Harry Tam isn’t in the habit of revealing much about himself. But it’s been known for some years that he’s a patched member of the Mongrel Mob and, therefore, we can assume that he’s mostly, perhaps always, been up to no good. Or can we asssume that? Here’s Harry in his kōrero with Dale, setting the record straight.
Tēnā koe, Harry. It’s good to catch up with you. I want to delve into some of the things that make you tick, so I’ve taken the liberty of googling you. Most of the kōrero reflects your association with the Mongrel Mob, but, of course, you’re much more than that. So would you be kind enough to share some kōrero about your whakapapa lines and where you grew up?
I was born in Masterton. My folks owned a laundry there, but we moved to Wellington within the first year after I was born. They had a wee diner in Newtown, just across the road from the hospital.
Both my parents were Chinese. My father was brought over here by his extended whānau through marriage to work in a Chinese laundry in Dunedin. After a certain time, when he’d paid off his fare, they sent him back to China and he married my mum and then returned to New Zealand.
It wasn’t long after, around 1933, that war broke out in China, and Mum couldn’t get to New Zealand until after the revolution. So there was a long separation between my mum and my dad, which is why my two sisters and I are first-generation New Zealand-born Chinese. I’m the youngest of the three.
We didn’t have a normal upbringing, if you like to call it that. My father was probably one of the last opium users in the Chinese community in Wellington. Both my parents couldn’t speak English. We just spoke Chinese at home. So that made it tough, going to school with only two English words: “lollies” and “chocolate”.
I struggled at school. A lot of bullying from everyone. The old “ching-chong chinaman” stuff. Even to this day it touches a raw nerve with me.
At that time, Newtown was pretty multicultural, as it is still now. It was a working-class suburb. Mixed ethnicities, including Māori and Pacific people.
I went to Rongotai College eventually, and I can’t say that I had a good time there. I did reasonably well. I got a couple of subjects in School Cert and was the only one in my class to get in to the sixth form.
It was around that time — the ‘60s and the ‘70s, the time of the Vietnam War and the protest movement — that I became more politically aware. I started to read left-wing literature such as Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, where he describes the economics of capitalism, which I found fascinating.
About the second or third week of term in the sixth form, my form teacher pulled me aside and politely told me that there wasn’t going to be a cultural revolution at Rongotai College, and that I might consider leaving because it wasn’t the place for me.
All my mates were in the upper fifth form, and their form teacher was Bill Maung, a Burmese political refugee who’d come to New Zealand after the coup d’etat in Burma. He started a homework centre for my old mates, and I used to truck along there so I could hang out with them.
Then Bill started a community school, and I guess I took the cue from my form teacher that it was time to leave, so I went to the community school and helped Bill organise activities for the other kids there.
At that time, Bill was also working with Ngā Tamatoa to set up crash pads around Wellington for junior gang members — and it was through that contact with Bill that I became involved in the Mob. So, I can honestly say that my pathway into the Mongrel Mob was through my teacher.
And when I interacted with the Mob, I realised that I was reconnecting with some of my old schoolmates from Newtown. Back then, kids used to come to school, and all of a sudden they’d be gone.
It wasn’t till I grew older that I realised what was happening. Their families were struggling with accommodation. They were in rental accommodation, or whatever it was, and then they’d have to move to another property — and they’d no longer be at my school.
As well as running the community school, Bill had businesses, like newspaper agencies and delivering bread at night. They were a means of providing work for these young gangsters, and I was doing that as well. Bill used the proceeds from those businesses to fund people to do community and youth work.
He sounds like an interesting character.
Yeah, he was a very worldly man. He fought the British in the independence movement before the war, and then, during the war, he joined the British Army to fight the Japanese. And it was through that connection that he met Bernard Fergusson, who became a governor-general of New Zealand (from 1962–1967).
Bernard Fergusson arranged for Bill to migrate here. He asked Bill to work with young Māori, because they were having a rough time. This was the time of the government’s policy of assimilation, and the period of urban drift.
Bill started off as a teacher at Waihi College, and it was there that he met James K Baxter. Apparently, during the lunch break, they had a discussion about Buddhism, and James K invited Bill to the Jerusalem community to continue the discussion.
It was through that connection that Bill became involved with this concept of developing communities and working with hard-to-reach youth.
Back then, the big problem was heroin from Asia. A lot of the druggies would go to Jerusalem to try and cleanse themselves and rehabilitate. And Bill and others like Dennis O’Reilly came back into the cities and started to establish city-based communes and crash pads.
At that time, with urban drift, one of the consequences was that a lot of young Māori would come into the cities, live on the streets, and then be taken into state care. Then they’d run away and end up in the gangs.
So, I can honestly say my pathway into the Mob wasn’t one of crime. It has always been one of: “How do we develop people?”
That’s amazing, Harry. Thanks for sharing that. Can you talk a little bit now about your Chinese reo. Do you still maintain this? And what part of China do you connect to?
My parents are from Guangdong, which is part of Guanxiao now. I used to be fluent with our language. We’re part of the Sze-Yup dialect, which is a dialect of Cantonese and not a big dialect in New Zealand. It’s hard for other Chinese people, even Cantonese, to understand our accent and our language.
I don’t get to use my language very often since my parents have passed on. I could probably still hold a conversation with a Sze-Yup speaker, supplemented with some English words.
The bullying, Harry. Did you learn to stand up for yourself as a young guy?
Being physically small, I found it really tough standing up for myself. Most of the European and Island and Māori boys were a lot bigger than me.
One thing I learned was that, with the European boys, there was always a nastiness. With the Pacific and Māori boys, if I stood up for myself, I might get a bit of a beating but they’d actually befriend me.
Some of the European guys, though, were nasty. I’ll always remember one particular boy who’d come over from England — and boy, he was racist. And it wasn’t just the boys. The girls, too.
You read Karl Marx, and of course China went through its revolution. And, pre-European, many of our people would’ve had socialist rather than capitalist tendencies. When you reflect on what you read as a young guy, what do you make of the communist regime in China? Where do you position yourself in that regard?
First and foremost, what I learned from Marx was his economic analysis of capital and ownership. Where does ownership come from? Marx’s analysis was that nature was there, land was there, and people lived on the land and used natural resources.
And somehow capitalism came in and introduced ownership. When you start to talk about Māori and the connection with land and resources, it’s the same. Where did the ownership come from?
As for communism, it was very much an experiment. And probably a failed experiment. But what we forget is that China went through a period in its history where Europeans and Japanese tried to colonise China.
I find it fascinating how short our memories are. When Britain ruled Hong Kong for over 100 years, there was no democracy. But when they left, they started talking about democracy.
And how gullible we are in accepting that democracy is the right thing. It may well be, but the British never gave the Hong Kong people democracy.
To some extent, democracy’s been used as a tool and, when you take a look at China’s fears, they’ve got good reason to fear. That whole period was known as the “100 years of shame”, when Britain and Japan attempted to colonise China.
When you understand the background, you start understanding where China is at the moment. For example, if you take a look at the Asian countries that surround China, most are under American or British or European influences. They’re allies to the US. And there are American military bases in all those countries that surround China.
Can you imagine what the reaction would be if China surrounded America with military bases? Look back in history and see what happened when Castro and Brezhnev wanted to put a few bases in Cuba. We were going to have a third world war. But that hasn’t happened with China.
This whole media propaganda machine and our own ignorance of history and politics builds up fear. But when you take a look in the clear light of day at who is secure and who is insecure, and why they’re insecure, you start to understand things better.
Can we transfer that same whakaaro into the New Zealand model? Through the years, the mainstream media has painted a picture of Māori interests poorly. They haven’t recognised the deep mātauranga that’s been the guide for Pasifika people including Māori. Colonial views have held sway in this country.
And also, the Treaty affords some rights, but many non-Māori feel left out of that. I’d hope that you don’t, and that you do feel that the Treaty represents you as well.
Well, I feel very much a part of the Treaty — mainly because it’s through the Treaty that we gain citizenship. My citizenship rights, my rights to the services of government, are derived from Article Three.
We’ve been poorly educated about this history. My observation in recent times is that we tend to have what I call “soundbite history”. I’m glad to see the push within Māori to say: “Let’s talk about the real history.” By talking about the real history we may get a population in the future that has a greater understanding of who we are and what we are.
As for colonisation — well, it’s basically theft. Theft of natural resources and, at times, theft of people too. You only have to look at the Congo, for example, at what the French did there. They made the Germans look bloody good.
In New Zealand, the New Zealand Company runs parallel with the East India Company. These were private consortiums that manipulated their countries to use force against the colonised countries.
Let’s talk about the Mob. I’ve got Mob cuzzies, and for Māori people, we’re not unfamiliar with them and we don’t ostracise them or push them into a corner the way the media does.
But I wonder why people are drawn to that lifestyle. Is there something we’re missing here? Do you see intergenerational disadvantage at the core of it? Why do guys line up in that way and opt to call themselves mongrels?
The history of the Mob is actually about popular youth culture. We’re talking post-Second World War, the whole sex, drugs and rock’n’roll influences on the youth of this country. The evolution of gangs was from the bodgies and widgies who then became the bikers — or the bikies, as we knew them in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
The Mob itself is partly a product of labelling. The story goes that there was a group of young Pākehā having a few drinks — and somehow it got out of hand and a TV set was thrown out of a reasonably respectable property into a swimming pool.
When some of these young people appeared in court, the judge said: “You’re nothing but a bunch of mongrels.” And the label stuck.
The original guys were from the Hawke’s Bay, but they ended up in Wellington through the Epuni Boys’ Home. That’s where the first cohort started.
State care has played a significant role not just with the Mob but with all gangs in this country. Many gang people have gone through those institutions and have been taught to be violent, because they themselves were the victims of state violence. These things are starting to come out in the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care.
Unfortunately, the likes of Simeon Brown and Judith Collins don’t want to know that. They don’t want to know the truth. So they use these groups of people as political tools.
It’s not just them. Throughout New Zealand politics, this marginalised group has been used as a political football to score points. But if you understand the origins, there’s an intergenerational transfer of dysfunction.
They’re riddled with trauma. They find it really difficult dealing with their lives. They get lost in alcohol and drugs as a means of self-medicating their traumas. And, through that self-medication, they become addicted, and addiction leads to crime. It also leads to further dysfunction.
The Royal Commission inquiring into historical abuse in state and religious care is an important one, and it touches on what you’ve just spoken of. You had to give up a role in the inquiry, even though you have great experience and insight into the intergenerational effects of state abuse. Are you disappointed you weren’t able to contribute?
The thing is that I’m not too disappointed. At the end of the day, what is important to me is doing the work you need to do to help people succeed. That’s what I’m on about. The Royal Commission position was just a position at that time. Life goes on.
And I don’t spend my life dwelling on disappointments. You get on with life and you do what good you can do while you’re here.
What are you doing now?
I’ve been doing a lot of the Section 27 cultural reports for defenders coming before the courts to help reduce their sentences and make sure that their needs are met when they go for their parole. And I’ve been helping set up rehab initiatives for iwi, which seems to have been lost in the media furore.
And I’m just generally being available for our people. For gang mediation, when I can afford to do it since we don’t get any support from government.
You’re a lifetime member of the Mob. Is that a badge or a tohu you wear with pride, and how did that come to be?
It almost seems like I can’t leave. I was telling you how I came into the Mob, and eventually I was not only working with them but also socialising with them, and the inevitable question was: “Why don’t you patch up?” I was young, and it seemed a good thing to do. It gave me a greater foothold into the crew.
That was my entry into the Mob in Wellington. It must have been around ’75, and it was the time of peak unemployment, and I helped set up a work trust. I managed to talk to the mayor, Michael Fowler, and to get a contract cutting scrub in the hills behind Karori.
And how did you become involved with the Mob in Dunedin?
I had a sister in Dunedin who I hadn’t seen for years. I went down there to see her and ended up working for the Dunedin City Council — and, through that job, I became linked with the trade union movement.
I became a union delegate and, through that pathway, I did training in negotiations and stuff like that. And I also learned the importance of knowing the rules of the game.
It was about that time that the Mob started to drift south from Christchurch. I knew a few of them from my connection with them in Wellington. They were Porirua Mob guys.
And then there was conflict between the Mob and the local Southern Vikings gang. One day, one of the Southern Vikings who was working for the council drove past the courtroom and gave the finger to the Mob members. And the Mob members jumped on the back of his truck.
The council went to sack him, and I became involved in doing his personal grievance. We struck a deal. The council at the time owned a lot of forestry down Waipori, and the deal was to let this guy keep his job and for the council to give some forestry work to the Mob to keep them out of town during work hours.
So that’s how I became linked with the Mob in Dunedin.
And then one day the local president came and saw me and said: “Look, there’s a job coming up that came from the gang report, and we want you to apply for it.”
And I said: “No, thanks, I want to be a trade union official. That’s my pathway.” But they came back a few times and pretty much said to me: “You’ve got us into changing our ways and not fighting. Why don’t you help us more? Put your money where your mouth is.”
So I applied for the job and got it. It was working as a field officer for the Group Employment Liaison Scheme (GELS), which was under the Department of Labour.
Over time, I came back to Wellington. And I worked with the Mob up here and in Auckland and various other places. But by that stage — I think it was 1995, ‘96 — all government assistance for gangs had ceased.
There wasn’t much more I could do down in Dunedin. I saw a job in the Ministry of Youth Affairs which I applied for and that’s when I handed my Dunedin patch back.
Then about a year or so after I moved back to Wellington, the Notorious chapter approached me and offered me an honorary life membership. It was very hard to say no. Of course, what they wanted from me was my support and my skill. They knew what I could do.
I accepted it on the condition that basically what I’m doing is providing hope for our people. I didn’t take it lightly.
And to come back to your question — I know the consequences of being labelled as a patched member. But your heart needs to be where your people are. And if it means accepting that title, for the benefit of the people that you love, then that’s what I did.
And, to be honest, I don’t regret it. Yep, I get a public flogging every couple of years, but that goes with the turf. I’m a pretty strong character so I can withstand that.
What do you do outside of your work, Harry? You got any interesting sort of things that we might not expect from you?
Well, I love old V8s and track racing. That’s my passion. I used to build my own motors and go and race my Valiants and my Challengers and stuff like that. I don’t get so much time to do that these days, and probably won’t be racing this season.
But I also play a lot of table tennis. I play three or four times a week, just to keep me fit and away from the computer.
And one other thing: I was one of the founding members of the Polynesian Panther Party in Wellington. So that was another part of my life.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity. See also this edited transcript of Harry’s interview with Jack Tame of Q+A.)
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