Sunday, May 28, 2006

Keep quiet, save face!

There are some ructions amongst Chinese in New Zealand at the moment, as Tze Ming Mok link summarises on the Public Address site. Reading that, Keith Ng's defence of student magazine Salient's satire and the entries on Cokemaster's Geekzone blog about Chinese students at Massey University in Palmerston North taking umbrage at the varsity rag putting Mao Ze Dong in drag on its cover, I got an idea how difficult it is as a writer to straddle different cultures.

It's an issue that was voiced by Lincoln Tan, a journalist of Singaporean origin, who runs the bi-weekly English language iBall paper. Tan co-wrote an article on female Chinese students prostituting themselves in NZ. Instead of concern over the young students safety and future, Tan was accused of causing Chinese to "lose face" as he mentions in a follow-up column to the original story.

Checking on Tan's story with Chinese friends, it seems to be true and correct. If anything, he was perhaps a bit too kind in it. I'm told that many students in question aren't "cash strapped" but simply greedy: they have fat allowances, far more than Kiwi students often, but want expensive mobile phones, gadgets, clothes and cars. New Zealand's liberal prostitution laws means that's a fast way to earn big money to pay for the bling.

But, Tan's story of human folly grates on some Chinese who feel that he should shut up instead.

There have been complaints that New Zealand media doesn't cover "Asian" news much - Tan cites that as one reason why he started up iBall. If there are "Asian" stories in media, they are often negative ones like kidnappings for ransom, drugs busts, and criminality in general.

And that's the irony really. Without anyone making the effort to be heard about a variety of things in the often lazy media, only negative "Asian" stories surface. Tan's figured that one out, but his Chinese detractors see him as a traitor against the nation. He is a disloyal banana for wanting to engage with the rest of New Zealand rather than shutting it out.

The keep-quiet, save face crowd don't seem to realise or care that disengaging with the others in the country will lead to distorted notions about the Chinese. For instance, Kiwis were stunned when fifty students demonstrated against the student magazine Chaff's Mao cover.

The students say Mao is like Jesus to the Chinese. Without Mao, there would be no China today they say and thus the cover is as insulting as the Mohammed cartoons were to some muslims.

In New Zealand however, Mao is seen more like Stalin and Hitler instead, a communist dictator directly responsible for the deaths of some 70 million people. How can the students defend such a person, Kiwis ask, and wonder if this what all Chinese think.

The tenor of the argument got quite ugly too with accusations of racism flying and even blustery threats that China can squash NZ like a bug with its military might. Death threats against the editors of the student magazines have also been made. Tan and Ng have taken heavy flak on Chinese language websites for daring to speak out.

Because there's so little engagement between the Kiwis and the Chinese, it's hard to know how serious the above is. How much of it is similar to say some Irish defending the IRA no matter what? Were some of the students just a rent-a-mob, or were they demonstrating to make themselves look better back home?

We need more people like Tan and Ng to stick their necks out to tell us, but it seems if you do, there's a heavy price to pay. Will anyone dare now to speak out?

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