Asian Kiwis in New Zealand sports

Much is made of Asian Kiwis contributions to the fields of politics, economics, and cuisine. However, they also have a rich sporting history in Aotearoa. David Williams investigates.

On the third of November 2021, during his tour of India, Black Caps bowler Ajaz Patel did something that only two other players have done in the history of test cricket. The left-handed spinner took all ten wickets in the first inning of the second test. Born in Mumbai in 1988, his family emigrated to New Zealand in 1996. Patel is the fifth Indian born cricketer to represent New Zealand.

This remarkable achievement is just a fraction of the thousands of contributions Asian Kiwis have given this country’s sporting history. While attitudes are changing, their contributions have often been overlooked. However, Asian New Zealand sports stars are not a recent phenomenon.

Arthur Leong was born in Guangzhou and first immigrated to New Zealand in 1930 with his family. In 1962, the central defender captained Hamilton Technical Old Boys – now Melville United – to win the Chatham Cup, New Zealand’s premier football competition. He went on to be the first player of Chinese descent to represent New Zealand in football when in 1962, he played in two matches against a visiting New Caledonia. 

In February 2015, 17-year-old Lydia Ko ascended to the number one spot in the women’s world golf rankings, Ko was born in South Korea and immigrated to New Zealand when she was an infant. She was the youngest person to hold the number one ranking in the history of either men’s or women’s golf. She has gone on to win 14 LPGA tournaments and two Olympic medals.

Even New Zealand’s two rugby codes have featured players of Asian descent.

Former New Zealand Warriors captain and Kiwis international Shaun Johnson’s mother escaped from Laos in the 1980s. Johnson opened up about his Laotian heritage in 2017. "I think it's a natural thing, as you get older, where you want to understand a little bit more about who you are. And a big part of who we are is my mum's side. I'm just grateful. I appreciate where I'm half from."

And in 2013, Rocky Khan, whose father is Indo-Fijian, was the first player of Asian descent to represent a New Zealand national rugby union side. The former head of New Zealand Rugby Steve Tew said “He's certainly the first person with any Asian ethnicity playing in the black jersey as far as I know.” Tew also spoke about the NZRU’s desire to reach out to Asian New Zealand communities. “We cannot be relevant in Auckland or New Zealand unless we accept the fact that there's an increasing Asian influence in our population, so we need Asian people to want to play, coach, administer, watch and 'wear' our game. If we don't get that right, then sometime in the future we'll be irrelevant."

Moreover, Asian New Zealanders and Asian migrants are flourishing at the local levels. Fatima Hussaini first arrived from Pakistan five years ago, where she never had the opportunity to play sport. But since arriving in New Zealand and picking up football, the 14-year-old is thriving. "I played two years goalkeeping and in Year 8 I started playing outfield and now I'm a winger and striker. I also play futsal," said Fatima.

But, while Asian New Zealanders contribute much to Aotearoa’s sports history, their decision to represent New Zealand can mean a lot to immigrants and children of immigrants themselves. It is an honour for many to put on the colours of their new country.

Kashif Shuja first immigrated to New Zealand in 2001 to work at the University of Auckland. Born in Abbottabad, he had already represented Pakistan at squash at the 1998 Commonwealth Games. However, he turned pro in 2005 and switched his sporting allegiance to New Zealand. Shuja took his decision to represent New Zealand very seriously. “Once finalised, it felt very welcoming of New Zealand towards my decision to move and live here. Very rewarding since then. I felt I needed to do my best in something I loved - for my friends, local community, and sport. The best way to do that was to wear the colours of my new home hence the decision to play for New Zealand.”

He agrees that immigrants play an enormous part in enriching the sporting culture of their new countries. New Zealand is a perfect example. “I think people who migrate bring everything they have to offer to their newfound homelands. Sport is a big part of it and contributing to the local communities with their playing, coaching and personal attributes adds to society massively. All immigrants have done the same and contributed to New Zealand sport and culture in a great way.”

- Asia Media Centre