Korean and Chinese Churches

Without getting into a theological discussion about the truth-status of Christianity or God, I want to bring up the role of migrant churches in Aotearoa especially for the Chinese and Korean community.

I've been reading a study done in Christchurch about the Korean community and how the church has become a central institution for the Korean community because of social exclusion, racism from Pakeha society and lack of 'belonging' and social support for Korean migrants elsewhere. I could draw so many parallels with my experiences of harassment and my parents experiences under the capitalist economic framework. From my experience and observation of a Chinese church, churches are more than just a place of worship and evangelizing, they function like a ready-made community for Asian immigrants.

In Auckland, as in many other parts of Aotearoa and the western world, Asian immigrants are seen as a threat, the idea of the "yellow peril" and "Asian invasion". I can't even count the times I've been called a "Bloody Asian!" or told to "Go back to your own country!" on the street, especially in the 90s. When I was about 8 or 9, I was walking to a friend's house on a main road, just as I walked out of my parent's dairy, an egg landed on my face and cracked open on my glasses. I had no idea what was going on and didn't understand why people would do that. Until now, I wasn't sure if I can assume if it was based on any racist hatred, but after reading the experiences of some Korean migrants in Church, and how egg-throwing at them was really common, I think it might've been the case. But WTF? I was a kid. And these are only the times when racism has been visible and audible. There are more subtle ways that racism operates such as through social exclusion, rejection, unemployment or low-wage jobs and isolation. In Christchurch,

So in this anti-Asian context, ethnicity-specific churches has become a way for some people to deal with the social exclusion from "Kiwi" society. It has acted as a locus of community, networking, friendship-building, and the services of the church kind of create a "collective effervescence" that harnesses a sense of belonging. Chinese festivals are celebrated through the church as well as Christian holidays. The food served is mostly Chinese food, sometimes pizzas and sausage rolls. For young people, teenagers and university students, it's also a place to build friendships and find partners. The irony is that the church itself comes from a European tradition and much of the services are conducted in a similar structure to traditional European ways of conducting services, except with more technologies and in a different language.

Pakeha people always wonder why "ethnic" migrant communities are so clustered and complain about their unwillingness to integrate and assimilate, but why would you want to integrate into a society that is happy to take your money, make you work hard but not include you socially or make any attempts to understand your culture while you are expected to integrate into theirs?

Popular Christian churches can often breed a lot of conservatism and promote Confucian family ethics - children obey parents, wife obeys husband etc. But it is the only accepted channel and accessible channel for a lot migrants to gain a sense of community and belonging. Thinking about the role of the church is more complex than a question of whether Christianity is right or wrong, whether there is a God or not, it's really telling if we look at the functions and spaces it provides for facilitating community and gaining social support networks.

I disagree with Karl Marx on a lot of things, but I think there is a lot of truth in this statement for a lot of societies and groups that have been colonised and Christianised: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."

My mum always laments the lack of community here and the lack of trust people have in each other. When she was growing up, nobody would lock their doors and nobody would steal because everyone was equally poor and the kids would all grow up together from one courtyard. When she was growing up, religion didn't exist but Maoism functioned like a religion. Mao's word was quoted everyday and everyone carried the Little Red Book. She didn't convert to Christianity until she came here.

Churches is one of those spaces/social environments that are more welcoming and supportive of ethnic minorities and facilitates community and a sense of collectivity and belonging in a Pakeha-dominated society that marginalises them. It's like a coping mechanism, works similarly to drugs, can also create the same kind of addiction, except is more acceptable and socially sanctioned. That's probably why East Asian migrant churches do so well here, it can act like a safety net for new migrants to feel more at home, validate their existence and develop support networks within a society that can be so hostile, isolating and awful.


Morris, Carolyn, Richard Vokes and Suzana Chang. 2007. Social Exclusion and Church in the Experience of Korean Migrant Families in Christchurch. SITES 4(1):70-94


  1. Hey nice piece! You might find this piece I wrote for the Goan diasporic community (Goanet) of interest about the Catholic Church and people from Goa:
    Mutual sustenance: Goan women and the Catholic church in New Zealand:


  2. Here's one example of a Korean Church in Christchurch working with the local community centre to break down some of the isolation:

    "At 11 a.m. Saturday morning 10th April, the
    grounds of the Korean Presbyterian Church
    on 75 Packe Street were a sight to be seen as
    hundreds of people gathered to participate
    in the First Annual St Albans Community

    This is from the latest, May 2010 edidition of St Albans Community News, pdf here: http://www.stalbans.gen.nz/index.html

  3. I understand your point of view and I completely empathize with your experiences as I have myself gone through the migrant experience as a little girl growing up in a white man's land. However, it's important to bear in mind that the point of my research was not to instigate radical change but to initiate change and discussion. I believe that it's only through understanding and education that the wall of fear of the unknown (in this case the 'yellow face')will be brought down. Time will also help. In the meantime, it's important to stay peaceful within yourself and not let any bad experience cloud your soul. All the best and cheers! Suzana Chang

  4. so true, i've always readily discussed the church's role in community building. that's one of the aspects that i'm so wary about too.

    i fear that people in those vulnerable places (as close to me as my own family) continue to move towards those institutions without critically thinking about what environment they surround themselves. not addressing why they searched for that place of belonging to begin with doesn't lead to change but deadend solutions to the problem.


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