Dr Jenny Lee-Morgan:“Because I look Chinese and I’m told I sound like a Māori, it used to baffle people.” Dr Jenny Lee-Morgan, director of Pūrangakura, an independent kaupapa Māori research centre in Tāmaki Makaurau / Auckland. (Photo supplied)

The Chinese market gardens which flourished in South Auckland, particularly from around the early 20th century, didn’t only produce fresh greens for Auckland households. It was also where many Māori and Chinese relationships blossomed. Both groups suffered from the blatantly racist attitudes of the times, and their offspring were often subjected to even worse discrimination.

Such was the case for the Māori-Chinese whānau of Dr Jenny Lee-Morgan, whose Chinese grandfather and Māori grandmother met at a market garden in Māngere in the 1940s. Here’s Jenny talking to Dale about that family history and her work on decolonisation and as a leading kaupapa Māori researcher.


Kia ora, Jenny. It’s a pleasure to talk to you about some of the things that you’re championing. But first, can you tell us about your names and whānau?

I was born in the late 1960s, when Māori names weren’t considered cool. And so, I was given Jennifer Joy Lee as my birth name. Most people call me Jenny-Lee. But I always had a Chinese name, and that’s Bol Jun. Bol Jun means “precious pearl”.

Interestingly, my Chinese mother was given that name by my grandmother. All of us kids had unofficial Chinese names in my family, they were never written on our birth certificates. As my career developed and I began writing, I used the name Jenny Bol Jun Lee. After I was married, my name changed to Jenny Lee-Morgan. But lately I’ve been focusing on living out my second name, which is Joy!

Can you talk about your mum and dad and how they met? And some of your connections, both Māori and Chinese?

My parents grew up and met in Māngere. My father, David Lee, lived on a market garden in Massey Road. His father, Gin Sit Lee, was Chinese and his mother, Kahukahu Wehi, was Māori. She grew up in Ihumātao, and is from Waikato, Ngāti Mahuta, Te Ahiwaru. My Māori grandmother met my Chinese grandfather in that Māngere market garden.

Mum and Dad met through church friends. I know that my mum’s family didn’t approve of my mother having a Māori boyfriend. But my mum, Lily Lee, has always been a bit of a radical, and they got married, much to my grandmother’s disapproval.

It was a time when Māori-Chinese relationships were frowned upon and Chinese were still seen as the most inferior ethnic group in Aotearoa. When my mum and dad were growing up in the 1940s, racism against both Māori and Chinese was rife — and especially against Māori-Chinese.

Which flowed on to you, and you’ve written about this. I’m hoping that a lot of the attitudes of yesteryear have diminished, and now we recognise that there were many Chinese-Māori relationships that flew under the radar, many of them forged literally in the earth of market gardens.

When we think about market gardening, we often assume that was the preference for the Chinese people who arrived in New Zealand, but the reality was different, wasn’t it? There was no one who would employ them and they had to do something, so they turned their hands to tilling the soil.

That’s exactly right. My Chinese grandparents, for instance, were illiterate in their own language, and they couldn’t speak English. They were peasants, so they were very adept at gardening and working hard. Gardening was also a way to avoid the racism in the wider society.

Māori were also subjected to racism, and in many cases, it was Māori women who worked in Chinese market gardens. They weren’t able to get a benefit at that time, and Chinese were providing cash. Māori women were able to bring their kids to the market gardens and take vegetables home. So it was in the market gardens that many Māori met Chinese, and a number of relationships blossomed from that interaction.

Jenny and Eruera Lee-Morgan. (Photo supplied)

Some of our people resent the success of Chinese, while others applaud their work ethic and frugal nature. They weren’t flashy, and they saved and bought some of this very productive gardening land. That has resulted in a degree of jealousy among some Māori. What would you say of that attitude?

I think that the racism towards Chinese that exists today is underpinned by that strong historical anti-Chinese, anti-Asian sentiment. If you look back at historical stories and news records, there was a particular way of framing Chinese. Pākehā didn’t like the way that Chinese people were able to create their own communities, work extraordinarily hard, and make money.

I think some Māori picked up this discourse that targeted Chinese. But what I’ve always argued is that, as in our own family, that sort of feeling between Māori and Chinese wasn’t present at a grassroots level. We had very close shared values, appreciated those things that we had in common, and were able to recognise the racism that both groups faced.

Anti-Chinese sentiment and racism towards Māori, of course, continues today.

The media certainly have a hand in that. I guess you’ve experienced all sorts of subtle and overt racism along the way. Can you recall some circumstances that upset you?

Because I look Chinese and I’m told I sound like a Māori, it used to baffle people. Not as much today, but certainly when I was growing up. Today there are lots of beautiful mixes of Māori, Pasifika and Chinese as the world has become more global, with lots of ethnic intermarriage.

Certainly, the racism has continued. Recently, while I was driving my car, a couple of little kids in the back seat of the car in front of me were pulling their eyes at me and making faces at me. I got home and felt quite sad that children feel that it’s okay to do that, even to an adult.

Unfortunately, it’s something you learn to live with when you have a Chinese face. I remember talking to my Chinese cousins about this, and it’s an everyday, almost “normalised” experience. People describe these actions as racist microaggressions, and although they may be covert, they’re frequent and they’re hurtful.

You’ve written about this extensively and your perspectives remind us that we’re very quick to fall for media reports about the so-called threat that China poses. Everyone points to Chinese threats to international peace, which makes it awkward for people who are proud to have that Chinese whakapapa.

I’ve been fortunate to have strong Chinese and Māori whānau who’ve been accepting and encouraging of who we are as Māori-Chinese.

My father had a typical educational journey as a Māori boy in the 1940s and 1950s, where he was directed to take the non-academic subjects. Dad failed School Cert, left school, and walked into a panel-beating job. He went back to university as an adult after he married my mum and became a teacher. I refer to my dad as my first Māori-Chinese hero — and he went on to learn te reo Māori as an adult.

My mum was a teacher as well and stood very proudly in her Chinese cultural space. She was the first Chinese teacher I knew. She was very supportive of te reo Māori, and she encouraged me to take te reo at school and be closely connected to our whānau and whakapapa.

There’s a strong Chinese community in Auckland, so I was lucky to go back to China in 1989 with a group of New Zealand Chinese, and we spent two or three weeks there learning about our Chinese culture and visiting the homelands of our grandparents. And I’ve since been back a few times with my mum and our children.

But, being in Aotearoa, my commitment has been to my Māori side and to supporting the revitalisation of te reo and tikanga Māori — and that includes bringing up all our children in Māori immersion education and staying connected to our marae.

After leaving school, I too became a teacher, and one of the subjects I taught was te reo Māori. I started the Māori unit at Northcote College called Te Whānau o te Kākano. To their credit, it’s still going, which is wonderful. After that, I was head of the Kahurangi unit at Auckland Girls’ Grammar School. I have a lot of wonderful memories teaching and learning with the girls there.

I want to talk about some of your research, and also your pukapuka on decolonisation in Aotearoa, which I think is a really important subject. But just before we go there, can you talk about the protest at Ihumātao? Even though the matter remains unresolved, did you feel pride in the way that the people of that community stood their ground against tremendous odds?

It was bittersweet. Although my grandmother had grown up there and my father had grown up in Māngere, I grew up in Riverhead. And when the occupation began, that was a good opportunity for me to reconnect.

In the broader context of our marae, many of us struggle to keep connected. There are things that draw us back, like tangihanga, birthdays or weddings, but the occupation was a kaupapa that brought a lot of us back for a sustained period. It was a time for some of us to reignite our ahi kaa responsibilities at Ihumātao.

I’m immensely proud of our whānau, the younger nieces and nephews who were courageous in fronting the campaign and media in that very public space, but also the way in which they worked with whānau in a very transparent and collective way to ensure that we were all working together.

We met every night at the marae, right through that period, to keep abreast of all the developments, and to make sure that everything was working well from an operational level, such as food and water and first aid for the thousands of people who were camping, the different zones of activism that were undertaken, and the political strategy that needed to go on. Most of all we were very proud of the manaakitanga. It was a huge operation.

And, as you say, that effort’s not over. We’re continuing the kōrero to ensure that our whenua comes back and our kāinga has an opportunity to flourish.

Jenny and the Generation Kāinga team at Pūrangakura in Auckland. The project is rangatahi-led and focuses on kāinga  development. (Photo supplied)

You’re highly regarded for your research work, and I’m intrigued about when you put pen to paper alongside Jessica Hutchings on the subject of decolonisation. What were you hoping would stick in the minds of those who read Decolonising Aotearoa?

Decolonising needs to be active. It’s not something that we just talk and write and theorise about — it’s important that people are also doing decolonising activities in lots of different ways. There has to be a thoughtfulness around how we begin to decolonise our thinking and our minds, so that we don’t continue to perpetuate colonising and oppressive actions and practices.

Decolonising Aotearoa tries to shine a light not only on some of the work that’s been happening, but also on the work that needs to be done. So that we become more critical thinkers about what’s going on and how we might intervene — and how we might have hopefulness for our future.

Decolonising ourselves means understanding the ways that we stereotype and racialise other groups, and challenging ourselves to come back to the way that our old people used to think about our relationships with others.

I have to admit to having been colonised, because, although my mind suggests that I shouldn’t think of people in this way, I see a bloke who’s a Muslim or a guy down the road who’s a Thai or that guy over there is Indonesian, and there’s a sort of pseudo pride in our own status that negates our ability to see everyone as equals. We’re having this discussion about one-size-fits-all in New Zealand, and should that not be extended to say that that new arrival is just a dad who’s wanting to do better by his kids, and everyone’s really just trying to create a better tomorrow? In that sense, we’re all united. But sadly, this nationalism that we’ve been exposed to suggests we’re different, when, in fact, we’re not.

“Diversity” is a slippery word, as we know. At one level, we’re all diverse. We’re Chinese, we’re Māori, we’re Tongan, we’re Sāmoan, we’re Rarotongan, and therefore we’re all the same because we’re all diverse. Thinking about diversity in that way can also reduce it to an individual level and ignore our relational responsibilities to each other.

In our context in Aotearoa, we assert Māori as Indigenous, as tangata whenua. And therefore, through the Treaty, we have particular rights and responsibilities. The way that diversity and inclusion are now used in Aotearoa tends to negate the status that Māori as Indigenous people have in this country. It’s important to keep reasserting and reinforcing this reality, and to ensure that our other whanaunga from all over the world respect and understand that.

We’re all colonised, and we fight that every day. And there’s always new forms of colonisation too, with the AI digital space and the algorithms that are promoting particular ways of being, seeing and doing. That’s a new challenge to us all, and particularly to our young people.

It’s not to beat ourselves up. It’s about using decolonisation as a tool to help us think differently, to come back to our own tikanga, and to have faith in our own tikanga. It’s a strategy for moving forward.

Would you touch on how academia approaches research projects with Māori?

Kaupapa Māori research has always been focused on working with our own people and measuring the success of our research in terms of the benefits to our people.

The tension within the academy is that the measurement of success is different. There’s been a real emphasis on publishing, but we tend to find that the journals that are most highly rated don’t include, and don’t necessarily value, Indigenous knowledges.

In my own career, I’ve had the opportunity to move out of the academy and I’m now a director in Pūrangakura, which is an independent kaupapa Māori research centre based in Tāmaki Makaurau. It’s a really exciting space to work.

We’re asking ourselves, what does it mean to be research-independent, research-sovereign? And how do we de-institutionalise ourselves, and how do we work most effectively with our communities? Our work is very centred on community development and identifying our community needs. For us, research is a tool that can propel our people forward. Our work is very much action-based research. Not just talking about things but doing things.

Pūrangakura is very involved in kāinga and whānau development research. We have a big project called Generation Kāinga, which is rangatahi-led and focuses on the agency of our rangatahi to think about our homes and homelands in different ways for the future. Because, you know, the housing crisis continues for our own children and for our grandchildren. There are serious concerns about their ability to find safe, secure, and affordable homes in Aotearoa.

One of the strands of that project is designing a tiny house in the backyard at Pūrangakura. The goal is to better utilise the spaces that we have in ways that are affordable and enable people to live with whānau, even in highly urbanised areas. We’ve got this fabulous team of young Māori researchers and practitioners and leaders and activists. They are well connected to their own communities and to the kaupapa and each other.

There are lots of grounded, real-life questions that we’re trying to solve. There’s a design aspect, there’s an economic aspect, there’s a social and cultural aspect. It’s exciting work, and people are very animated by the kaupapa.

There’s a lot of energy in our whare, a lot of laughter, but also a real hopefulness that research can contribute to the improvement of our whānau, hapū and iwi, and our communities.

Jenny with her three teenagers and three mokopuna, from left: Waitai, Waioro, Tamaiharoa, Jenny, Tinihuia, Kuini and Tipene. Jenny and husband Eruera have seven children between them. (Photo supplied)

You’ve got a big family, I believe. How many tamariki or moko have you guys got as a brood?

Eruera and I have seven children between us, and I’m also raising my three mokopuna. They are six, four and three years old. That’s been challenging, and at the same time a blessing. It’s also probably my biggest mahi right now, but that’s a whole other kaupapa.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2024

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