Opinion & Analysis

Poll tax descendants and their ‘wrong’ Chinese surnames

“When my great-grandfather arrived, Immigration mistakenly assumed his family name ‘Dong’ to be his first name, and a new clan of ‘Chan Wais’ came to be,” says Lynda Chanwai-Earle. (Photo: Lynda Chanwai-Earle)

In the early days of Chinese immigration to New Zealand, confusion over the Chinese name system resulted in subsequent generations of Chinese-New Zealanders having the ‘wrong’ family names. Lynda Chanwai-Earle shares the story of her Chinese surname.

Dong Chan Wai Poll Tax Certificate

The poll tax certificate of Dong Chan Wai dated 1907. (Photo: Lynda Chanwai-Earle)

Why are there strangely ‘wrong’ surnames for some Chinese-New Zealanders? The answer lies behind the history of early settlement of Chinese to this country.

The photo shows the ‘Poll Tax’ Certificate belonging to my great-grandfather Dong Chan Wai. I’m one of over 25,000 poll tax descendants living in New Zealand.

My Cantonese Chinese family originally came from Poon Yue County. We’re fourth- and fifth-generation New Zealanders, part of the wider Chinese diaspora that emigrated from Canton (Guangdong Province).

In early 1900, my great-grandfather, along with his sons, boarded a boat from Canton, stopping off at Vancouver en route. Dong Chan Wai then boarded the Hauroto, arriving at the Customhouse of Auckland on 19 June 1907.

After gold-mining had dwindled anti-Chinese sentiment followed, calling for Chinese immigration to New Zealand to be restricted. Under the Chinese Immigrations Act 1881 (amended, 1896) the Master of the vessel was required to pay £100 (equivalent to over NZ$19,000 today) ‘per head of cargo’ for each Chinese person on board.

The poll tax was levied against Chinese only, and only one Chinese passenger per 200 tonnes of cargo were permitted.

The Chinese name system differs from the Western one in that names start with the family name, followed by the given name. When my great-grandfather arrived, Immigration mistakenly assumed his family name ‘Dong’ to be his first name, and a new clan of ‘Chan Wais’ came to be. This was a common mistake, which affects thousands of Chinese-Kiwi descendants living here today.

You can hear more about our history in this Voices programme on Radio New Zealand, covering the documentary Lost Years by acclaimed Canadian film-maker Kenda Gee. Lost Years covers historical discrimination targeted against Chinese in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

On 12 February 2002, the Labour Government at the time issued a formal apology to the descendants and families of all those required to pay a Poll Tax before entering New Zealand, as recognition of the injustice inflicted on early Chinese here.

Lynda Chanwai-Earle was formerly the long-form features producer and presenter of Radio New Zealand’s Voices programme. 

– Asia Media Centre

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