My 47 Years in Christchurch: WengKei Chen
I am privileged to be asked to share my life in Christchurch in the first issue of The Migrant Times.
My life in this city has been a very fulfilling and meaningful one. I met my wife while we were studying at the Canterbury University 47 years ago and we have two children. Both of our children are in Auckland. Our experience in New Zealand is very different from most migrant families that came after us. Our choice to stay was a natural progression in life. When we were studying, living in New Zealand was never in our mind and it was the expectation of our families then that we could return to Malaysia. However on completion of our studies we were fortunate enough to practice the disciplines we were trained—myself as a Civil Engineer and my wife as a Secondary School Teacher. It was only after our children were born that we decided to make Christchurch our home
The 50s was the beginning of overseas students coming to New Zealand to gain their tertiary education. The pioneer overseas students were the ”Colombo Plan” students sponsored by the New Zealand Foreign Aid Program, followed by private students in the later years. Most students came with the expectation that they would return home after the completion of their studies. Most overseas students developed a very strong bond among their own respective groups to address their loneliness and general well-being. In 1973, I was privileged to serve as President of Canterbury Malaysian Student Association at the University; working on program, to welcome, assist and settle new students, and support student welfare. The student political experience gave me a good foundation on addressing some of the issues and challenges that I encountered in my later years.
My wife and I were both born in Malaysia, a country with many different ethnic groups living together for centuries. That experience enabled us to adapt to NZ life easier. We lived through a period when Christchurch was more English than any city in UK. My earlier career did encountered occasional racist and demeaning remarks. A frequent remarks were—“go back to where you came from”, “if it was not for the colonial past in Malaysia you would not be here”,” introducing a third world engineering standards”, “only know how to get extra money”. In few occasions I was even ordered out of building sites while I was supporting the building inspector on serving stop work notices on compliance issues.
The early working days was also the time when my wife was very much involved with language and cultural maintenances programs for NZ born Chinese, and at the same time I was able to serve the Chinese community as President for Canterbury Chinese Cultural Centre.
It was also at that time I heard personal stories from the elders on treatments of Chinese which ultimately led me to explore pioneer Chinese early journey to NZ. It was NZ darkest history on treatment of Chinese. It was the time I started to reflect on my personal unpleasant treatments . The personal experience did challenged me to look ahead to achieve diversity in our living environment that all of us is proud to call home.
The formation of Christchurch Ethnic Council in 1989 and subsequently the New Zealand Federation of Ethnic Councils created an opportunity for me to advocate for the needs of migrants coming from non-traditional countries. The challenges at the time were resettlement, interpreting services, and accessibility to Government services. My passion and commitment in advocating for ethnic community needs eventually led me to lead the NZ Federation of Ethnic Councils from the 2000 to 2003.
It was also a rewarding time for the organization to be able to welcome the first Minister of Ethnic Affairs Hon. George Hawkins and the launch of Office of Ethnic Affairs. In my term as president of the Federation I was able to witness the milestone achieved by the Chinese Community in Parliament receiving a formal apology on the Treatment of Early Chinese on the Poll Tax by then NZ Prime Minister Hon. Helen Clark on behalf of NZ Government.
I have also the opportunity to lead the Federation of Ethnic Councils to Select Committee hearing on the proposed chance to Human Rights Act 2002. It was an experience that I valued. The fact that our submission was well received and resulted in the Race Commissioner position being created. This was an achievement for our organization that valued diversity and also served as reminder to politicians that race issues was and will continue to be the main human rights issues in our modern society.
My other community involvements were being a Trustee of Burnside High School, Advisor to Human Rights Commission in the implementation of National Plan of Action, Member of Government Working Group on Volunteering, Canterbury Earthquake Community Forum member, Trustee for Canterbury Migrant Centre and lately member of Christchurch City Council Multicultural Strategy Working Party. In 2014 I was awarded QSM for my service to the Ethnic Community. This honour also signified the diversity of this country.
My community work did have significant effect on my career as engineer in councils. It did give me a sense of balance on community aspirations and technical requirements for engineering solution to function effectively. In my working environment I am privilege to be in a position that my thoughts and opinions are highly respected by both internal and external peers. My career also gave me an opportunity to represent the Christchurch City Council in the Select Committee hearing for the changes to Telecommunication Act 2001. I was also a member of National Utility Advisory Group and had the opportunity to chair the NZ Standard Committee on “Working on the Roads” a document for Utility Operators.. On reflection I can honestly say that I had a long and smooth career in the City and enjoyed the challenges and most importantly that I am able to serve this city well.