This is the story of a quest I began three decades ago – the search for my Chinese identity. The path I travelled was not linear, and the years brought pain as well as joy. But, while this is a narrative about being Chinese and also a New Zealander, I know that the search for purpose and meaning in life is universal. I hope that others in our culturally diverse society will find their own ways to embark on that same journey.
Helene Wong was born in New Zealand in 1949, to parents whose families had emigrated from China one or two generations earlier. Preferring invisibility, she grew up resisting her Chinese identity. But in 1980 she travelled to her father’s home village in southern China and came face to face with her ancestral past.
What followed was a journey to come to terms with ‘being Chinese’. Helene Wong writes eloquently about her New Zealand childhood, about student life in the 1960s, and coming of age in Muldoon’s New Zealand. What her Chinese ancestry means to her gradually illuminates the book as it sheds new light on her own life. Drawing on her experience of writing for New Zealand films, she takes the narrative forward through the places of her family’s history – the ancestral village of Sha Tou in Zengcheng county, the rural town of Utiku where the Wongs ran a thriving business, the Lower Hutt suburbs of her childhood, and Avalon and Naenae.
Helene signing books after her conversation with Roseanne Liang at the Auckland Art Gallery, June 2016. Credit: Paula Hall
Helene with Coco Feng, President of the New Zealand Chinese Writers Association, at her talk for the Association, August 2016. Credit: Tulip Qiao
Helene at the New Zealand China Friendship Society, 19 April 2017.
'Memory Lane: Writer Helene Wong explores identity and cultural clashes', Tina White, Manawatu Standard, 4 March 2017.
'Walking in more than one world', Paula Morris, NZ Books, 7 December 2016.
'The Art of Being Invisible - Helene Wong on Sinophobia' Voices, Radio New Zealand, 22 August 2016
Listen to Helene Wong on Nine to Noon, Radio New Zealand, 15 August 2016
Listen to Helene Wong on Wellington Access Radio (12.5 mins in), 29 July 2016
'Facing our future: How the population boom is transforming Auckland', Simon Wilson, Metro, 1 July 2016
'Brexit and The Hammerhead Sharks', Andrew Chen, The Co-op, 27 June 2016
Extract from Chapter 1, Being Chinese, Otago Daily Times, 11 June 2016
Interview with Helene Wong, Sophia Song, Skykiwi Media, 3 June 2016
'Auckland Writers Festival Breaks All Records', 15 May 2016
Auckland Writers Festival blog - '...[Wong's lecture was] sharp, humane, intelligent...', David Larsen, Metro, 14 May 2016
'Helene Wong - Being Chinese', Radio New Zealand, 8 May 2016
Chinese Herald, 7 May 2016
'Being Herself', inverview with Renee Liang, The Big Idea, 4 May 2016
'Being Chinese is a memoir. But it’s also much more than that. It is an important slice of social history, both Kiwi and Chinese. It might well have been two books. It could have been a history of the Wong and Chan families, a story of migration, the interconnected families, their community. The other story would have been entirely that of Helene Wong, a most interesting character, a woman perhaps ahead of her time.' 'One of Them', Maggie Rainey-Smith, Landfall Review Online, 1 September 2016
'Worrying about identity is a very Kiwi thing to do ... When these tendencies generate memoirs such as Helene Wong’s, we are reminded of the incredible energy that went into the making of New Zealand and of the kaleidoscope of backgrounds and experiences that are today contained in all of us, just your average New Zealander.' Melissa Kennedy, New Zealand Studies Network, 29 July 2016
'Helene Wong, Being Chinese. A brilliant book - fascinating to see the NZ I grew up in through a different and occasionally shaming lens.' Hamish Keith
'Helene’s struggle to find her identity, both as a person and as one with a culturally different background, resonates on many levels with the path that all humans have to walk. This is a well written account of one person’s life and one that I enjoyed reading. At a time when discrimination is unfortunately becoming more strident here in New Zealand, it is a book that should be read by many more.' Lesley Vlietstra, Booksellers NZ, 30 May 2016
'I wholeheartedly recommend this enlightening, well-written book.' 'From Here and There', Judith Morrell Nathan, Scoop Review of Books, 23 May 2016