In 1914 there were approximately 2500 people of Chinese descent living in New Zealand. Of this group, how many men enlisted?
There have been nearly 40 service people who have been identified in Online Cenotaph as being of Chinese descent, though there is sure to be many more.
Chinese men who were born in New Zealand or ‘naturalised’2 following long-term residence were, by law, British subjects. The New Zealand Expeditionary Force accepted British subjects: men born in New Zealand or men born elsewhere in the British Empire. However, for Chinese in New Zealand, laws of citizenship were often not upheld.3 Some were able to slip through the system. One such case was that of Chinese-Australian brothers Alfred and David Aghan.
The Aghan brothers were both born in Australia, to William Ah Gan and Eliza Southgate, two of eleven children. Alfred John Aghan was born on the 19th July 1890, in Victoria, Australia his younger brother David George Aghan born on the on the 20th June 1892.4
In 1916 the Aghan brothers left their jobs as ‘French polishers’ (furniture restorers) in Melbourne, Australia and travelled to New Zealand. They had a brother and sister already here.5 With local addresses obtained via their siblings, the brothers enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and in due course joined the Auckland Mounted Rifles.
It appears that despite being Australian-born Chinese (and therefore British subjects in Australia) the brothers were unable (or found it too difficult) to enlist there.6 In New Zealand they presented themselves as Australians, not Chinese. As Australians they were citizens of the British Empire so were eligible to serve. That they should go to such lengths to serve an Empire that had apparently snubbed them seems extraordinary.
From 1916 until 1918, Alfred and David served with the Auckland Mounted Rifles in Egypt and in Palestine. Whilst overseas, Alfred took many photographs, complied into two photo albums, now held by the Auckland Museum, the photo below was taken by Aghan while in Cairo.
Though initially determined to take part in this war, it was not long before they, like many others, yearned to be home. Long rides, little sleep, extreme heat and lack of water exhausted them. Alfred’s prose and poetry, jotted into a small notebook, reveals his despair. On the 3rd of April 1917, during a short break from battle in Gaza, Palestine, he wrote:
‘The night seems like a nightmare to me… bringing in those prisoners on that long dark and dangerous ride, tired dusty men barely able to maintain their seats in the saddle, urging along the already worn-out prisoners. Even the daylight brought no respite for us, only the heat and dust to aggravate our thirst… War indeed is hell. How awful the whistle-shriek and burst of high explosives and shrapnel. That rip of machine gun and whisper of death flying bullet makes your flesh creep.’
After the war, Alfred and David returned to Melbourne. New Zealand was simply a stopping point – a means to an end.
Back home in Melbourne Alfred founded a New Zealand sub-branch of the Returned and Services League of which he was president until 1935.
It was not until 1997 that Alfred and David’s descendants learned of their family’s Chinese heritage. Research revealed that Alfred and David’s father came from Guangzhou (formerly Canton), South China, and that he moved to Australia to mine gold. His anglicised first name was William, and his surname was not Aghan but Ah Gan.
On the 28th of March 1887, William Ah Gan married Eliza Southgate. The couple had 11 children, two of the 11 being Alfred John Ah Gan (born 1890 at Wahgunyah, Victoria) and David George Ah Gan (born 1892).
In 1904 the Ah Gan family changed their name to Aghan. According to Alfred’s grandson Brett Aghan, the reason is not totally clear however his family guesses it may have been due to the persecution that Chinese people faced in Australia at the turn of the twentieth century. As Eliza was English, it was easy for the family to disguise their Chinese ancestry by anglicising their surname to Aghan.
Eliza died on October 9th 1912. William died on October 2nd 1917. Once William had passed away, the family’s Chinese heritage was temporarily ‘forgotten’. According to Brett Aghan, neither Alfred nor David ever mentioned being Chinese. Instead they did their best to assimilate. Fighting for the British Empire was one means of doing so.
Below is the collection items we hold which relate to Alfred Aghan. These include his identification badges, which distinguished him as a member of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, 3rd Auckland Mounted Rifles. Alfred Aghan's story is also told in our Pou Maumahara Memorial Discovery Centre on Level Two.
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Chinese Service Personnel
Alastair Kennedy, Chinese Anzacs: Australians of Chinese Descent in the Defence Forces 1885-1919 second edition, revised to include New Zealand-born Chinese of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force 1914-1919 (Canberra, Australia, 2013).
 ‘Naturalisation’ is the process by which an immigrant changes his status from foreigner to British subject through birthplace, length of residence and/or government application.
 In his article “Joe Lum vs. Attorney General”, Nigel Murphy shows that while New Zealand-born Chinese were legally ‘British subjects’ they were regularly ‘discriminated against in law and had their rights curtailed in New Zealand.’ Article in Manying Ip (ed), Unfolding History, Evolving Identity: The Chinese in New Zealand (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003), 59.
 Brett Aghan notes that on the Australian Births, Deaths and Marriages Register, Alfred’s name is recorded as Albert James Ah Gan [BDM 28334].
 William Henry Aghan married Minnie Welch (relative of Leah Welch) in 1905 in New Zealand [BDM5450]. Mary Aghan married William Dyson in 1906 in Auckland [BDM 12676].
 Alastair Kennedy suggests the same (see p139).
 Malcolm Thomas and Cliff Lord, New Zealand Army Distinguishing Patches 1911-1991, part 1 (Wellington, 1995), 18.
Cite this article
Aghan Brothers. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 18 May 2021. Updated: 26 May 2021.