The Piano in a Chinese New Zealand Diaspora Setting: Musical Biography and Cultural Identity

Conference: The Asian Conference on Asian Studies (ACAS2022)
Title: The Piano in a Chinese New Zealand Diaspora Setting: Musical Biography and Cultural Identity
Stream: Chinese Studies
Presentation Type: Live-Stream Presentation
Henry Johnson, University of Otago, New Zealand


The study of music among the Chinese diaspora in New Zealand has usually focused on artefacts that have a distinct Chinese quality. This might include musical instruments and musical styles that have a recognised cultural home in China, and then transmitted overseas as emblems of identity within disparate social flows. However, diaspora studies in music might also examine music that was adopted by settlers, which offers a different perspective for comprehending cultural identity in a setting of early Chinese settlement. This paper studies the musical life of Matilda (Tilly) Lo Keong (Low) (1875-1940), who was a piano teacher in Dunedin in the south of New Zealand. A biographical approach is used as a way of interpreting how music played a part in the life of New Zealand’s first piano teacher of Chinese ethnicity. Tilly’s music was distinctly western in origin and style, and it seems there was no Chinese traditional music linked with her cultural identity. As well as portraying Tilly’s musical life in a setting of Chinese migration, this paper asks questions relating to music adoption and identity: Can we comprehend Tilly’s cultural identity through a study of her musical activities? Was the adoption of western music an important part of Chinese settler identity? How did western music support Chinese cultural identity in New Zealand in the early twentieth century? These questions and others will form the basis of studying this small yet significant sphere of music making among Chinese New Zealanders in the early twentieth century.

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