New Zealand's consul general to Shanghai had a Confucian upbringing in Malaysia and an Anglican education. She went to university in Auckland, learned Mandarin in Hong Kong and worked as a UN diplomat in New York. Now she hopes to tackle Shanghainese, writes Douglas Williams.
Wen Chin Powles has been the New Zealand Consul General to Shanghai for almost 18 months but her connection to China goes back considerably further.
Powles' grandfather left southern China's Guangdong Province at the turn of last century for what was then North Borneo and which later, in 1963, became Malaysia. With a "Confucian" upbringing in Malaysia and education at an Anglican school there, it was to New Zealand that she decamped for university.
Now this engaging and articulate lady, in a circuitous twist of fate, is representing the New Zealand government here in her ancestral home. Powles' parents are "chuffed" (pleased) that she's back working in China.
"From my point of view and with my background it's enormously satisfying to be here in Shanghai just now," she says.
This is Powles' second posting to China. Her first was to Beijing between 1988 and 1993 when she worked for the New Zealand Ministry for Agriculture and Trade.
"Even between then and now the changes and developments in all fields in China have been phenomenal," says Powles, wife of the former New Zealand ambassador to China and the US, Michael Powles, now an academic.
"Besides the fundamental improvements in living standards, there have been significant legal improvements with a proper framework now in place and young Chinese training, not just in commercial law, but in social law too."
Fresh out of university, Powles started working for New Zealand's Department of Trade and Industry, editing the department's magazine and dealing with trade issues. "Although ethnically Chinese, as a child I spoke the Chinese dialect Hakka, English and Malay, but not Mandarin," says the consul general, but this was to change.
The department, aware of Powles' ethnicity as well as her lively intellect, one assumes, sent her on a two-year intensive Mandarin training course. She first studied at London's esteemed School of Oriental and African Studies, then in Hong Kong.
"I was very fortunate, it was a great turning point in my life and career," says Powles. "In London I was taught by Jung Chang (author of Wild Swans). She was an excellent teacher and filled her classes with fascinating anecdotes."
After Beijing and following a brief sojourn back in New Zealand, the career diplomat was posted to the United Nations' headquarters in New York. Powles worked at the UN for four years, 1997-2000: "The UN, with 190 member countries, is an extremely important institution for the international community. It has held up strongly despite many, many difficulties. It taught me a lot." Points of view are put across in meetings both large and small, and from Powles' description it sounds similar to "The West Wing" series about The White House and Washington politics.
"The experience taught me a lot, perhaps the main thing being about the process of arriving at a mutually acceptable compromise," she says. "A lot was about identifying the relevant people to ask for assistance or for information."
Of the many issues that passed through that august institution during her time there, Powles remembers two vividly. The first was NATO's bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on May 7, 1999. "The anger of the Chinese was felt at many meetings directly after that. Some delegations were on tenterhooks, but thankfully it got sorted out," says Powles.
The other issue was the establishment of East Timor, which, after a 1999 referendum, received full independence from Indonesia in 2002. "It was amazing watching the setting up of this fledgling nation, especially after all the trouble there had been.
"As a fellow Asia Pacific nation, New Zealand was very much involved. We helped set up a police force, organize a prison system and train teachers," she says with infectious enthusiasm. Xanana Gusmao was elected the country's first president on April 14, 2002.
"I supervised the postal voting and it was good to watch the handful of people voting in New York knowing that these simple acts were contributing to the bringing about of a new country." Jose Ramos-Horta, the former prime minister, was sworn in as the tiny, poverty-stricken nation's second president on Sunday.
The UN Secretariat, says Powles, is filled with ordinary people working very hard. Kofi Annan, former secretary general, she recalls is "someone with a lot of inner strength, who did a huge job." She calls the UN Charter "the most important document, the ideal way that the world should be run, but the UN and the charter are a work in progress. Everybody should read the charter."
The China/New Zealand connection goes back to the 1860s when people from southern China arrived in New Zealand looking for gold. The mayor of Dunedin, on New Zealand's South Island, is Peter Wing Ho, from an old Chinese New Zealand family. He can still speak the South China dialect of his forefathers.
With the population of a small Chinese city and an area that of a Chinese province, New Zealand is one of the most environmentally advanced nations in the world. "We are a carbonate neutral country with environmental issues a central tenet of every governmental policy. We hope that we can share some of our knowledge and experience with the Chinese," says Powles.
Of the situation in China, she is realistic but upbeat. "The key thing, as far as I can see, there is recognition of the importance of dealing with these issues at the most senior levels within the Chinese government. Now we must all just hope that this permeates down and translates into action."
She points to the award-winning Suzhou Creek as a good example of how things can work. "The big challenge is in the implementation of policies and the allocation of resources for sustainable development."
The greatest buzz this most personable individual gets here is meeting and getting to know the local Shanghainese. "It's lovely to realize that their concerns are hardly any different from those of my friends back home in New Zealand: their family, their jobs, money, their apartments and it's also been interesting to me to see just how outward-looking a lot of the more educated Shanghainese people are. I hope to get time to get to grips with the local Shanghainese language."
Wen Chin Powles
Nationality: New Zealand
Profession: New Zealand Consul General, Shanghai
Picks and hates
The Shanghai dialect. Would love to be able to speak it.
None. It takes time to get used to new surroundings.
Favorite way to spend a weekend?
Meeting new Shanghai friends. Wandering around the lanes with a camera. I'm truly fascinated by Shanghai's history and its renaissance.
Advice to new expats?
Shanghai is unique: enjoy it!
(Shanghai Daily May 22, 2007)