Mourning Pattern of the Chinese Gooseberry

Tan Tuck Ming delves into the intertwined history of Chinese New Zealanders and our most beloved green fruit.

Posted on
06.09.20

‘Who We Are Now’ is a series of first-person essays on aspects of life in Aotearoa in the present moment, supported by a Copyright Licensing New Zealand Contestable Fund Grant 2020. Read more in the series here.

In the archives, there is no suggestion of theft, merely curiosity. In the southeastern regions of China where it grew wild, the fruit was known as 猕猴桃, translating loosely to monkey peach. Hairy, leathered bulbs slung low under plate-wide leaves, vining in the foothills and stippled slack amongst shrubs. At the fold of the 19th century, British plant collectors scouring the Chinese countryside for botanical newness came across 猕猴桃, sharing it excitedly amongst the enclaves of Western missionaries. “They have the flavour of gooseberry, fig and citron,” an American consul general in Hankow writes. “I felt I had a white elephant in my hands.”

In 1904, a New Zealand school teacher on sabbatical travels to see her sister in Yichang. There is little to substantiate Isabel Fraser’s initial impressions of the fruit, beyond what we can assume began with pleasure. As is often the case, what begins with pleasure then becomes indistinguishable from a desire to possess. Less remains on the perspective of the fruit plucked from the banks of the Yangtze, which can only be imagined as silent. By that time, the Europeans had coined an English name, the Chinese gooseberry; the name Fraser knew the fruit by when she took the cuttings back to Whanganui on a steamboat.

All fruit is to some degree easy to love: sweet, placid, forgivable, amenable

What stirs in the first encounter? The new land, an indiscriminate mass, an indefinite tethering. The cuttings take root and survive the first transplant. The fruit’s strangeness piques the curiosity of amateur horticulturalists; it is spread informally among friends, then through the more commercial nursery routes. Eventually it reaches the northernmost regions of Aotearoa, a narrow, golden latitude tendering volcanic soils facing the Pacific, the right modulations of sun and coolness, a promised land where it can be domesticated, generations of fruit growing ever rounder, the opal spine through its core gradually softening.

In New Zealand, the Chinese gooseberry becomes beloved because all fruit is to some degree easy to love: sweet, placid, forgivable, amenable. Some people take to its jam-making properties, others to its hardiness, demonstrating its proletarian sensibility. But most fall for its beauty, the shock of lucid green under the muddy, stiff-haired hide, a satisfying cross-section of a creature.

The fruit loses its memory. The fruit becomes an emissary.

Farmers clear out orchards of apples and lemons to make way for the new fruit; exporters seize on what they see as international potential. The name is a sticking point, however, because the gooseberry is a lowly fruit and the Chinese origin is similarly unmarketable. They try for the melonette, but there is an export tax on melons, and then, seeing a parallel with an indigenous bird – blind, flightless, visually a slow, brown nugget on legs – settle on a final name: the kiwifruit. The fruit loses its memory. The fruit becomes an emissary.

2.

The first time I migrate to New Zealand, I am eight years old and I stay for a year, and the second time, circling back through Southeast Asia, I am 13. Only then does someone tell me I’ve been eating kiwifruit wrong the whole time, cutting it across equatorially, like a fool, when I should be running the knife lengthwise, the direction it grows off the vine. I’m told this is the way you can retrieve the most of the fruit.  

3.

The first Chinese in New Zealand come from Guangzhou amid the precarity following the second Opium War, seeking gold as they did in America and Australia. There is no contemplation of staying. But the Otago goldfields are not prolific for the Chinese, mostly men in segregated communities working fallow earth and eking out flecks from goldmines abandoned by the Europeans. New Zealand becomes a purgatory where living must take place; once dead, their bodies can be buried in China, in the familiar soil where they were born. Here, they grow old, denied a pension by the government, shuffled along to deserted gold claims they mine in solitude and ultimately die in. Many of them are mired in an unending grief: “I want to hear the ocean but I have no heart to hear. My heart is full of trouble.”

They are certain that to leave your bones in this land is worse than hell.

A series of mass exhumations are carried out toward the end of the 19th century. Chinese bodies are dug up from the earth, the skeletons cleaned and placed in zinc-lined coffins. When one body is exhumed, a ghost is heard saying, “I am short of something; find it for me,” which is how some migrants discover a discarded jawbone at the foot of a tree, his body previously unearthed by Europeans searching for a mythic Chinese corpse with a mouth stuffed with gold.

Then, just a few hours into its voyage to repatriate the bodies of 499 men to southern China, a ship strikes a reef off the Taranaki coast and sinks near Hokianga Heads. The relatives are inconsolable. They are certain that to leave your bones in this land is worse than hell. They fear for the homeless spirits. For weeks, corpses wash up on the shores, these shapes of soundless longing interminably afloat. Disappointment assembles the ghosts colonising the drowned valleys near Hokianga; especially in death, the Chinese refuse an integrationist politic.

 

4.

Around the second time we arrive in New Zealand, my family begins to watch a television show called Border Security. The show takes place in airports across the country, offering a real-life glimpse of the labours of customs officials securing the border. Border Security is fixated on the idea of what people may be hiding, the mundanity of the illicit trafficking as you realise that a man who looks tired after a red-eye flight is actually pocketing balloons of narcotics up his prodigious rectal cavity.

Mostly, though, the offences are agricultural, the transgressions accidental and the offenders almost exclusively Chinese. Alongside a segment in which officials seize a mail package of cocaine hidden in stuffed toys, a Chinese couple is apprehended at the border with two whole chickens in their suitcase. Another segment shows a Chinese woman indignant that the five apples she has brought in a plastic bag will be confiscated. As the tourists are escorted away to settle their fines at electronic payment terminals, text runs across the screen: “The food has to be confiscated because it could introduce disease and pests, which could decimate our horticulture industries.”

The same force that is exclusionary by nature justifies admittance, which is to say that there’s a certain satisfaction that comes from knowing, a feeling that approaches belonging. When my auntie comes from Singapore to visit, she is taken aside by customs officials, and the wizened 腊肠she has brought for us is destroyed. We wonder if she will appear on Border Security. When my grandmother comes, she brings an apple saved from the flight’s dinner service. Misunderstanding protocol, she smuggles the fruit through the customs lines, accidental contraband, until I find it wrapped carefully in a used napkin at the bottom of her handbag.

My mother scolds them for inaccurately filling out their arrival cards. Then, their subsequent failures: standing on the wrong side of the escalator, buying kitschy souvenirs, wasting our good honey. My grandmother spends more and more time with Penelope, the neighbour my sister remembers as “the friend our mother disowned for being too Chinese,” until, chronically constipated and tormented by the lashing winds, she changes her flight to return home early. “How can you live there?” she asks, when I prompt her about this memory. “I remember that I was very cold. I couldn’t shit in that country.”

 

5.

One enduring theory for why Chinese immigrants are unlovable is that they are failures of assimilation, cloistered in the past. They are permanently gesturing to another place. The Chinese stay within themselves, an ontology of difference inscribed in their indecipherable, siloed communities, their own staccato language, micro-economies, indifferent gods.

When the teenagers yell, “Hello, Kiwi boy!” I feel something swelling.

I find myself taken by the counterargument: You could really become something in multiculturalism. For example, when I’m walking home after school, a car comes down the street, rolled-down windows, and the teenagers inside yell, “Hello, Kiwi boy!” I feel something swelling. They do the same thing the next time I am walking home as they are driving past. I turn and wave.

We do this for a few weeks until the sound is enunciated clearly, to my good ear, to finally correct the mishearing. They’re yelling, “Hello Kitty boy!” which is how I first find myself in kinship with the popular Japanese cartoon character. It is weirdly prescient, perhaps the most widely misunderstood tale of passing: a white, mouthless bobtail cat that’s actually a little British girl pretending to be a cat.

 

6.

He is known as Kim Lee, though it is unclear if this was his real name or merely the name of his fruit shop on Adelaide Road – the property records more extensive than those for the man only otherwise noted in a mass arrest for opium possession years earlier. His skin is the problem; not its yellowness per se, but the threat inscribed in the colour, which, in the context of whiteness, reads as discoloration or filth, the disease endemic in and of the Chinese.

Kim Lee is apprehended outside his shop, selling fruit to customers suspicious of what they see as afflictions on his skin and conclude to be leprosy. He is referred to the Inspector of Nuisances. He tries to hide but fails. His lame leg is inspected and decreed diseased. He is removed to Matiu/Somes Island, in the middle of Wellington Harbour, a human quarantine station for new immigrants and infectious diseases. Even this is not enough: after complaints from quarantined Europeans, he is exiled to Mokopuna, a smaller island to the north, where there is no one. He is given a few packing crates to make furniture and lives in a half-open cave. When it doesn’t rain, a lighthouse keeper rows to the shore to give him supplies, and when it does, a basket of food is sent by a long, gangling pulley.

Mokopuna Island. Photo: Phillip Capper / Flickr.

Nowadays, Matiu is a predator-free wildlife reserve accessible by a $15-per-ride ferry. When I go, there are only three people on the ferry, two older white women and a white man with wraparound sunglasses. In July, the island feels like a relic, a skull cleaned out by the afternoon sun. With most of its human operations retired, only a few conservation guides live on the island, taking care of a meagre inflow of visitors. One lone winding trail loops around the circumference, punctuated by historical signage and insect flashes, the dock, the remains of a smokehouse, the animal quarantine centre.

You cannot go to Mokopuna but you can look at it from Matiu, which I do for a little while. The light at acute angles into the stone caves, the rising column of circling birds casting about, outlines too distant to distinguish. The man from the ferry asks me what I am looking at and I tell him about the story a librarian passed on to me.

“I heard that the Health Department put out newspaper ads, looking to pay someone to be a Companion for a Chinaman. There was a Scandinavian guy from Nelson who saw it and wanted to apply. But by the time he got here, Kim Lee was already dead.”

“God, I’m sorry,” the white man says. “Horrible.”

We go our separate ways. I think of Kim Lee in the silence and the weeds, his nine months on Mokopuna Island where now only birds are allowed to reside. What do you do in this type of nowhere?

“He was practically cured of leprosy, but died of internal complications,” the article reports, the subtext withholding the story of a man who was exiled for a disease he did not have, subject of a racial pathology, a public charge dying alone on a rock in a foreign harbour. It does not tell the story about the word of his fate crossing the oceans to China and to his mother, whose distance-winnowed heart, unable to sustain this revelation, is obliterated. The word of her suicide returning by mail and then by rowboat to devastate him in turn. His death a few days later, heart failure, body interred on Mokopuna, these internal complications.

In the early autumn of 1904, a few months after Isabel Fraser arrives back from China with the cuttings for a nation, a Chinese fruit-seller is dying on Mokopuna Island.

As my ferry leaves the dock on Matiu, I see a sheep marooned on the top of the hill, and just as I think it is alone, another comes to graze next to it.

  

7.

Someone tells me that people are essentially tubes from the mouth to the anus, an image that I cling to blasphemously as a post-racial vision. The tube is aspirational because it does not accommodate excess or acknowledge loss, everything ingested is ultimately used and nothing wasted. In this fantasy, the individual is a thoroughfare, an open circuit of entry and exit – flows of food, liquid, bacteria, waste, information, distress –

What do I remember?

A new friend asked me, quietly, if Asians really do eat dogs.

When the school calls my mother and tells her that I’ve been punched, she starts crying, even though it was technically a hard, flat-handed slap to the cheek and a flying kick to the stomach. His name is Michael Kim and he is a new South Korean international student. My cheek is red. “Why,” he asks, hands swinging menacingly, “did you tell everyone I’m 17?” I don’t recall this and attempt to defuse, say that there’s nothing bad about being older, that I hadn’t heard anyone talking about his age. “I’m not 17,” he repeats, lurching towards me, younger and furious, wronged in the most basic way of being told what he is not. People watching are either confused or annoyed.  I didn’t say anything, I try to assure him, and later to my mother, who only nods sullenly during my recounting.

Earlier in the day, before he tries to strangle me, is the part of the story I don’t tell her. The part where we are sitting next to each other in class and he asks me what the phrase ‘teacher’s pet’ means, and I joke, “You, like a dog, like dogs that you eat.” Something inside of him snaps, even though I only mean it half-heartedly, an aside picked up in my first weeks of school when I’m worrying if my buzzcut would land me the nickname Cancer Boy again or if I could rebrand it as a nationalistic kiwifruit fuzz. A loud boy demanded that everyone keep their pets away from me unless they wanted to donate me dinners for a week, and a new friend asked me, quietly, if Asians really do eat dogs. I didn’t know. Only on Tuesdays, I replied, when it’s brought up again. You’re meant to roll with it, I want to say to Michael, but by this time he is already at my throat.

 

8.

With hindsight, the migrants would have traversed the passage from China as fruit. In this telling, their arrival would be celebrated, eventually inhabiting national cookbooks as dessert garnishes, seafood marinades, emerald condimental couplings for the nation’s other tender love, lamb. It’s only during World War 2, when Chinese market gardeners are producing around 80 percent of the green vegetables for the nation, that public opinion turns in their favour. Still, rumours of night soil persist, that the Chinese are shitting in their plants to help them grow. From one angle, this marks an improvement from previous decades, when Chinese themselves were the shit, collectively known as the turbid stream. I learn that some of this racism is politically necessary, as New Zealand is at the time forging its own nascent identity. The way you need an outside to define an inside, the Chinese as the nation’s antichrist. So when a newspaper editorialises, of the Chinese, “They poison the earth, they suck the richness, the nourishment out, and leave the impoverished dust,” it is to be understood as an avowal that reasonable New Zealanders should not do any of these things.

At a certain point, all history begins to feel like theft

“The physical exclusion of Chinese from New Zealand, and by extension from the intellectual construct of New Zealand, was instrumental to the formation of New Zealand,” a prominent historian writes. On the phone, he says to me, “This isn’t anything compared to how they were treated in America and Australia.” Then asks, “What is your relationship to Chinese-New Zealand history?” and in parentheses, “So you’re one of the new Chinese.”

At a certain point, all history begins to feel like theft, a cataloguing of where your body never was and could never be, a series of desired, forced inheritances. The past is a bastard’s lyric, a yellow dog dissociating himself into a fruit, which begins to murmur.

 

9.

The 1980s find the New Zealand kiwifruit industry stung by what they perceive as their own fatal over-generosity, the free gifting of vital horticultural information to other countries that take up the crop and threaten to outweigh New Zealand’s production haul. In response, New Zealand kiwifruit growers decide to funnel all exported fruit through a single marketing desk; growing all the fruit under a single name so that the premium quality of New Zealand’s produce can be distinguished from the blockades of generic kiwifruit amassing on Italian and Chilean docks. The New Zealand growers call the fruit they send out to the world ZespriTM. Last year, ZespriTM sued a Chinese farmer for intellectual property violation after he took a trademarked cutting back to China, now the world’s largest kiwifruit producer. In the global marketplace, Chinese varieties, the morose, left-behind siblings, are identified by their lack of durability.

There is an aching contained in the fruit that speaks to me. I imagine that this aching is like a phantom of joy, something that does not know itself yet, something explicable with a narrative and on the way to arriving somewhere. I like to buy ZespriTM from the supermarket. On the days that drift wide into amnesia, I let them rot and throw them into the ocean, where they float and finally sink.

‘Who We Are Now’ is a series of first-person essays on aspects of life in Aotearoa in the present moment, supported by a Copyright Licensing New Zealand Contestable Fund Grant 2020. Read more in the series here.

Feature image: LEADelaware / Flickr