, they often find New Zealand is their adopted country with no systematic discrimination, and all people enjoy the same democratic rights. This first generation tends to be grateful for what they have achieved in New Zealand.

Almost every Chinese immigrant can tell one or more heart-warming stories about their interaction with kind-hearted Kiwi friends, colleagues or neighbours. For example, speaking with one Chinese woman, she told me of a Kiwi couple, her long-term good friends, who took her to Fiji for a free holiday.

On the other hand, the second generation, born in New Zealand and with English as their first language, identify more as Kiwis. This identity is based on their cultural background rather than the colour of their skin.

However, they are often frustrated by being treated as “Asians”.

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Anti racism protestors in Auckland last weekend / photo Portia Mao

Some readers may remember a story that made the news in 2019, of a young Asian woman who was offended by “racist service” after she and her Asian friends were referred to as 'Asians' on a receipt from a west Auckland café. She said labelling a group by their ethnicity was racist and appalling.

But first-generation Chinese immigrants are likely to have different opinions about the incident.

For example, take Mr Gao, a businessman who told me ”the labelling is not racist as long as you are not treated differently because of your ethnicity.”

For many Chinese immigrants, “Asian” is simply a neutral word. However, their children may believe their parents are naïve to think like that.

One reason could be the young generation are more aware of the negative meaning the words imply when people talking about “Asian drivers” or “Asian buyers”.

Martin, a Chinese IT technician in his late twenties, told his dad that “my generation is ashamed to be Asian.”. He says his dad’s generation is “too naïve to understand the identity of Asians in the west.” 

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Protestors at Auckland's Aotea Square / photo Portia Mao

An unwillingness to be identified as Asian by some in the second generation suggests discrimination against Asians does exist in New Zealand, more or less.

The second generation has a better sense of individual and group rights due to the democratic social background into which they were born, while the first generation tends to perceive things from a historical point of view.

Many in the first generation have memories of being treated unfairly by authorities in their homeland and they embrace New Zealand culture and its social system whole-heartedly.

When encountering occasional racial abuse like people telling them to  “go back to your own country “, they tend to regard it as individual behaviour rather than an underlying social issue.  It is true Asian immigrants sometimes talk about a “glass ceiling” and how to break the barrier affecting members of minorities from advancing in a profession, for example

But the discussion usually ends up more along the lines of 'let’s work harder to prove ourselves', or 'let’s be more open to express ourselves.' The first generation tends to pay more attention to integrating into New Zealand society and making great efforts to live with New Zealand values.

But for the second generation, who more often identify as Kiwi, they are more confident in expressing their dissatisfaction.

Martin tried to persuade his parents to attend the rally by saying “the protest is not about the hate crimes, it is about uniting as Asian people.” 


"Asians must first unite and identify ourselves proudly"


He says however, his dad didn't see New Zealand as being pervaded by racism, the way some protesters believe. Instead, he felt New Zealand was a land with a spirit of compassion and inclusivity.

Collin, a Chinese immigrant who works in the New Zealand government, says the best way to stop Asian hate is through love - “loving your neighbour,  loving your community, being kind and helping those in need.”

But to Martin, the attitude of his dad’s generation shows “the weakness and submissiveness of Asians”.

The organisers of the protest on March 27 said the protest was a show of solidarity with Asian-Americans after the March 16 spa shootings in Atlanta that killed eight people, six of them Asian-American. 

In general, I found the first generation of Chinese immigrants were not enthusiastic about attending the march. As a Chinese writer said in an article published before the march, he didn’t think the racial discrimination in New Zealand is serious enough for a march in Queen Street.

He would rather the organisers held a seminar to discuss racial issues with government officials, officials from the Human Rights Commission and academics.  On the other hand, some Chinese immigrants fear a march may provoke far-right extremists or be taken advantage of by someone who is interested in rubbishing New Zealand democracy by claiming New Zealand is a racist country.    

No matter how differently the two generations in the Chinese community may think about racism, both of them are safe to express themselves.

That is one of the good things about being a New Zealander. 


Banner photo : Protestors at Auckland rally 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

- Asia Media Centre