The Mooncake and the Kumara: A cross-cultural love story

The Mooncake and the Kumara is based on the true story of a Chinese man and a Maori woman falling in love.
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The Mooncake and the Kumara is based on the true story of a Chinese man and a Maori woman falling in love.

Chinese residents in New Zealand tend to cop a lot of flak for the country's woes; whether it's single-handedly pushing up Auckland's house prices, nabbing all the academic awards at the top schools or being the culprit of every car accident. The ethnically panicked appear to have forgotten that the Chinese were some of the first immigrants to New Zealand in the 1800s.

Southern China in the late 19th century was grim; overpopulation led to famine, forcing many Chinese men to flee in search of fortunes elsewhere. Gold fever had hit Otago in the 1860s, making it an enticing prospect for many of the men, although fortunes were rarely found, which saw many of them turn to market gardening. 

New Zealand-born Mei-Lin Te Puea Hansen owes her existence to the Chinese diaspora, which drove her to write her first play, The Mooncake and the Kumara, which tells the tale of her grandparents, Alice Chee (nee Williams) and Joe Kum Chee.

"The Chinese have such a long history in New Zealand – they were here when the Treaty was signed. It's a fascinating history, and one that hasn't really been explored, so I wanted to share the story of the beautiful yet practical relationship my grandparents had."

Their history, she says, is "sketchy" – both her grandparents have passed away so she had to rely on varying stories from her uncles.

The play touches on the themes of racism and prejudice.

The play touches on the themes of racism and prejudice.

"I do know my grandfather came to New Zealand with his father to earn and send money back to his village in China. They settled in Stratford and started a fruit shop and it was there he met my grandmother, who was Maori."

"One of the family stories was that my grandmother's mother had these visions that three of her daughters would marry foreigners, which was convenient given there were a lot of Chinese people down the road working hard and making money!"

What makes Hansen's story interesting is how a romance between a Maori woman and a Chinese man came to be during a period of extreme ignorance and prejudice in New Zealand.

"It was very tricky at that time for Maori and Chinese to be together; society wasn't that OK with inter-racial connections. I'm sure they faced many challenges from the local community."

It is perhaps Hansen's great-grandmother who is the unsung hero of the story, encouraging her daughter to marry a Chinese market gardener.

"My great-grandma was Maori from Tainui, but yet she was OK with inter-racial marriage, she had a real reputation in the family for being powerful and a visionary."

Although Hansen says even her own mother still had to endure cruel "'ching-chong-Chinaman" jibes from the neighbourhood growing up.

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Hansen first co-wrote the play with her cousin, Shortland Street actor Kiel McNaughton, back in 2008 as a 10-minute entry into the Short and Sweet festival, where it won best drama. On the back of that success, the cousins embarked on turning it into a full-length play.

"We had to make many changes – for the 10-minute play there were three characters writing letters, but now there are six characters, and you can't sustain people writing letters to each other for the long version!"

The show sold out three weeks prior to its premiere at the 2015 Auckland Arts Festival, which is unusual for any play, let alone a new one. Hansen puts this down to attracting a new audience.

"When it was on in Auckland a lot of the audience were from market gardening towns, like Pukekohe or Mangere, and had a connection to market gardens. People who probably wouldn't normally go to a play at the festival."

Hansen says the show also sold out in Taranaki, with it striking a chord with the audience.

"We did a Q&A after the show and this woman in her 70s stood up and said 'my grandmother was Maori and my grandfather was Chinese, and my grandfather also had a wife back in China too!"

Many families have skeletons in the closet, and this is Hansen's; her grandfather had left a family in China when he came in search of his fortune.

"My grandparents didn't get married until the 1980s as my grandfather still had a wife back in China so they had to wait until she died. I was 10 years old at their wedding."

Hansen says it was something they all knew about growing up, so she wanted to incorporate the wife character into the play.

"The thing I was most nervous about [with the play] is that my grandfather had two daughters back in China, and their kids came to see the play as they live here. I was concerned that the wife character was represented respectfully and she was given a voice as that was their grandmother – and they really liked it. Although they did say that the Cantonese was incorrect to the one they use in the village."

Hansen will have to correct the Cantonese if she achieves her dream of taking The Mooncake and the Kumara further afield.

"I would love for the play to go my grandfather's village in China, and if it's successful there then perhaps other places where there's diaspora Chinese."

The Mooncake and the Kumara, Nelson Arts Festival, October 14-15; Hamilton Gallagher Performing Arts Centre, October 21-22; Tauranga Arts Festival, Baycourt Theatre, October 25 (Mei-Lin Te Puea Hansen will give a talk at this performance).

 - Stuff

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