Yep Yen Ng

Hong Kong

Yep Yen Ng's portrait
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“Life is always changing. You gotta accept changes, because whatever you do now, whatever you did in the past, it leads you to who you are now.”

Yep’s life is the sum of changes; some of which he never had a say in, and many more which he embraced fully and totally. This constant state of change among a life built on unshakable foundations in the town of Ashburton forged the man that Yep is today. As we sit down amongst the organised chaos in his living room, that in many ways reflects the intense energy that still fuels him these days, the importance of Yep in helping us to understand Ashburton’s migrant communities becomes undeniable.

He has seen Ashburton grow to what it is today and he has witnessed the ethnic diversity of the town evolve from a unique perspective. While it was not his choice to come to New-Zealand, nor to Ashburton, it was his choice to stay. It was also his choice to build a life right here and eventually grow old here. These choices surround him in his home. There are memories of past lives, gathered in photos of Hong Kong and Ashburton, family and life experience, present in trinkets from his children’s childhoods, yet they are all bound to Ashburton. They were all gathered here and in many ways, the life that he lives here everyday is a testament to the ways in which life in Ashburton itself has changed since Yep arrived here as a child.

Yep’s name means “second brother”, “but everyone calls him Yep anyway”.  In 1949, Yep and his family began their migration from Toi San, a small village in the Canton province of China, to join his father and father’s brothers right here in Ashburton. The second world war had caused a massive exodus of Chinese nationals and the rise of the Chinese Communist party further encouraged many families to leave the continent while they still could. Together the Ng clan set out on a lengthy journey to Aotearoa / New Zealand by cargo boat; sharing open bunks on double-deckers with other clans and families from theirs and nearby provinces for one month, until they reached Sydney. From there a boat took them to Auckland, where they disembarked and boarded a train which took them to Wellington. There, they caught yet another boat to the port of Lyttleton and finally from there, they begun the last leg of their journey. They boarded a train which eventually lead them to the small developing town of Ashburton where Yep, his three brothers, mother and his sister were reunited with their father and father’s brothers.

For the next 66 years, Yep worked alongside the men of his clan to build a dynamic Chinese social and economic community in Ashburton through a fruit and vegetable business which Yep’s father and his brothers owned. The Ng Kings, known to locals as the King Brothers, soon became an integral part of Ashburton’s community and contributed to bringing a new lifestyle, new traditions and most importantly, a new world view to our rural community.

Relying on one another for support, strength and belonging, the clan set up a small village on a piece of land on Allens Road. Characterised by its ingenuity and community, the Allens Road settlement, the vestiges of which still stand today; housed a Chinese school for children, living quarters, a common kitchen, farmland and elaborate vegetable washing and storage spaces as well as a small shop.

Yep seems to have had a happy childhood there… In his own words, he was “happy and content”. In between high-pitched laughs that make his dentures move up and down, he recalls growing up picking peas and potatoes and washing them with his hands and also recalls the parties they had on the weekends.

Yep explains that not only did the settlement become a small cultural hub for local and regional Chinese communities who would come from Oamaru and further South “to gamble and play mahjong” on the weekends, but it also became the centre of his own sense of belonging in the community. This is where he formed himself, where he learnt about his own culture but also where he learnt to become a New Zealander. Nowadays, these are all the things that Yep is known for: his contagious happiness, his dedication to the legacy of his family in Ashburton and the attachment and pride that he feels towards the settlement and everything that it represents to him.

Sixty-seven years later, he only lives up the road from the Allens Road settlement and visits it often. It is a symbol of his past, the legacy of his people and it is a beacon of hope that allows him to look to the future peacefully; knowing that this is something that he will eventually leave behind too. He is extremely proud of what his clan has built here in Ashburton , and has faith that one day Ashburton will be proud of it and of them as well.

He talks of the future generations of Ng Kings with the same pride with which he talks about the achievements of the past generations. His children have succeeded in creating lives for themselves in New Zealand and yet have stayed close to their Chinese roots in their own ways. His eyes light up when he talks about his son and daughter, just as they do when he talks about the achievements of his ancestors. In that sense, he is very present and aware of the evolution of his clan from newcomers, to migrants, to Ashburtonians and now New-Zealanders.

Yep embodies how migrants can fully integrate when they learn to embrace the traditions, cultures and rituals of their country of adoption organically. We sit with him in his lounge surrounded by national geographic magazines in English, historical portraits of the King Brothers in Ashburton, cups with Chinese inscriptions on them, a painting of the Green Grocer in Tinwald, small Chinese decorative objects, the scent of Chinese herbs and spices drying on the terrace, books about quantum physics and with Chinese television playing in the background. We are listening to Yep talk about everything that he has learnt in New Zealand and the most interesting thing that arises from him is a hybrid sense of self that comes with a deep self- awareness that Yep understands everything that he is.  He tells us that he is Chinese and that he will always be Chinese, but that Ashburton is his life. He was naturalised here in the 1990s, he raised his children here and has retired here. Like many locals who have lived here for generations, Yep; with his lasting Chinese accent and intrinsic knowledge of Ashburton, is a kiwi as well…an Ashburtonian kiwi. In his words; Ashburton is his home.