It was a night of effusive praise, false biographies and (at times alarming) windows into days gone by. More concisely, it was Thursday October 2nd and Unity Books Wellington was launching White Ghosts, Yellow Peril – China and New Zealand 1790–1950 by Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Zeng Dazheng. We were delighted to host both authors, as well as their publisher, Rachel Scott of Otago University Press, and historian Malcolm McKinnon.
The weather was decidedly un-spring-like, so thanks must be extended to everyone who came out despite the rain and the wind. After all the hardy folk in attendance had a beverage in hand and first pick of the antipasti, Unity’s Matt Bialostocki kicked off the proceedings by introducing all four of the vital guests, and Rachel Scott then took to the mic.
She quoted David Hill’s description of Stevan – “[he] defies classification … from lyric to polemic, from fiction to faction” – agreeing entirely with his choice of words. In speaking about the polarising effect that Stevan’s previous works have had on readers and reviewers, she stressed to the crowd the importance of what he researches and writes about: “And if that means he ruffles some feathers, so be it.”
She also provided a quote which each of the speakers ended up incorporating into their speeches in turn – another (unpublished, she pointed out) historian describing Stevan as “writing like an angel” before going on to say “The problem with Stevan is that he’s a gay socialist.” For a weighty book full of historical significance, it was clear that the team behind this book were not afraid to enjoy their moment and poke fun at one another.
Malcolm McKinnon spoke of his background with both Zeng Dazheng (known to his friends and colleagues as JC) and Stevan – in addition to delving into the book itself. In reference to the book covering events up until 1950, he made the observation that “for baby boomers, it’s when history stopped and the present started”. He went on to speak about the way in which the book deconstructs the language of class. “We don’t quite know how to discuss it.”
With the book officially launched, it was the authors’ turn to share their stories of how White Ghosts, Yellow Peril came to be. Rachel had earlier described Stevan as “the dream author” and he graciously returned the compliment. “But it isn’t about me, or personal relationships – as a historian, I want to understand the lives of people from the past.” He then went on to share half a dozen snippets from the book, all taken from different contemporary sources. They ranged from the horrifying (The New Zealand Spectator describing Chinese workers as “sunk in the lowest pagan idolatry”) to the much more encouraging (“they would be of inestimable quality to the colony”) to the starkly realistic and distressing (from the suicide note of gold-digger Ah Wong – “When I am dead it is nothing – it is nothing to die”). It provided a thorough view into the varied viewpoints and experiences of the world that Stevan and JC have explored in their book.
JC concluded the speeches with a sweeping description of ‘his’ life to date (“my educated parents moved to New Zealand and opened a fish and chip shop … they worked seven day weeks and spent all their money on my own education”) before grinning and confessing that it wasn’t his story at all “but doesn’t it sound plausible?”. He spoke at length about doing away with the ‘otherness’ of Chinese people, something that is obviously still rife in today’s world, more than sixty years after the timeline of the book concluded. “We need to stop reinventing history,” he said, referring to the way in which we treat “modern minority myths”.
Once the proceedings had wrapped up, the authors signed books, the chatter continued – varying from in-depth discussion of the issues raised in the book to excited congratulations from friends and family. And what more can you want from a book than those two things?