A TRICKLE HERE AND THERE
Not until after the Philippines joined the Colombo Plan in 1954 did it occur to more Filipinos, especially the younger set, that New Zealand was a country sit uated around its own neighbourhood in the Western side of the Pacific Ocean.
The organisation was born out of a Commonwealth Conference of Foreign Min-isters, held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in January 1950 (but established in July 1951) as a cooperative venture for the economic and social advancement of the peoples of South and Southeast Asia. It started as a group of 7 Commonwealth nations – Australia, Britain, Canada, Ceylon, India, New Zealand and Pakistan.
Even as it was originally conceived to last for a period of only six years, the Colombo Plan was criticized early on as extending the hand of British imper ialism following the rapid devolution of its empire after WWII. Yet, it has grown to 25 members including non-Commonwealth countries and others belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). In 1980, the period of its exist-ence as an organisation was extended indefinitely.
The primary focus of all Colombo Plan activities is on human resources de velopment. Of its four permanent programmes, the Long-Term Scholarships Programme (LTSP) opened up an avenue for bright young Filipinos of university age to venture into New Zealand as a means to advance their skills through further study and share their experiences aimed at arriving at the best practices in different fields of economic and social activities. They appeared to have been warmly welcomed such that by 1962 the Philippines became one of the first Asian countries to have New Zealand visa fees waived.
First, it was a trickle and mostly into areas in New Zealand where the more long -established universities were situated in the North and South islands. Most of them returned home after academic stints but a few decided to settle down in the country more permanently.
One young Filipino student by the name of Ken Ilio who forayed into New Zealand between 1981-1983 as a bilateral aid fellow and who completed a Master of Philosophy degree in Veterinary Science from Massey University in Palmer-ston North relates what a day-in-the-life for him was like back then.
“During that time, there were only about 400 Filipinos in New Zealand. I met Filipino women everywhere, many in small towns and a few in big cities. One poignant meeting was with a woman from Surigao now living in a small town near Lake Pukake in the South Island on Boxing Day. She worked at the hotel where I was staying. The hotel manager told me that their kitchen assistant was Filipina, so I asked him to bring me to her and be introduced. She was stunned at first meeting me (as I was too). She cried and said that she hadn’t seen or spoken to another Filipino for more than two years and was very eager to speak in her own Cebuano dialect which I understand, so I let her chatter away. It was sad to hear her say these things because just a few miles south in Dunedin and in Invercargill were several Filipinas who were always looking for other Filipinos in the area.
One of my Filipino friends – Cena Recio, was an officer at the Philippine Embassy in Wellington and for some reason, the students from Massey and Victoria University in Wellington became close to her (probably because most of us were from the University of the Philippines as she was too). During school breaks, Cena would bring us to one part of New Zealand where we’d perform Filipino folk dances and pangkat kawayan type of shows – a unique orchestra that draws music from unconventional bamboo instru ments, at different venues and festivals. So we became the unofficial cultural troupe of the embassy.
I also met a former neighbour of mine from the UP Campus in Quezon City – in Wellington of all places! She married a New Zealander and was working as an executive secretary for a multinational company. It was funny meeting her there because she borrowed one of my favourite tapes when she was still in the Philippines and then left the country and didn’t even know where to so I didn’t have any hope of recovering it. But I was able to get it back when I visited her in Wellington. Could you believe it? I have to haul myself all the way ‘Down Under’ to get my Nat King Cole tape back!”
Until the mid-1980s, most Filipino migrants were young women who had often met New Zealand men visiting the Philippines or through friends while visiting New Zealand. But as immigration rules of the late 1980s and early 1990s favoured skilled migrants, this made it easier for a growing number of highly-educated and skilled-Filipinos to make their way to the Land of the Long White Cloud – Aotearoa. By the late 1990s Filipinos in New Zealand numbered some where in the range of 5,000-6,000 and were beginning to settle in suburbs in Auckland, Christchurch, Hamilton and Wellington.