As her memoir is released, Helene Wong talks to Mark Broatch about her life in film and theatre, working for Muldoon, racism and visiting China for the first time.
A few weeks ago the Listener ran a photo of you hamming it up with playwright Roger Hall and John Clarke. How did your theatre life come about?
Ballet recitals, elocution lessons and school plays led to amateur theatre in Lower Hutt from my early teens. There were capping revues and political satire at Victoria University in the 1960s and 70s – the photo is from our 1971 smash hit One in Five – followed by acting and directing gigs with the original BATS Theatre.
You worked for Rob Muldoon. What did you do? How did you find him?
He found me. No, actually, it was Bernie Galvin, head of the Prime Minister’s Department, who asked me in 1977 to join the Advisory Group (popularly known as the “Think Tank”) as its adviser for social policy – namely, everything that wasn’t economic policy. Six blokes to look after the latter, one multi-tasking sheila for the former. As for him, hard to warm to as a person, but an excellent boss: he made it clear what he wanted, then let me get on with it.
You began writing on film for the Listener in 1996 after having worked in the industry. How did you discover cinema? Most beloved and hated films?
I discovered it in the 60s and 70s – Easy Rider, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa. In the early 80s when I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I haunted the Harvard Square Theatre because it played art-house classics on high rotate. Most beloved? Coppola’s The Godfather and The Conversation, and Visconti’s The Leopard. No big hates, but I walked out of My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2. I rarely walk out; I always have hope. Not this time.
You went to China with your parents in the 1980s. What did the visit mean for them and for you?
It was my first visit to China, and I was sideswiped emotionally into having to really think about my identity. For my parents, it had all the excitement of being welcomed home, yet in the end they knew it wasn’t home.
You looked deep into your family history. What significance did that have? Any surprises?
When you discover you can trace your family back to the 12th century, you realise you’re part of something bigger and your perspective on life expands accordingly. Surprises? I learned my stern maternal grandfather wasn’t always a paragon of good behaviour.
You encountered much unthinking racism as a child and even later on. Are you more optimistic about race relations now, living in a city with one of the world’s highest levels of people born elsewhere?
Every time I start feeling optimistic, someone turns up to kick the complacency out from under me.
Do you have a sense of how your life would have gone if you’d been born in China instead of Taihape?
I would have been the right age to be a Red Guard smashing ancestral tablets in villages, thereby destroying the records of other people’s family histories.
BEING CHINESE: A NEW ZEALANDER'S STORY, by Helene Wong (Bridget Williams Books, $39.99), is released on May 6. Read an extract from the book.