Sukhdeep Singh and Rizwaana Latiff. Photo: Florence Charvin

Beyond past European mass migration, a wealth of diversity brings a kaleidoscope of culture to Hawke’s Bay. Our growing ethnic communities represent a much smaller slice of the pie than Māori, Pasifika and Europeans, but the flavour they add to society is pungent and deeply felt.

Most of us connect with ethnic cultures through our stomach! 

We collectively develop a taste for the exotic – Thai, Indian, Chinese – interacting with these people when acquiring their cuisine, often bastardised to suit western palates. They run our dairies and bottle shops, staff our gas stations at inhospitable hours, make themselves useful in multitudinous workplaces across the Bay. 

In providing these essential services they give so much more than much needed labour. They incrementally broaden our horizons, give us an opportunity to view our world through a new perspective, a different lens.

The 2018 census counted 10,338 Hawke’s Bay residents identifying as Asian, African, Latin American, or Middle Eastern – 6% of our population. Over 80% are Asian with Punjabi, Hindi and Tagalog, a Filipino dialect, most widely spoken after English. They are employed in every industry bar mining, their employment rate slightly higher than the regional average. They are more likely to work in accommodation, food and retail, and less likely to work in Agriculture, Construction or Education than the general population. 

Like the rest of us, more have no religious affiliation than adhere to any one religion. Still, our ethnic people are 20% more likely to engage in faith – mostly Sikh, Catholic, and Hindu, alongside small but vocal Buddhist and Muslim congregations. 

The social landscape has changed so dramatically since 2018, bated breath awaits next year’s census. Anecdotally, despite Covid border closures, ethnic community leaders report swelling in their ranks. For the first time, concerted engagement teams work on the ground with communities to capture accurate data.

Rizwaana Latiff adds senior advisor to the regional census engagement team to her already full plate of social outreach. Thirty years of nursing and midwifery gave her the will and skill to care for communities, primarily women and children. She balances grassroots action with commitment to creating top-down policy change, advising both the Department of Ethnic Communities and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, as well as providing cultural consultation for council. 

Latiff’s passion for people and principle is evident in the dizzying number of hats she wears. While president of the Multicultural Association of Hawke’s Bay, an umbrella group dedicated to representing and supporting the growing network of cultures that contribute to our region, she oversaw its focus shift from events and festivals to advocacy and service provision. During Covid she coordinated volunteers to make and deliver food parcels, and became a vaccinator, taking clinics to disparate places of worship across the region. 

As area director of Zonta, an international voluntary organisation empowering woman by raising awareness of domestic violence, she coordinates events and campaigns as well as providing practical support and consultancy. Workshops, training and camps all form part of her impressive tool kit, in liaison with a myriad of agencies.

In many ways Latiff is a model migrant. In her twenty-two years in Aotearoa, she has retained her culture while remaining unafraid to criticise, providing pathways for real change. A practising Muslim, of South African Indian descent, she reads the Koran in te reo Māori but only wears hijab in prescribed situations, to the chagrin of some. “Tell me where the Koran tells me I need to wear hijab and I’ll wear it … I won’t wear it just for the visual,” she declares. 

With Shama Ethnic Women’s Trust, she acknowledges and addresses cultural barriers to accessing domestic violence relief, providing safe, culturally appropriate services. She’s combatting cultural assumptions that arranged marriages are for life, regardless of circumstances, standing against child marriage and female genital mutilation. She’s aware many migrants would prefer to brush such issues under the carpet for fear of perpetuating harmful stereotypes. For Latiff, “raising awareness of any situation is a foundation for building resiliance. If we build the women up then the family is looked after. It’s about working at grassroots level, making a difference one person at a time, one family at a time.”

Latiff also supports the ethnic rainbow community, “probably the least seen in New Zealand because they get ostracised from their own people. We work to support them to be who they are.” She’s training as a marriage celebrant to officiate culturally appropriate queer wedding services. Mindful of families who may struggle with bringing up children in an alien culture, she’s developing a parenting programme, workshopping strategies “to maintain our own culture, values and ethics but to adapt to the current environment, to build capacity in parents as well as children.”

Latiff sat on the Hastings District Multicultural Strategy Working Group to develop an articulated, actionable plan to make the region an inclusive, welcoming community where everyone belongs. This strategy is the first of its kind in the North Island and only the second in the country. It identifies goals and outlines actions, over five years, to achieve them. 

Hastings District Council is on the pathway to Welcoming Communities accreditation, a formal governmental standard set by Immigration New Zealand. Celebration of multiculturalism, inclusivity and connection, equitable access to services and resources, empowerment to be involved in decision making and Council modelling workplace diversity, should benefit us all, not just our ethnic communities. 

Sukhdeep Singh was another voice in the creation of the strategy. When he moved to Aotearoa from Punjab in 2010, he “felt homesick, like I was unwelcome here, like I didn’t belong … I was involved in a lot of voluntary work in India. I thought if I want to be part of this community and this country, I need to do something proactive from my end.” 

He discovered the Multicultural Association, serving for a time as president. “I was looking for a way to make a positive difference and contribute with ethnic communities so nobody else needs to go through what I faced … it’s one of the best things that happened to me in the last twelve years. I’ve met so many good friends, they’re like my family,” he enthuses. He was recently named a Kiwibank Local Hero for his mahi in the community, tirelessly working for a variety of causes, serving society as a whole.

Singh is passionate about passing his mother tongue to the next generation, vital to preserving culture. Among our ethnic communities, Punjabi is spoken most after English, aided by classes at the Sikh temple. It’s the language of both Sikhs and Muslims, Indians and Pakistanis, the region cruelly carved in two by retreating colonisers. Back on the subcontinent, the groups are conflicted, but here have more cultural similarities than differences. Singh tries “to be very inclusive, to push them to come together,” hosting events celebrating their shared language. 

Singh believes in the dream of a multicultural society. He likens it to a dish from home, “khichdi, you put different things in, spices, rice, vegetables, lentils. If you put just one thing in, it tastes like nothing. Just like society and community. Different cultures, different people from different backgrounds create a beautiful community.” 

A businessman, Singh sees the efficacy of diversity in the workplace, a range of perspectives allowing broader scope of service. He encourages sharing of culture – language festivals and food – to break barriers. He feels “a more inclusive team is better for the community and gives you better capability to address the needs of a range of clients. It’s so important for different cultures to try to understand each other, their values and traditions.”

Lara B. Ventura chairs The Philippine Community of Hawke’s Bay, comprising over 1,200 members across the region. They provide the Filipino community practical, social, and cultural support, and showcase Filipino culture and values in wider society. Ventura has seen a huge ballooning of Filipinos migrating to Hawke’s Bay, attracted by better, less crowded living conditions and a less competitive labour market. 

The Philippines has a rich tradition of highly educated medical practitioners sorely needed on the front lines of our hobbling health service. Many are granted residency and do hard yards in hospitals and care homes throughout the region. 

Last year Ventura staged a Filipino lantern making competition. Handmade parols are typically made and displayed at Christmas all over the Philippines, a symbol of faith, hope and love, a beacon of light in the darkness. This year the community will come together to make traditional rice cakes. She also held a Pinoy music festival, open to all, showcasing local Filipino bands. 

For Ventura, cultural preservation is key. “I owe it to our people, particularly the kids, the second generation who grew up here, not to forget who we are…growing up in a different culture they embrace the new culture here, it’s their new home, but they should remember their origins,” she passionately asserts. 

Jacklyn Night Photo V Hoy

Jacklyn Night was brought to Aotearoa from Pune, west India, at just ten months old. His earliest memories are of Hawke’s Bay, where his family moved when he was four, drawn by the Steiner school. Though his family were a blend of Zoroastrian and Muslim faiths, speaking Hindi and Gujerati as well as English in the home, he never felt connected with his culture of origin, nor did he adopt their language or religion. “Growing up was tough, being the only brown kid in the class. I felt like I didn’t fit into either culture. It was lonely,” he remembers. 

His palate is his only real tie to Indian culture, retaining a taste for his mother’s traditional cooking. Otherwise, he doesn’t feel Indian, even choosing to legally change his name from the noticeably ethnic one given at birth to one he feels befits the aspiring actor, film maker and poet he is today. At twenty-two, he identifies, not with the ethnic community he was born into, but the creative community where he has found belonging. “Aotearoa is where I grew up. It is my home. It made me the person I am today,” he proclaims.

Demi Yu migrated to Hawke’s Bay from China, motivated by religious persecution. She is a devotee of Falun Gong, a modern take on traditional qigong, condemned by the Chinese Communist Party as a dangerous cult. Devotees have been imprisoned and tortured for their beliefs, based around a series of movement and breath practices. 

Falun Gong in the 2022 Hastings Blossom Parade Photo Simon Cartwright

Yu has sacrificed a lot for her religion – both her home and her marriage. “Falun Gong saved my life. Without it I think I would be dead,” she proclaims. Still hesitant of her English-speaking abilities, she recalls when she arrived in Aotearoa twelve years ago. “I was afraid to go to the supermarket, I couldn’t communicate.” She took an English class at Heretaunga Women’s Centre, but still falls short of the depth of expression of which she is capable in her native Mandarin. This is the default language spoken at her day job, picking blueberries in Flaxmere. 

But she avoids the local Chinese community, mindful most have been turned against her faith by Party propaganda. Falun Gong takes centre stage in her life, but her spiritual practice connects her with the community. Sometimes she takes her daily sequence of movements and breathwork to the park, inviting the public to join in. For Yu, faith and exercise have their own universal language. 

In 2018 Nicolás López came to Aotearoa from Colombia to study English in Queenstown before moving to Hawke’s Bay two and a half years ago. He fell in love with the diverse, vibrant, talented international community here. “I wasn’t looking for it but when I found it, I wanted to be a part of it,” he recalls. 

An accomplished dancer and musician, he teaches salsa and bachata as well as writing and performing original music both solo and collaboratively. Salsa is a perfect example of cultural hybridity. A product of the immigrant melting pot, its rhythms stem from beats brought to South America by African slaves, fused with Spanish melodies and Caribbean instruments. 

He is grateful to Joseph Taylor of the Napier Tango Club for “creating so many opportunities for immigrants to perform, teach, learn and succeed.” The Tango Club is a home from home for many internationals. López teaches a spectrum of nationalities – locals, Europeans and South Americans, united by their love of dance. 

Last year López and Argentinian performer Brenda La Grotteria brought together the community they count as family to produce A Musical Journey Through the Cultures of the World, an ensemble show held at the Tango Club featuring originally devised music, dance, poetry, and artistry. A vast range of nationalities and cultures took part, focussing on traditional as well as contemporary cultural performance, showcasing the innovative talents brought to Aotearoa from distant shores. In López’s words, “to celebrate all the wonderful international and local creativity I have found here in Hawke’s Bay.” 

Shiho Pole Photo Nomad Poenix

Shiho Pole came to Napier as a backpacker from Tokyo sixteen years ago, where she met her Kiwi husband. He already spoke fluent Japanese, having worked and lived there. Just six months after meeting they moved back to Japan together and were married. 

She was nine months pregnant with her first child when the Tōhoku earthquake struck. Living coastally she felt vulnerable. The Fukushima nuclear disaster compounded her unease. “In the supermarket I was always looking for the source of my food, wondering was it safe,” she remembers. In the wake of the quake, the young family moved back to the safety of Hawke’s Bay, soothed by New Zealand’s clean green image. “Flying over Tokyo you can’t even see the city. Here the air is pure, we’re surrounded by nature,” she remarks. 

Shiho is the face of Mangla Tribal Fusion Bellydance, teaching and performing privately and publicly across the country. Hers is a hybrid style, originating from the US, combining elements of flamenco, modern, hip-hop and Indian dance with traditional middle eastern styles. Her classes, taught from her home studio, attract a cross section of local and international dancers of all abilities, many of whom perform with her at festivals and events, spreading colour, culture and joy.

She also works at Hastings’ Asian Grocery where she enjoys educating the clientele on the cuisine of her homeland. Like many immigrants, food and speaking her mother tongue in the home keep her connected to her culture, and help her share it with her diverse community.

Aotearoa is a young country, the newest of the new world. We try to learn from the mistakes of other nations in how we respect our Indigenous population. Similar values of compassion, understanding, kindness and curiosity would help integrate our blossoming ethnic communities. 

They come seeking much valued Kiwi freedom – social, political, religious, economic – bravely daring to make a change, as all our tupuna once did. They will change the social and cultural landscape, with acceptance, for the better. They have so much to offer – food, music, festivals, language, arts, and essential skills. So embrace the changing face of Hawke’s Bay, we all have so much to teach and learn. 

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