Exploring Asian Aotearoa’s diverse cultures through languages

Exploring Asian Aotearoa’s diverse cultures through languages

Today we’re publicly kicking off Voices of Asian Aotearoa. Under this initiative, we’ll be generating a variety of projects focused on the languages and cultural identities of different Asian New Zealand communities. Curator Grace Gassin introduces our first project, Chinese Languages in Aotearoa, which also includes a callout for the next stage – illustrators, we’d like to hear from you!

Comprising 15% of the New Zealand population, people of Asian heritages possess rich linguistic and cultural heritages, complex self-identifications, and diverse historical connections to Aotearoa. How do their unique histories and experiences complicate our understanding of New Zealand identity? What can we all do to support people from Asian New Zealand communities to retain positive connections to their heritage languages and cultures?

Voices of Asian Aotearoa uses language to highlight complex issues of cultural identity within Asian New Zealand communities. Under this banner, we will develop projects focused on issues relevant to specific Asian linguistic or cultural groups and which offer important lessons for us all.

A woman sit on a chair in the middle of a room, being interviewed by another woman sitting opposite her. A large light shines on the subject
Shijia Chen interviews Ya-Wen Ho at Victoria University of Wellington, 2021. Photo by Grace Gassin. Te Papa

Our first project: Chinese Languages in Aotearoa

People of Chinese ancestry are the largest Asian ethnic group in Aotearoa, making up roughly 5% of New Zealand’s population. While often spoken of as one, homogenous ‘Chinese community’, there is in fact no such thing.

In global terms, people of Chinese ethnicity include people of Chinese nationality (i.e. citizens of the People’s Republic of China), but also people from Chinese communities in Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, United States, Australia, Canada, and, of course, Aotearoa New Zealand. The Chinese diaspora is, in fact, one of the largest in the world, and many ethnic Chinese communities based outside of China may have had little direct connection to China for generations or even hundreds of years.

There are also people of Chinese ancestry who, for various reasons, may not self-identify as ‘Chinese’ at all – these include, for instance, some Taiwanese or Hong Kongers, as well as some individuals of mixed heritage. All of these complex identifications can be found among people of Chinese heritages living in Aotearoa, profoundly informing our diverse worldviews.

Chinese Languages in Aotearoa aims to highlight the profound linguistic and cultural diversity within New Zealand’s ethnic Chinese population. What does it mean, for example, when someone says that they ‘speak Chinese’? Historically in Aotearoa, this would likely have meant they spoke Cantonese (or its dialects), while these days people often assume Chinese = standardised Mandarin. Depending on context, however, this could also mean Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew, Shanghainese … the list goes on!

A woman uses a paint wheel to rub ink into type while another woman watches
Grace Gassin inks the type while Ya-Wen Ho watches at Victoria University of Wellington, 2021. Photo by Daniel Crichton-Rouse. Te Papa

To help you learn about the different Chinese languages, identities, and histories that are part of fabric of Aotearoa over the coming months, we will be:

  • sharing videos to help you learn more about the various Chinese languages – including Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, and Mandarin. This may include your own language!
  • inviting you, the public, and especially people of Chinese ancestry, to share stories of your connections to diverse Chinese linguistic and cultural heritages.
  • promoting discussion of issues that ethnic Chinese face in staying connected to language/s and cultures in Aotearoa.
  • sharing stories of objects in our collection (or other collections as relevant) which highlight the histories of ethnic Chinese in Aotearoa and globally.

Our first video: Mandarin, with poet and Wai-te-ata Press type researcher Ya-Wen Ho

Meet poet and curator Ya-Wen Ho. In this video, Ya-Wen, a 1.5 generation Taiwanese Hakka New Zealander, discusses her complicated relationship with Mandarin and how it became her ‘mother tongue’. (Available with English and Mandarin subtitles.)

Calling future project illustrators!

Update Sep 2021: The call out is now closed. Thank you for your interest.

As we’re hoping to invite members of the public to share stories about their own connections to Chinese linguistic and cultural heritages, we’re also looking for some talented illustrators who may be able to help us communicate some of these to a wider audience through shareable art. You’ll need to have sufficient flexibility in your schedule to be able to respond quickly following a future public callout for stories on Te Papa’s social media platforms in the next couple of months or so, but we hope to be able to share the work around depending on availability of selected illustrators.

If this sounds interesting to you, please send us an email with the header ‘Illustrator expression of interest’ to asianlanguages@tepapa.govt.nz, briefly outlining your interest in getting involved along with some examples of your work.

Part of this project’s kaupapa is about supporting talent from within Chinese communities to be involved in telling their own stories, so please bear this in mind in your approach. We encourage creatives of diverse Chinese backgrounds to contact the team and would potentially be interested in highlighting your own work, along with your own connection to your Chinese language and cultural heritage, as part of this project, if relevant.


We are actively building up our knowledge of people with the skills, knowledge, and passion to help us in current and future Voices of Asian Aotearoa projects, so if you’re already working on an exciting, language-related project, have an idea you’d like us to consider, or if you’d like us to consider you for future work or volunteering opportunities, please reach out to us at asianlanguages@tepapa.govt.nz.

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