Pork and Poll Taxes: Story of a Kiwi-Chinese family

What is belonging? That’s the central question in Talia Pua’s new play Pork and Poll Taxes. She speaks with Asia Media Centre about setting a story over a hundred years ago, but finding parallels to the modern-day Asian-Kiwi existence.

It’s an intimate family drama set in the 1890s, says playwright Talia Pua, and while the costuming is going to take you back to that time, it also feels very ‘now’.

Using the backdrop of civil unrest in China and racial tensions in New Zealand, Pork and Poll Taxes centres on a father’s journey to settle in New Zealand amid backlash from Pākehā and the resulting 100 pound poll tax for Chinese migrants, which made moving to New Zealand financially crippling. 

The tax, which was the equivalent of around $20,000 in today’s money, would be in place for four decades. In our current moment of anti-racism reckoning, the poll tax is now realised as a racist colonial ideology, forced on people of colour as it was heralded by the Anti-Chinese Association, the Anti-Chinese League, the Anti-Asiatic League and the White New Zealand League (all real organisations from New Zealand’s history). It was apologised for in 2002 by then-prime minister Helen Clark.

Years ago, Pua once performed a five-minute monologue about the poll tax while studying. In 2019, she found her “inner monologue” on the subject of belonging in New Zealand, and was mentored through Proudly Asian Theatre (PAT) to cement a script for a theatrical performance. PAT’s Marianne Infante was her producing mentor, while Chye-Ling Huang became Pua’s directing mentor.

Talia Pua (left) blocking a scene | Photo: Supplied

“Shows about the poll tax aren’t new, but they have often focussed on the male experience,” Pua says, “but this show looks at the sacrifices made by the family as a whole. I’m so in awe of the women at home, not just the men. But because this story is packaged as a family, it’s something everyone can relate to.”

The audience at Pork and Poll Taxes will rightly critique the society of the time, late 19th Century New Zealand, and find the prejudices sad. “If we zoom back to the 1890s, where the Chinese were invited over for cheap labour, we find that the land owners were in fact in favour of Chinese migration,” says Pua of her research into the era.

“In reality it was the working class that was in opposition. They were worried the Chinese would steal their jobs. They were the big driving force for Chinese expulsion, and prevention of Chinese coming to New Zealand [with an unaffordable poll tax]. New Zealand was coming out of a depression, and the Chinese were being used as a scapegoat for hardship. Interestingly, this was also the same time New Zealand women were given the right to vote. We were so liberal in one way, and so prejudiced in another.”

Pua would like people the see the parallels between then and now. “It’s timeless. [Pork and Poll Taxes] feels like the past, but it also could be now. Has so much really changed? What can we do, how can we be better? When will we realise we are a country built on immigrants?”

Pua’s own parents immigrated from Malaysia and she has Chinese ancestry, so represents a “different part of the Chinese diaspora”, she says. “That’s why I was drawn to this story. It’s relevant to all migrants. This is for all immigrants who have felt othered in their experience. If I had known about all the different waves of Chinese migration to New Zealand and their contribution to New Zealand, I would have been more settled in my own sense of belonging.”

Acknowledging the importance of representation, with an all-Chinese cast, many people in the audience can expect to see themselves reflected on stage too. Pua, who doesn’t speak Cantonese, says there’s a “splattering” of the language throughout the show but the work is predominantly in English. For the words and phrases in Cantonese, there will be no subtitling projected on-stage. “English-speaking audiences don’t need to know the literal translation. There’s beauty in just being able to listen.”

Pork and Poll Taxes 人頭猪税 runs 10-14 August at the Herald Theatre in Auckland.

- Asia Media Centre