Theatre and film maker Julie Zhu is getting 100 Chinese Aucklanders on stage to tell their stories in a show about what it means to be Chinese in Auckland. The 24-year-old Green Party candidate for Botany believes the voting age should be lowered to 16.
1 Where were you born?
I was born in Xi’an, China and came to New Zealand when I was 4. I’ve only been back once when I was a stroppy teenager and didn’t want to go. Now I really want to. I grew up in East Auckland. My parents were both qualified engineers but had to work menial jobs because their qualifications weren’t recognised here. I didn’t see much of Dad because he always worked at least two jobs. At school maths was my favourite subject because I was really good at it. I found art more challenging because there isn’t always a ‘right’ answer and that’s what attracts me.
2 Your short documentary, East Meets East, is on the Loading Docs website. What’s it about?
I’m so in love with these Chinese grandparents you see walking along with their little shopping trolleys in East Auckland and places like Avondale. They’re so cute. My grandparents belong to that community. Sometimes I’ll catch the bus and see them chatting with their friends. I wanted to learn what life is like for them and whether they feel a sense of belonging here.
3 What did you find out?
There’s a great line in the film where Nana says, “I don’t think that’s racism” about something that I believe is. She won’t say anything negative about New Zealand, probably because she came from a country where bad things could happen if you said the wrong thing. The film follows my grandparents and their friends on a grocery shopping trip because that’s the main activity in their lives. They’re experts at finding bargains and cooking meals. That’s how they contribute to the family for the next generation.
4 You’re producing a play called OTHER [chinese] at Q Theatre next month. What’s it about?
We’ve invited 100 people to come on stage and share their stories about being Chinese in Auckland. The aim is to humanise a stereotyped community by showing them as individuals. Everyone’s migration story differs depending on where they came from and how many generations ago. Chinese people have become a political football, being scapegoated for the housing crisis.
5 Does the show explore racism?
A little. We also look at ideas like internalised racism, which is when you reject your Chinese-ness or other Chinese who have migrated more recently. When I was young I hated even saying the word Chinese. I’d get really offended when people asked me where I was from. I remember thinking, “But I’m fitting in so well, why can’t you see how Kiwi I am?” Now I can acknowledge being Chinese is an important part of who I am.
6 Can you give an example of your Chinese culture?
Growing up I never heard anyone in my family say, “I love you”. The Chinese way of showing you care is to say, “Have you eaten?” In the last few years mum has started to pick up these Western things that are always so jarring. She’ll sign off a note, “Love Mum” or she’ll try to hug me and I’ll instinctively flinch because I’m not used to it. OTHER [chinese] also includes an exhibition of photos of 100 Chinese Aucklanders, a ‘zine and a community day called Tatou Tatou getting Maori and Chinese people together doing things like poi making, weaving, dumpling making, calligraphy and mah jong.
7 Why did you learn to speak te reo Maori?
I tried a class at university and loved it. Learning it gives you insight into Te Ao Maori so you can better understand the Maori way of thinking. Concepts like ‘ownership’ of land and water are very different. The Pakeha idea is about property rights and profit but for Maori it’s about kaitiakitanga or protecting for future generations.
8 How did you get involved in the group Asians for Tino Rangatiratanga?
A couple of years ago I went to a hui at Waitangi for young people learning about the impact of colonisation. During the hkoi an Asian person asked a friend and I if we wanted to help hold an Asians for Tino Rangaitiratanga banner. It was great to see other non-Pkeh standing up for indigenous rights, so last year we took along six friends. Marama Davidson took a photo of us that went viral. We realised we had to be more than just a banner so we formed a group. We’ve done some Treaty workshops for Asian people and advocacy on social media.
9 How did you become the Green Party candidate for Botany?
I’ve always voted Green because, in movie terms, they seemed like the heroes on the side of justice. As soon as you go to a meeting, it’s easy to get involved. Mum hates that I do politics. She lived through the Communist era in China where her family were attacked for being “bourgeois” and her father was sent to the equivalent of a concentration camp. He survived but there’s that inherent trauma and fear of speaking out.
10 How can New Zealand get more young people voting?
When I was younger I thought politics was boring. Lots of young people don’t care about politics because they don’t understand how the system works and how it impacts their everyday lives. It’s such a complex, foreign world. We need to lower the voting age to 16 and teach civics in schools so people can learn about and engage in the election process while they’re still in the education system.
11 Have you ever had a period where you felt really down?
University was the hardest time because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I switched out of art school after my first year and felt like I’d wasted a year of my life. I cried a lot that year. I wish you had one free year to try everything because there’s so much pressure to stick to the first thing you try. Especially if you’re from a lower socio-economic background, you feel like you’re letting your family down.
12 Why were you so upset about Metiria Turei’s resignation as Green Party co-leader?
There was a moment where I felt completely hopeless about the world and the future. It was what it represented symbolically. She was standing up for the poor, the brown and the marginalised. Sure it was a political strategy but the fact she had to step down just shows there’s no point in being honest and trying to change the system because you will be punished, but wealthy, powerful people won’t be. That inequity in society needs to change and I hope we get there soon.