A Tale of Two Cultures
The small, dignified Chinese gentleman, who once been a respected General, could not command his daughter’s heart.
In 1940, Paleon Yee, the eldest son of a wealthy property owner in China’s south, booked a passage to New Zealand. Paleon pulled some strings to do this, perhaps calling on connections in the Chinese National Army, or at the Chinese Consulate, where he had once worked. Possibly his younger brother, a successful Hong Kong trader, had some influence. Certainly, large sums of money changed hands. But Paleon did what was necessary to leave behind the conflict raging in his country, leading his family to a new life in New Zealand.
Arriving in Christchurch, Paleon established a small fruit shop and shortly afterwards, was joined by his third wife, Wai-Fong, and their newborn daughter. Diligent, and with a panache for languages, Paleon set about developing a strong business, while Shanghai beauty Wai-Fong, a former opera singer and radio recording star, raised their growing family. Pauline, the third daughter of nine children, was born on a Sunday in 1943.
In 1947, the war in China over, Wai-Fong and five small daughters, including my Pauline, returned to China in search of Wai-Fong’s family. Three years later having found no survivors, Wai-Fong rejoined her husband, who had moved to Wellington and now worked for the Government Printing Office. Paleon’s burgeoning household grew to eighteen, including a further four children and numerous extended family members, a heavy responsibility.
Meanwhile, Pauline, was growing up. Petite and pretty, she had a good head for figures and spoke excellent English. Her sisters described her as ‘the clever one.’ Although Wai-Fong was a Buddhist and the family adhered to certain Buddhist practices, every Sunday Pauline and her siblings attended the Chinese Baptist Church. Apart from the Croat children who lived next door, they had no friends, but played amongst themselves. Once, some family members attended the Government Printing Office Annual Picnic, but otherwise there were no family outings. At home, they ate Chinese food prepared by Pauline, while other sisters did the laundry and cleaning. On the rare occasions Wai-Fong made a European-style cottage pie, it was a special treat. If family members were ill, they consulted western doctors, but should the illness persist, Paleon’s herbalist brother dispensed remedies so foul, Pauline once tipped hers into a pot-plant. In Wellington, Chinese Provincial Clubs provided sporting and cultural activities for the tight-knit Chinese community. Pauline played netball for the Chinese Progressive Club. The intervention of a highly-placed favourite uncle allowed Pauline to stay an extra year at school, leaving Wellington Technical at sixteen to join the Bank of New South Wales on Molesworth Street.
Also employed at Molesworth Street branch was the twenty-four year old son of the late David Thomas, a quietly-spoken New Zealand Railways’ engineer, and his wife, Laura, who emigrated from London’s Bexley Heath as girl and later became a school mistress. A Christchurch Boys’ High old boy, Morgan Thomas had studied at Canterbury University before entering the bank, although most of his focus had been on sport: rugby, soccer, swimming, boxing, and surf lifesaving at Northbeach. Full of charm and confidence, Pauline thought Morgan was too busy dating the female bank staff and half the single girls on Molesworth Street to notice her, but that wasn’t the case. Morgan noticed. It didn’t stop him dating the office staff, but over four years, he and Pauline became friends, sharing lunchtimes, and occasionally, if the bank held a picnic or sports event at which employees’ attendance was compulsory, Morgan might drive her home.
By the time Pauline was twenty, her two elder sisters and a younger sister were married, causing her parents some consternation that she was not. It didn’t do to have a Chinese daughter left on one’s hands. Far better she be married and become her husband’s responsibility. Paleon and Wai-Fong arranged for Pauline to marry a likeable young Chinese with a job as a grocer. Pauline didn’t oppose the engagement. It was how things were. You always did what your parents said. But the more she got to know her fiancé, the less she liked him, and eventually she told him she wouldn’t marry him. The family was horrified by her scandalous behaviour. Normally gracious, Wai-Fong was furious. The favourite Uncle tried to plead in the fiancé’s favour, but Pauline was resolute.
‘If you like him so much, you marry him then!’ she retorted. A sister interceded, standing between the two, when the favourite uncle hit Pauline. After that, for several months, no one spoke to her. She became invisible. Only her eldest sister, already married and no longer living in her father’s household, offered support.
Eventually, Paleon conceded Pauline would not marry this particular Chinese boy. And so began a parade of other potential suitors, all with steady jobs and from sound Chinese families. Pauline wasn’t interested.
In Paleon’s household women were modest and obedient; they were careful to show no cleavage, wore no lipstick and sat with their feet crossed in a dainty fashion. They certainly did not go out with European boys. But the small, dignified Chinese gentleman, who once been a respected General, could not command his daughter’s heart.
She fell in love.
The courtship of Pauline and Morgan did not include a single candlelit dinner. They didn’t talk of marrying. No relationship was possible, since neither family would approve. Nothing was said, and yet everything was understood. All at once, it was a wonderful and terrible time.
Morgan was gallant, protective, and attentive.
‘Do you have to keep talking about Morgan all the time?’ said a sister.
‘I don’t want to hurt my mother,’ Morgan said.
In 1964, Morgan took Pauline to Normanby to visit his brother, a Presbyterian minister. His wife’s brother, a jeweller, was also visiting, and Morgan told Pauline to choose a ring. That night on her return to Wellington, Pauline told Wai-Fong she would be marrying Morgan. ‘You know you can’t stay,’ Wai-Fong said. Pauline packed her belongings immediately and went to stay with a sister.
At the time, Pauline knew of only one mixed-race marriage involving a Chinese in Wellington. It wasn’t spoken about. Chinese simply did not marry Europeans. A Chinese man might marry several times, and was always accountable for his wives and children, but it seemed a European man could simply decide to throw off a woman, divorcing her and leaving her to fend for her children alone. Not only was Morgan European, he had been married before.
Staff at the bank supported the marriage, as did Morgan’s brother, and a dear friend from the Chinese Baptist Church told Pauline, ‘Thank goodness you didn’t marry that other boy.’ However, one bank colleague warned, ‘You mustn’t marry Morgan. It’ll be detrimental to his career.’ Wai-Fong made no bones, ‘If your father won’t accept this, you will have to sever all ties with this family.’
Morgan was summoned to meet Paleon, and they spoke for several hours alone. Only the two men know what transpired during those hours, but Morgan always spoke of Paleon with great respect, describing him as fair and welcoming. When the two emerged, Paleon announced, ‘He will be a good husband. He’s kind, he has a good job, and he will look after you.’ So far from China, Paleon understood the family would need to accept the ways of New Zealand and its people.
Morgan travelled to Christchurch to the Thomas family home on Trafalgar Street to tell his mother. Laura was against the marriage. Although in principle she supported the idea of mixed marriages, this didn’t apply to her son. She worried about the difficulties the couple would face, and that any children would be shunned. She did not say she was ashamed, but nor did she want friends and neighbours to know of the union, since Christchurch was particularly intolerant, possibly because of the smaller number of Chinese in the south island community. Nevertheless, in March 1965, Morgan and Pauline married in Normanby, and although members of both families attended, it was all too new, tension still existed.
Despite the growing women’s movement, married women were not permitted to work at the bank, so Pauline was forced to leave, and Morgan was immediately transferred to Putaruru. By this time, the couple were expecting, and Laura came to visit, shortly before the baby was born, and again afterwards. Initially, Laura’s attitude was reserved and courteous, but during those early visits, Laura came to accept how happy the couple were, and how impervious to the stares and comments of others. She was won over. Thereafter, Laura always spoke with pride of her Chinese daughter-in-law.
Long after the deaths of Paleon and Wai-Fong, the favourite uncle, now in his nineties, made a regular visit to the couple’s home.
‘Pauline, I shouldn’t have hit you,’ said the family’s highest ranking member to my mother.
‘Uncle, I don’t remember,’ replied Pauline.
Four children, eight grandchildren and forty-five years later, Pauline and Morgan are married still, an enduring love story of New Zealand’s cultural melting pot.
Published in Heritage Matters, Issue 22 (Autumn 2010)