A New Kind of New Zealand Road Movie
In 1902 the SS Ventnor sank off the coast of the Hokianga, a remote region on the west coast of the Far North of New Zealand. The ship was transporting the bones of 499 Chinese New Zealand gold miners for reburial in their home villages in Guangdong, China. Some bones washed up on various parts of the coast and were cared for by local Maori. In April 2013, 100 Chinese, Europeans, and Maori gathered in the Hokianga to perform traditional Chinese rites for the dead. In early 2015, a few of us returned to perform authentic Buddhist ceremonies.
They arrive in a Toyota wagon layered with pale yellow dust, storage pod on the roof, the back stuffed with every type of bag, box, and pillow. They peel out of the hot car: my friend Kirsten, also a third or fourth generation Cantonese New Zealander; her two European friends from the Wellington Buddhist Centre—Dave, who worked for the same IT company as me twenty-odd years ago; Kathleen, a Californian filmmaker who works for Weta Digital; and Zhuji, a twenty-four-year-old Buddhist monk from Beijing.
Zhuji, with his shaven head and mustard robe, presents me with a bunch of handpicked wildflowers: large white daisies and flaming orange crocosmia. Falling stars they’re called in the US; in New Zealand they’re a glorious invasive weed.
Kathleen and Kirsten make urgent calls on cell phones. Kathleen’s Chinese adopted daughter’s car has broken down and now she won’t be able to feed Dave’s cat, Chloe… We are already several hours late. The day before, Kirsten’s beloved cat, Orange, died. There were Buddhist ceremonies to perform – saffron fabric, sand, sutras, chanting, petals from the part of the garden where Orange loved to sleep. Luckily he was not a highly evolved human, otherwise the ceremonies could have taken forty-nine days. As Kirsten shows me the photos on her smartphone, I wonder whether Orange will one day reintroduce himself. Kirsten smiles through damp eyes. “Meow,” she says.
We’re in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, where one third of the country’s population lives. It’s one of those hot, humid, blue-sky days at the end of January. I offer a toilet stop, cold water. Zhuji declines ice. Of course. According to traditional Chinese medicine, we should not eat or drink anything cold. This only stresses the spleen.
We load my gear and pile into the overladen car like strange multicultural hillbillies, five non-Aucklanders still ringing around about feeding Chloe the cat, searching Google Maps, poring over a re-dried map book with wrinkled pages and patches of white where once there used to be street names, calling out street signs, turning around, losing our way as we try to navigate north of the city.
In New Zealand we are never more than a couple of hours by car from the sea. Mountains, hills, forests, native bush, grassy paddocks dotted with cows or sheep, and lakes, rivers, harbors, beaches—these are our birthright. We stay near one of New Zealand’s longest beaches, 100 kilometres of golden sand on the west coast of the Far North. This is Zhuji’s first encounter with the sea. “Take off your sandals,” we say. We walk on wet sand, into the gray expanse of skywater, into darkening blue.
“Why did you become a monk?” I ask Zhuji as we walk back. He is tired of speaking, of listening in English and I’m the only one who knows a little Mandarin. I don’t know the word for “monk” and have to mix my Chinese with English. I don’t understand everything he says, but I get the gist. He didn’t grow up Buddhist, but unlike his peers, he searched for meaning, not money or power. He went straight from school to the monastery. School friends went to top universities, but didn’t end up with the jobs they hoped for. ‘Are they happy?’ he says. ‘But how did your parents feel?’ I ask, aware he is an only child. They did not stop him.
He’s involved in a program for parents and children: Natural Grace. He’s very proud of this. “Is this really new to China?” Kirsten asks. “Churches have always done this kind of work in New Zealand.” We are sitting in darkness at the table outside our cabins drinking tea and eating Whittaker’s chocolate. Zhuji tells us we need to be compassionate, even if people are wrong, even if they abuse us. He has told his mother she needs to be kind and give in to his father.
“Did you tell your father the same thing?” I ask.
He is surprised.
“Why not?” I ask.
“But this is what women do.”
We are all two or three times his age. We’ve experienced complex, difficult relationships.
“Kindness, forgiveness are good,” I tell him, “but it’s foolish, dangerous even, to let people disrespect or take advantage. It encourages bad behavior. It’s unhealthy for both sides.
“And it’s not for women to put up with whatever men want.”
I am the only one who is not Buddhist. The only one who is clearly not a disciple.
“What you’re saying is old-time Chinese,” I say. “Liberation was good for women’s rights but economic growth and materialism have had unintended consequences. The ridiculous idea of women being unwanted leftovers just because they’re not married at twenty-seven or, some even say, twenty-three… the growing number of young women aspiring merely to be the mistress of a wealthy man…”
We eat more chocolate, drink more tea.
In the morning I watch Dave and Kathleen do tai chi. Zhuji sits on his bunk chanting. Quicker than muffled machine gun fire. He wants others to join him, but I need silence. I need to slip away and quietly, respectfully hum or mumble prayerful songs, hymns. And now we are busy cleaning up, packing the car.
At Waipoua Forest in the clearing of Ventnor Grove—where almost two years ago we planted young kauri, unveiled plaques in remembrance—Zhuji climbs Cordyline australis. He reminds me of Monkey in Journey to the West, one foot on each trunk, swinging across to tie colored string to a branch. He climbs another tree further away, pulling prayer flags high into the air—blue white red green orange fluttering butterfly wings.
He prepares the altar: a pineapple garlanded with daisies; six white rice bowls, three upside down, three placed upright on top; two vases of wildflowers; a plate each of stacked oranges and Golden Queen peaches; little packets of strawberry cake and pineapple cake and peanut candy; two cans of nashi juice (secreted amongst the Korean characters: Coca-cola Corporation, since 1996)… everything symmetrical. Under the saffron cloth Buddha’s plinth is constructed, like makeshift toy blocks, from a plastic ClickClack box, a tin of goji berries and a wobbly packet of crackers. Sometimes the wind lifts the cloth under the censor revealing an empty cardboard box which once held Wattie’s Kumera Chips.
Incense drifts across the altar, over the laughing Buddha. Cold sparks of rain in the sticky air. The sound of the river running over stones, so many birds singing in the amphitheatre of hills and trees. Cicadas vibrating. “Follow me,” says Zhuji.
I sit and watch as they follow step by chanted step towards the river, then along the edge of the clearing in a slow circle, the hollow wooden beat of the fish drum filling the valley: Dave, Kirsten, then Kathleen straggling behind like a child, stopping to examine what might be a rare native orchid—tiny, purple, beautiful. When I look up again she is gone. “Why are you Buddhist?” I asked her earlier. She had been taking photographs and now we were watching the others reciting, chanting, kowtowing on the grass before the altar. With her bad knee she cannot kneel. “The values,” she said. “Compassion and mindfulness.”
We drive to Rawene, population less than 500, to stay with Liu Shueng. She is also descended from the longstanding Cantonese families in New Zealand. She chooses to be known by her Chinese name. Around these parts she is known as the Ventnor Lady, being the leader of the Chinese Ventnor Group and the liaison between Maori and Chinese communities. Liu Shueng tells Zhuji she spent four years sailing with only one other person. One sailed while the other slept. It was a long time to gaze alone at endless sea. This is how she learned mindfulness. She takes Zhuji for a walk. Tells him she is not seeking nirvana.
After a day of rest, Kirsten, Dave, Kathleen, and Zhuji go ahead to Mitimiti to prepare, to perform further rites; Liu Shueng and I wait for KT, a photographer, originally from Hong Kong, who arrives late from Auckland after springing a leak in his car. Together we take the ferry across the estuary then drive almost an hour to Mitimiti. Outside the entrance to their clifftop cemetery we wait for Uncle Mingo, the elder of this tiny, isolated Maori community. We hear him coming, the sound of the quad bike reverberating through the valley long before we see him. He dismounts in his gumboots, black track pants, black singlet. “Getting chilly,” he says, pulling on a red T-shirt with a picture of cars on the front—American Muscle.
We follow Zhuji up the hill in two lines: women on the left, men on the right—Liu Shueng scattering red petals; Kirsten striking a brass bell; Dave, the fish drum; some of us chanting; KT and Kathleen taking photos. On the clifftop overlooking the sea, the long stretch of sand where bones washed ashore, we circle the red memorial gate—the Chinese wooden gate our Maori brothers made and gifted to us. We kowtow among the graves, holding a stick of incense across our foreheads, across our minds, as the sun goes down over a vast expanse of water.
As we leave the cemetery, we take turns to wash our hands at the water tank. In this deeply Catholic community, Uncle Mingo makes the sign of the cross. I am one with my brothers and sisters. I wash my hands. I make the sign of the cross.
Alison Wong is a fourth-generation Cantonese New Zealander living in Geelong, Australia. Her novel, As the Earth Turns Silver, won the 2010 New Zealand Post Book Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the 2010 Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. Her poetry has appeared in Best New Zealand Poems. Her first visit to China was in 1983 on a NZ-China Student Exchange Scholarship; her latest, the 2016 Sun Yat-sen University International Writers’ Residency.
“A New Kind of New Zealand Road Movie” was translated into Spanish by Jaime Panqueva and published in Unidiversidad 21 (2015, Mexico) as Un Nuevo Tipo de Road Movie Neo Zelandes.