The changing face of sport in New Zealand

by Bridget Tunnicliffe / 19 June, 2017
Students from Auckland's Mcleans College. Photo / RNZ

Playing sport might be second nature for many Kiwis, but what about for young Asian-New Zealanders whose parents insist that education is everything?

Auckland's Macleans College has one of the largest Asian rolls in the country - half the school is made up of students who identify as Asian.

Philip Zhang is a member of the 1st XV. The 15-year-old started playing rugby about three years ago. His parents were born in China, so do they have any clue about rugby?

"Nah, not at all ... to be honest they actually don't really want me to play, they just think it's too violent."

Philip says he's had to negotiate with them to stay in the game he enjoys so much.

"I want to keep playing until Year 13 but they want me to quit."

Do they want him to study more? "Yeah, yeah ... Asian parents."

It's a comment that elicits laughter and nods of recognition from other Macleans College students of Asian descent who are also talented sportspeople.

Talent Kwok moved to New Zealand from Hong Kong when he was 11, and started playing rugby a couple of years ago.

Now 15, he's already playing in the school's 2nd XV, and deputy principal Andrew Mackenzie tells me he's a real character on the field - a player who doesn't back down.

But before he came to New Zealand he didn't know rugby existed.

"I don't even know there's a sport called rugby, when I was in Hong Kong. I couldn't speak English when I [was] first playing."

NZ's traditional sporting face is slowly changing. Photo/ RNZ

NZ's traditional sporting face is slowly changing. Photo/ RNZ

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Are his parents proud of his sporting pursuit? "They don't really care ... they want me to play piano more than sport, and study more."

And they don't watch him play at the weekend, he said.

"They just want to sleep."

The students say their parents are extremely busy, building a life for them in a country that they often arrived in with little.

Sport New Zealand surveys show that those who identify as Asian participate in sport and recreation less than the average New Zealander and lack of time is more likely to be mentioned by Asian participants as a reason for this than any others.

When I arrive at Macleans, it's not long before music drifts from a classroom. Poking my head around the door, I see a group of young people of Asian descent playing instruments with expert precision.

It's no surprise the school has a healthy music department. Many of the young Asian people I speak to say their parents consider music to be a more acceptable extracurricular pursuit than sport.

Sally Fu, 17, whose parents were born in Hong Kong, used to play an instrument but she stopped because badminton took over.

Sally Fu, left, and Zhi Ying Cheng have to pay close attention to their studies, while excelling at their chosen sports. Photo /RNZ

Sally Fu, left, and Zhi Ying Cheng have to pay close attention to their studies, while excelling at their chosen sports. Photo /RNZ

Her parents were not keen on her dropping music for sport.

"We had a bit of conflict but then they got used to it and then they supported me with badminton more. They have been concerned it will take me away from study but I just have to get organised and sort everything out myself."

She is currently ranked as New Zealand's number one women's player and hopes to get to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Zhi Ying Cheng, 16, is ranked third in New Zealand women's table tennis. She trains up to five times a week around tournament season.

Her parents, who were born in China, were also initially concerned about it compromising her studies.

"But they say if I can manage my time well they're going to be supportive of my table tennis. I'm just hoping to enjoy myself and keep on producing results and, yeah, I just want to have fun."

Kamal Singh is the king of track and field at Macleans. He specialises in the long jump and is currently ranked third in the 100m for U18s.

The 17-year-old, whose parents were born in India, admits he sometimes feels like the odd one out at athletics meets.

"There's not that many Indians ... but I've got the support of my coach and family so I'm OK.

"They are really supportive about it but they kind of want to make sure that I'm studying as well so I kind of balance it out. I want to take it as far as I can, I'm currently aiming for World Juniors next year."

Does playing sport help them mix with their peers from different backgrounds? It seems it can for those who play New Zealand's traditional sports.

"Yeah, I guess." says Philip.

"Definitely maybe with my Poly [Polynesian] friends ... I think they just respect us equally as everyone else. They'll be like 'wow, there's an Asian on the team'."

Being ranked number three in New Zealand women's table tennis is probably the equivalent of being a Silver Fern, but Zhi Ying Cheng says it hasn't really earned her extra kudos with class mates.

"Because table tennis is mostly an Asian-dominated sport, when I play table tennis I just get stereotyped mostly."

Does that bother her? "Not really because it's kind of true," she laughs.

Integration on the sports field

Kabaddi is one of the fastest growing sports in Auckland. The ancient Indian sport has some similarities with the schoolyard game bullrush.

In 2013, the Papatoetoe Sports and Community Charitable Trust formally adopted the Papatoetoe Kabaddi Club as the 11th community group to be based at its sports centre.

Papatoetoe Kabaddi Club secretary Dev Dhingra said that was significant.

"This is the only club [in New Zealand] which is outside of a temple space so this was a great opportunity ... to have a neutral place where all people from different nationalities can see the game and come and play together. It's very important to have a central location."

Mr Dhingra, who moved to New Zealand in 2005, said they were also getting a lot of inquiries from all different nationalities.

"Pacific Islanders, Māori, Kiwis - guys who want to know about the game. These guys can come and see, and if they want to play they come and play with us."

And who is to say that the sports that Asian immigrants are bringing to New Zealand won't in turn be picked up by other Kiwis?

A friend of Mr Dhingra coaches the New Zealand women's kabaddi team but you won't find any Indian women in it.

Elizabeth Motu is the captain. "Ninety-nine percent of the team is Māori ... it's definitely got a Māori culture to the team and that's what we focus mainly on, especially when we're travelling ... with customs and stuff like that."

So how did a bunch of Māori women get involved in kabaddi?

Motu, as she's known on the field, said four years ago their Indian coach approached a local marae asking if any girls would be interested in playing the sport.

From there it went through the grapevine and they built a team.

Before long, Motu found herself being announced to a packed stadium in India for the final of the World Cup. They came runners up to the hosts in 2013.

They've been to two more World Cups, finishing second again and third.

The 31-year-old said her background in rugby gave her a good foundation for kabaddi.

Elizabeth Motu is the captain of the New Zealand women's kabaddi team.  Photo/RNZ

Elizabeth Motu is the captain of the New Zealand women's kabaddi team. Photo/RNZ

Motu is an attacker or 'raider' as it's known.

"I can't even explain what the excitement is when playing a game ... it's beyond butterflies, shaking legs. There's a lot of pressure because it's a one-on-one sport when the raider goes out to raid against the stoppers."

In India, kabaddi is hugely popular and Motu said the crowds are male-dominated.

"Maybe 90 percent of the crowd is men so that's very daunting as you're going out on the field ... yeah but the hype itself eh, it's just a different world."

Motu said they would like to implement it into schools so they can build-up a strong foundation.

Mr Dhingra's eyes light up at the thought of a New Zealand men's team made up of his compatriots and others brought up on a diet of rugby.

"We could be number one in the world ... an ideal New Zealand team would be a mix of Māori and Indian boys together because we have agility with Indian boys who run fast and we have the Māori boys who've got a lot of power."

This story was first published on the RNZ website

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