New Zealand and China: An unofficial 180 years of history

Andy Boreham
Today I'll guide you through some key moments in history regarding relations between China and my home country, New Zealand.
Andy Boreham

Directed by Andy Boreham. Subtitles by Wang Zhaolong.

Today, December 22, 2022, is the anniversary of 50 years of official relations between China and my home country, New Zealand. Unofficial relations, though, have been going on for much, much longer. Did you know the first naturalized Chinese immigrant to New Zealand arrived there just two years after the country's founding document was signed? Today I'll guide you through some key moments in history regarding relations between these two nations, including many of the dark chapters, as well as the highlights.

Exactly 50 years ago today, on December 22, 1972, New Zealand formerly recognized the People's Republic of China and an agreement was signed between the two sides.

Now, nearly 5% of New Zealand's population identify as Chinese, with nearly 250,000 recorded at the 2018 census. Mandarin is now the 4th most spoken language there, and Chinese New Zealanders are now among the most wealthy and highly educated in the entire country.

But we need to go back 180 years to discover when unofficial relations began, to just two years after the signing of New Zealand's founding document, the te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi.)


It was October 25, 1842 when New Zealand's first naturalized Chinese immigrant, Appo Hocton – or 黄鹤廷 – arrived in Nelson on the ship Thomas Harrison.

Appo left China at the age of 9 to work on British ships as a cabin boy and steward. He must have liked what he saw when he arrived in New Zealand that day, because he decided to desert the ship and was jailed for 30 days before being released and eventually becoming a successful property developer, merchant and farmer. In 1852, 20 years after arriving, he officially became a Kiwi citizen, married twice and had four children. Officials at the time described him as "literate, astute, hardworking, and respectable."

Appo died on September 26, 1920, at around the age of 100.

New Zealand and China: An unofficial 180 years of history

New Zealand's first naturalized Chinese immigrant, Appo Hocton – or 黄鹤廷 – arrives in Nelson on the ship Thomas HarrisonIt on October 25, 1842.


Greater numbers of Chinese started arriving in the 1860s during the biggest gold strike: the Otago Gold Rush. Around 18,000 foreign gold miners showed up hoping to get lucky, many of whom were from China's Guangdong Province. Chinese numbers reached their peak around 1871, at about 4,200. Unfortunately, owing to their different physical appearance and strong work ethic, Chinese were discriminated against by others miners which, together with their lack of English language skills, meant they were forced to separate from other miners and set up their own communities.


By 1871 there were about 25 Chinese communities set up in Central Otago and on the West Coast, where I was born. They had everything required for daily life, including shops, hotels, and doctors, all run by the Chinese community. Unfortunately, though, by this time discrimination against the group reached a fever pitch, and they were increasingly referred to as the Yellow Peril because of the economic threat they posed.

New Zealand and China: An unofficial 180 years of history


In 1881, the first anti-Chinese law was passed in New Zealand, the Chinese Immigrants' Act, which introduced a poll tax on Chinese immigrants and Chinese immigrants alone. Each arrival from China had to pay £10, and only one Chinese immigrant was allowed for every 10 tons of cargo. In 1896, that was changed to one Chinese for every 200 tons, and the tax was increased to an astonishing £100, which would be about NZ$20,000 today.


In 1903, the Qing Dynasty set up a consulate in Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand, to deal with governmental matters between the two sides.


One of the darkest moments in New Zealand-China history happened in 1905 when a retired Chinese miner, Joe Kum Yung, was murdered by white supremacist Lionel Terry in Wellington's Haining Street, then a bustling Chinatown.

Joe was born in Guangdong and, by the time of his murder, had already lived in New Zealand for 25 years.

Lionel, a British immigrant who had literally just arrived in New Zealand, headed to the capital to try and convince the government to stop immigration from China and East Asia. After failing to do so, he headed to Chinatown on September 24 and shot Joe from behind. The next day, Lionel went to the police and told them: "I have come to tell you that I am the man who shot the Chinaman in the Chinese quarters of the city last evening. I take an interest in alien immigration and I took this means of bringing it under the public notice."

He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and spent the rest of his life locked in a mental asylum, where he died in 1952.

New Zealand and China: An unofficial 180 years of history


On April 21, 1927, Kiwi Rewi Alley first arrived on the Chinese mainland, stepping off a ship in Shanghai. Rewi would go on to life the remaining 60 years of his life in China, making massive contributions to the building of the New China, to world peace, and to the building of relations between the two countries. He died in Beijing in 1987, and remains to this day a key symbol of the New Zealand-China friendship. I've spent the last few years studying his history and tracing his steps around the country: please check out my Rewi Alley documentary – a work in progress – at the link below.

New Zealand and China: An unofficial 180 years of history

New Zealand writer and educator Rewi Alley met with Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong in 1966.


New Zealand's racist Chinese Immigration Act, which unfairly taxed Chinese immigrants to the country, was repealed in 1944.


It was on December 22, 1972 when China and New Zealand began their official ties, signing a joint agreement governing that relationship. In 1973, John Walding was the first New Zealand minister to visit China where he met with Premier Zhou Enlai.


From 1987, New Zealand's immigration policy, which until then favored British nationals, switched to being more skills-based. This led to a huge influx of Chinese immigration and a sharp increase of Chinese-Kiwis in the population. Today, Chinese-Kiwis make up around 5% of the population.


In 2002, then-Prime Minister Helen Clark issued a formal apology to New Zealand's Chinese population for the racist attitudes and policies they endured from the late-19th century until the mid-20th century. She said: "While the governments which passed these discriminatory laws acted in a manner which was lawful at the time, their actions are seen by us today as unacceptable. We believe an act of reconciliation is required to ensure that full closure can be reached on this chapter in our nation's history."

The Prime Minister said she hoped the formal government apology could mark the beginning of a formal process of reconciliation with the Chinese community.


In April 2008, New Zealand became the first developed country in the world to sign a free trade agreement with China, signaling the next step in relations between the two nations. Under the agreement, trade between China and New Zealand, both ways, is largely tax free and opened up many more opportunities for closer cooperation.

The agreement was signed in Beijing at the Great Hall of the People by New Zealand's Trade Minister Phil Goff and China's Minister of Commerce Chen Deming.


Today, China is New Zealand's largest trading partner, and a close friend on the global stage. Kiwi exports to China have quadrupled since the free trade agreement was signed in 2008, reaching NZ$21.45 billion dollars by the end of 2021. You'd be hard pressed to find a single person in China who didn't know about the safety and quality of New Zealand goods, especially its milk and other dairy products.

While the global situation has become tense over the past few years, New Zealand and China have endeavored to keep communications open and trade flowing. Just a few months ago, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and President Xi Jinping met in Thailand where they confirmed the importance of the relationship and looked forward to working together even closer in the future.

So there you have it: as New Zealand and China celebrate 50 years of official relations, it's useful to look back 180 years and remember all of the history – some shocking and some heart-warming – that led to where the two countries are today.

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