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On Winston, Wongs, name puns and a sense of humour

Winston Peters wasn’t taking a friendly jibe. He was using humour to make a serious point, and that is how his joke should be judged.

Almost all of the commentary following Winston Peters’ “two Wongs don’t make a right” joke has focussed on respect, historical context, how old the joke is, whether people of the name Wong find it funny, and indeed, whether it’s funny at all.

I’m glad to see ample criticism, but these are all the wrong questions. These commentators talk about his joke as if Mr Peters made some sort of ill-chosen, insensitive punchline, as if he needs better jokes. It was indeed insensitive, but it wasn’t just some error of judgement. Mr Peters wasn’t cracking some light-hearted joke. Mr Peters was trying to make a point—to remind his audience that the Chinese are taking over our country—and he used humour to achieve it.

This should not be a revelation. Humour is a common, and effective, rhetorical technique. Good orators, like Mr Peters, use it well for persuasive effect. In this case, Mr Peters was rebutting the claim that, because Labour once did similarly, National is justified in continuing their relaxed approach to foreign ownership. “As they say in Beijing, ‘two Wongs don’t make a right’.”

The joke is clever precisely because it plays on the racial group that Mr Peters has been targeting for some time, particularly with regard to foreign ownership of property. He was a vocal critic of the sale of farms to the Shanghai Pengxin group, accused the Huka Lodge of selling out to Chinese buyers, and jumped on the bandwagon after the Conservatives’ Colin Craig exposed the Lochinver Station sale. (He was strangely silent on a $1 billion deal involving Canadians.)

Absent that context, the line would have made no sense. Imagine if he had made a joke about a common English or Dutch surname. Whether it would’ve been offensive isn’t the point—it just would have looked completely random. Conversely, if Mr Peters’ crusade against foreign ownership fretted the Canadians, or just the world in general, the joke would have come out of nowhere. You would’ve been confused, not amused.

In other contexts, it’s appreciable that the same joke might be made light-heartedly. It’s not surprising that some Wongs are used to it: name puns aren’t necessarily offensive. But name puns only work when the target is actually involved—otherwise it’s not a pun. The pun here is that the topic of foreign ownership is about the Chinese. It’s only funny if you have at least some sympathy for that position. If not, there’s no double meaning to form the pun.

This is the reason the joke is racist. It’s not intrinsically culturally insensitive: as Mr Peters says, a sense of humour is still worth having. And it’s not merely ignorant. It’s offensive because Mr Peters had a genuine political point to make, and he chose his line deliberately to do so. As much as he wants to talk about how he heard it in Beijing and how his companion there found it funny, it remains that he wouldn’t have used it in the first place if he didn’t have the Chinese in mind. And at the point where there’s a specific class of people you want shut out, you’ll have no qualms cracking a joke that makes fun of them.

It’s a good joke—but only if you agree with Mr Peters’ racist stance. I hope that applies to no-one.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Well said. Unfortunately, the hope expressed in your last sentence is rather forlorn. I wonder how many false ‘No”s ‘it takes to make an honest

    13 August 2014
  2. Mike #

    Your point is well put that he was drawing on the willy nilly approach by both the Nats and Labour to any non resident investment controls. The Lochinver station purchase provided the opportunity to make a joke because the Chinese company appears to be on a land grab. Time will tell. But the comment is not racist by any stretch because there was no malice and most New Zealanders have seen it for what it was no matter what spin is put on it by media commentators who are far too precious from their own bias to spin the counter. That there are really no controls and no one knows the actual state of foreign ownership is the real issue which Peters is on about – requiring a register. If the research was done you would find Peters is not against foreign ownership and only requires we make sure that business development and jobs are and should be the primary aim for such investment.

    13 August 2014
    • Chuan-Zheng #

      I would have more sympathy with this interpretation had Mr Peters been more consistent in calling out major foreign acquisitions of property.

      13 August 2014
  3. Mike #

    The Lochinver purchase was announced by the Conservatives and he grabbed the opportunity I grant you. He has previously railed against all non resident foreign purchasers and it is part of his stated policy. And from my recall it was also stated that two Wongs don’t make a right. I haven’t a racist bone in my body but many are concerned about the current laize faire policy when is comes to overseas ownership where there are apparently no controls over any organisation or country. Of course foreign investment is essential and Peters acknowledges that. Its a sensitive issue. Kiwis can not purchase land or have control of businesses in China and many other countries so it requires some understanding, I believe, before everyone gets on their high horse about this issue. If there are folk that feel this was racist then that is unfortunate. It was probably a not so good joke to make his point when the Lochiver deal was up in lights.If you read their policy which I have just done it is quite clear where he is going. He was also up in arms about the Oravida situation as well where the milk supply line was opened for that company when many others were left. That was more to do with preference to friends of the party. So he comes with a number of facits to make his point to the electorate and it really requires a bit of balance. Some of the commentary has been way over the top. I do understand where you are coming from but I didnt think this was racist a- view shared by Susan Devoy. She felt it was unfortunate.

    13 August 2014

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