Meng Foon with (from left) Waata Shepherd, Ying Foon, and Hinetu Dell

Meng Foon with (from left) Waata Shepherd, his wife Ying, and Hinetu Dell.

It’s nearly 50 years since New Zealand had its first Race Relations Conciliator. That was Guy Powles. And he’s been followed by Harry Dansey, Hiwi Tauroa, Walter Hirsh, Chris Laidlaw, John Clarke, Rajen Prasad, Gregory Fortuin, Joris de Bres, and Susan Devoy.

Along the way, in 2002, the title was changed. The Conciliator became our Race Relations Commissioner. And that’s what Meng Foon has been over the last few days since he turned from his job as Gisborne’s mayor and took up his new role within the Human Rights Commission.

He brings an experience much different from that of any of his predecessors, as you can see from this conversation with Dale.


Kia ora, Meng. You and your family have been well established in Aotearoa, particularly in Te Tairāwhiti, for many years now. But I wonder if you might tell us how that came about.

Dad came to Aotearoa in 1947. Prior to that, his family were refugees. They came as refugees to Hong Kong from China. That was because of the Japanese invasion in the 1940s. Dad said they were close enough for him to clearly hear the guns, the bombs and cannons coming towards them in Guangdong, in southern China.

They’d heard of what the Japanese had done to the northern Chinese people, heard of the atrocities, and they were scared shitless. So off they went to Hong Kong. Escaping to the British colony.

My grandfather was an only child. He had two wives and seven kids. There was a lot of infant mortality in those days because of the poor conditions. My father is number seven in the family. And he came out to Gisborne because my aunty was already there. My aunty, the oldest of his siblings, was market gardening on Bell Road in Matawhero.

My father worked for a Chinese co-operative, saved his pennies and pounds, and eventually bought 10 acres on Bell Rd. Then he went to Hong Kong with a bunch of Chinese men from Gisborne to get their wives. That was sort of pre-arranged. Like, this one suits you. That one suits him.

They all went over together. And Dad married my mother in December 1958. I was born in August, the following year. So I probably would’ve been made in Hong Kong.

That year, 1959, was the Year of the Pig. And I have a mixture of those attributes, some good, some not so good. Like being stubborn, although the plus side of that, I suppose, is being persistent. And my other attributes are said to be having a good memory, being caring, intelligent and resilient.

Your dad was able to find work in market gardening in Matawhero, but, no doubt, those early days for Chinese immigrants were hard going.

There were a number of vocations that the Chinese could put their hand to, although their limited English was a hurdle. So most of them did market gardening. One or two opened a dairy shop, an emporium. Another one or two had restaurants, takeaways.

Nan King on Pearl Street was famous for its noodles and wonton soup, crispy pork, duck and chicken. You talk to the old people today and they’ll say: “Yeah, Nan King was the bomb in those days.” Then there’s the laundry. Chinese were known for good laundering of clothes, so some of my uncles did that work.

We were very enterprising people in those days — and we all came here to make a better life than what we left in our home country. My mother was one of the very few literate people. She used to help the old people who’d ask her: “Can you write a letter for me to send back home?”

The other thing we did was send money home. Just like the Pacific people have been doing. We’d send money back to our grandfather and some of the siblings there. Now and again, we’d get a box of Chinese groceries to add to the Kiwi kai ingredients here in New Zealand. As kids, we looked forward to seeing if there were any toys in the box. There was always a little toy that you could wind up and play with.

But I’ll just go back to my school days when our routine would be doing a little bit of work in the morning before we went to school. At lunch time, bang on 12 o’clock, Dad’s truck would be waiting outside school and we’d eat our lunch on our way from school to the garden, about five minutes away. Makaraka to Matawhero.

And then we’d hop on the tractor. I started driving the tractor when I was eight. And we’d do an hour of planting cabbages or something in that time. Then, off we’d go, back to school. Often, the principal would complain: “Look, you’ve got to tell your father to bring you back to school before one o’clock, not 10 past one.”

The other thing he told me to tell my father was: “Your son’s not allowed to be driving the tractor at eight. You have to be 12.” So, we’d relay that message back to Dad, who’d say: “No. The principal doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Just carry on, son.”

And when we finished school, we were back, hoeing weeds, picking potatoes, and all that stuff in the garden. I can remember sometimes working to 10 or 11 o’clock at night, driving the tractor with the lights on. Mum and Dad on the back of the Stanhay planter there, putting the next rotation of crops in. But it was just work. It didn’t bother me. We didn’t know any better.

What I didn’t like was the school holidays. My mates used to write about going to Waikaremoana or Mahia, or heading up the coast for camping, or to Auckland to go see their cousins. And here we were, stuck at home doing market gardening. As children, you want to play a bit.

But those days, man. She was head down, backside up and do the mahi. And when we wrote our stories — because every time you came back to school after the holidays you had to write a story about what you did in the holidays — we could only write about work.

Meng Foon with Col Syd Dewes and Awi Riddell

With Colonel Syd Dewes and Awi Riddell, at the pōwhiri welcoming Meng as the new Race Relations Commissioner last month.

Early on, you picked up quite a bit of te reo Māori. How was it that you were keen to head along te haerenga o te reo?

My mother, Helen, is of Cantonese extraction, so she speaks Cantonese. My father is Seyip, which is a Chinese village in Taishan. He was actually born in Guangdong. So, we learned the Chinese dialect at home. We didn’t learn Mandarin. Mandarin wasn’t even in the equation back in those days. It was more of a northern dialect.

When we had the shop, we had a very busy shop. I’d say we had about 60 or 70 percent of the customers of Te Tairāwhiti coming to our shop. And I’d hear all sorts of versions and tones of English, some of them from Dutch or Welsh or English people sounding quite different from the Kiwi English we spoke.

Then we had Māori. I was interested in languages at a very early age and I’d often mimic what our customers used to say. So I picked up some Māori that way. And then there were a number of people who took an interest in my reo. None more than Josh Ohomauri Stewart and Rose Stewart. Rose is Tūhoe and Josh is Ngāti Porou, Rongowhakaata.

They said: “You carry on, son. We’ll look after you.” And they did. They corrected me and they encouraged me because I used to beat their boys at te reo at school. We were very fortunate at school because we had Māori lessons and history there.

I remember Hemi Bennett who came along to teach. And then there was Mrs Tawhai and Mrs Goldsmith who were very good at raranga, harakeke. We learned how to make piupiu, hīnaki and whāriki and all those other things that you made out of harakeke.

There was zero te reo at Gisborne Intermediate, but at Gisborne Boys’ High there were Māori classes right through. Not that my mum, who was all for educational excellence, was too impressed by that. When I told her I was going to take Māori, she said: “Waste of breath.”

I took note of that, but I didn’t drop Māori. In fact, I topped Māori in the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth form at high school. I left in sixth form to go back to the gardens.

But we had some notable people in our time: Prince Ferris for haka. Moni Taumaunu, Maaka Jones, Ngoi Pewhairangi, who wrote many songs. Anaru Takarua, Henare Ngata, Peta Kaua, Peggy Kaua, Heni Sunderland. All those kuia matatau ki te reo ake o Te Tairāwhiti. They looked after us and there’s many more.

Then, as time went on and I became the mayor, I struck up a relationship with Uncle Apirana Mahuika. We went all over the place together. As we know, he was very eloquent in both Ngāti Porou and English. And I learned so much from him.

So, throughout my life, I’ve had te reo ake o Te Tairāwhiti. I’ve been looked after by our pakeke, corrected by our pakeke. Some people feel that, when you’re corrected, the pakeke are growling you. But they’re not. They just want you to say it right. So, I’ve had a great journey in te ao Māori.

Meng was first elected Mayor of Gisborne in 2001.

I recall you saying that te reo should be a natural inclusion in all New Zealand schools. You still stand by that, Meng?

Yes, I do, although, at the present time, it’s very difficult to provide Māori in schools right through because we’re short of well qualified Māori teachers. But I think, at primary school at least, Māori should be taught as well as English. I know as a child growing up, I was like a sponge. I didn’t have any problems learning two or three languages at once. So te reo should definitely be there at primary school.

The other thing I’m very strong on is that our curriculum should include more local, place-based history, whether it’s the history of Māori or settlers or new immigrants. Those stories should be told. Particularly the Māori stories. When you hear the stories, you learn the whakapapa of the places — and, along with that, you learn the meaning and the pronunciation of the place names as well.

Te Tairāwhiti and Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Porou deserve accolades for their work on this issue. They’ve published these local, place-based stories. If it’s about Tikitiki, it’s all about Tikitiki. And Te Karaka, Waipaoa, or Rongowhakaata, for example, all have their own stories. And they hold public forums.

We have a partnership with H B Williams Memorial Library where they tell their stories to the public. And these occasions are well attended and people say: “Wow, I didn’t know this happened.” They talk about the history of our place in terms of the Waerenga-a-hika wars and Te Kooti Arikirangi and Ropata Wahawaha, all up the coast there. Our people just grab them with everything they’ve got. And they can remember them, too, because they have meaning.

Meng and Ying.

Was there a moment where you felt most accepted by Māori? Was it as mayor, or could it have been as a boy or a young man?

My whole life has been with Māoridom. Fifty percent of Tairāwhiti are Māori. Our customers were Māori. And most of what we did was with Māori. There’s reciprocity in this game. So, George, my father, used to take truckloads of vegetables to tangihanga. They’d remember that. And, when I was standing for mayor, this was one of the kōrero that came out. “Yes, we remember George and him being kind and generous.”

And there was Stan Pardoe, a kaumātua, at my farewell, telling the story of my mother, Helen, encouraging them to buy their vegetables in bulk so it would be cheaper for them. So, instead of buying one bag of potatoes at a time, they could buy 50 at a cheaper rate, store them in our shop and grab them when they wanted them.

There was a time, too, when Māori and Pākehā businesses signed a petition for my parents to have their shop open seven days a week. In those days, you could open only five and a half days a week. But a lot of the shearers needed to get their provisions on a Sunday to be ready for a 3 or 4am start on Monday.

So the petition was signed and presented to the Department of Labour who allowed us to open seven days. Yes, there was a lot of support and reciprocity in our younger days. And that carried on into my 24 years in local government. Six years as the Patutahi-Taruheru rep and nearly 18 years as the mayor. So, mihi atu kia koutou te iwi kāinga mo to koutou tau awhi ki au. He hōnore tēnei koutou e tuku tēnei to koutou aroha, nui ake ki au.

Kia ora, Meng. When you look back on your council life, what are you most proud of?

When I first was campaigning in the Patutahi-Taruheru ward, Māori and Pākehā were telling me to “get that shit out of the sea”. They’d been lobbying for 60 years to stop the poos being flushed into Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. The pollution was abhorrent to all of the Tūranga people.

So that was one of my major concerns. And I said we could deal with it by saving money. That’s a natural approach in the Chinese community. We save for birthdays, houses, land, investment, cars and holidays. We save money for what we want or need.

Probably most other people and communities do that, too. But it was the approach I brought to the council so that we could come up with the tens of millions of dollars we needed to build the wastewater treatment plant.

I can remember the chief executive saying: “Yes, good idea, lad. But we’ll park that. We’ll leave it on the table now because it’s not time yet.” I said: “Oh, bugger.” And I could see that the only way to bring this about was become the mayor.

I missed out in my first attempt in 1998 — I lost by about 700 votes. But in 2001, I ran again. Won. And we were able to start saving for the wastewater treatment plant. It took us 10 years. We saved about $18 million and borrowed the rest. Then we got it done in about a year. And the mauri of Moana-nui-a-Kiwa has been restored. We’re actually putting clean water back into the sea.

There have been other things, too. One has been to have Māori at the table for decision making. And one example is having Ngāti Porou at the table and having equal say about Waiapu catchment issues. That’s been going on now for five or six years. And that’s been going fantastic.

Then we had the kids of Kaiti School marching to the council and telling us that they’d done some research and were now advocating that Poverty Bay should be called Tūranganui-a-Kiwa. We all knew that. So, after a bit of debate and consultation, we made a resolution to change the name to Tūranganui-a-Kiwa and sent it off to the Geographic Board, who endorsed it.

So it’s now Tūranganui-a-Kiwa/Poverty Bay. I dare say that, in years to come, Poverty Bay will drop off. That’ll be a challenge for our Poverty Bay rugby teams because there’s a lot of history there. But they might want to change the name one day.

Heoi anō, those are some of the issues. What I’ve encouraged is a confidence in Māori to come to the council. Not to be whakamā. And to tono for your roads and rivers. Tono for the council to plant the right trees in the right place. And for Tairāwhiti, Māori, Pākehā mā, katoa mā, to engage the council in pursuing their aspirations, dreams and hopes.

Two more topics, if you don’t mind. One is your pipes. Not too many people may know this, but you’re a singer, aren’t you? In fact, you’ve recorded an album.

I was a little bit of a composer back in my primary school years. I didn’t really know what I was doing. But, when I became the mayor, Uncle Api Mahuika was so supportive that I wanted to acknowledge him with a waiata.

So I wrote a song, got him and Aunty Kurahira to check it, got some funding from Te Māngai Pāho and recorded it at Radio Ngāti Porou. It was all CDs in those days. Then, after it was produced, we went to Hiruharama — and Tuini Ngawai, with her students, put some actions to it. It’s all on YouTube.

Meng with Bucks, the youngest of his three children. He has two daughters, Amanda and Jessica.

Let’s turn, finally, to the relationship between Chinese and Māori. You’ve been a conduit between the two, but for many there’s been little or no interaction. How would you describe the relationship and how much better could it be if we mingled more?

There might be 7–8,000 Chinese-Māori children in New Zealand now. Back in the 1860s, the government allowed only one Chinese woman to 100 men to come to Aotearoa. So our Chinese men mainly married European and Māori girls.

And, right from the beginning, Māori and Chinese were together in the market gardens. Supporting each other in the enterprise of market gardening, and rearing families. So that’s one part of the story.

But another element is the 1902 sinking of SS Ventnor just off the Hokianga Heads. It was taking back to China, to their villages, the remains, the kōiwi, of 499 Chinese goldminers who hadn’t been able to pay for their final trip home.

When the ship sank, the bones washed up on the shore. So they were buried by the people of Te Roroa, Te Rarawa, and Te Mahurehure. And I want to acknowledge that relationship. It’s only recently that we Chinese went back to say we’d like to give thanks and to build a memorial.

Another big event that links us is that, back in 1951 or 1952, Tainui iwi actually presented a korowai to Mao Tse Tung. I think the korowai has been returned to New Zealand. But, when Pita Sharples was a minister, he and I were talking one day and he mentioned that the Chinese had never had a proper pōwhiri. Never had a welcome to Aotearoa as the third longest standing ethnic group to come to Aotearoa.

That led to the pōwhiri mo tātou ngā Hainamana kei te marae o Ōrakei in Tāmaki Makaurau. And we felt it was a great honour for us to have that official pōwhiri right here in Aotearoa. And these relationships, and others through trade, are very strong.

Thank you for your kōrero and for your kindness in sharing that with us today. And I want to wish you well with the mahi that you have ahead of you with the Human Rights Commission.

Kia ora, Dale, and thanks for the opportunity to share and encourage other New Zealanders to share their stories so we have a better understanding in the future for our tamariki-mokopuna.

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


© E-Tangata, 2019

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