As the Earth Turns Silver Book / Publication / Landmark Writing


NameAs the Earth Turns Silver
Writer(s)Alison Wong
PublisherPenguin (NZ) and Picador (Australia/UK), Liana Levi (France), Siruela (Spain), Nasza Księgarnia (Poland)
Type of TextNovel


As the Earth Turns Silver is Alison Wong's debut novel. Set in early 1900s Wellington, it explores Chinese-Pākehā relationships through two brothers, Wong Chung Yung and Wong Chung Shun — who have immigrated from China and are making a living working in a fruit and vegetable shop on Adelaide Road while supporting their family back home — and a Pākehā widow named Katherine McKechnie who is struggling to raise her two children. Katherine meets Yung in his shop one day, and a secret love affair develops — much to the disapproval of her son (who, in turn, has inherited the values of her late husband, an abusive and alcoholic tabloid newspaper editor who had been part of a racist campaign targeting the local Chinese community).

In an interview in 2016, Wong comments that this will likely be “my most Chinese novel”, explaining that her motivation to write about that generation was:

not necessarily because I was close to them but because the little that I read about those generations, whether in newspapers or New Zealand literature (including in the stories of New Zealand’s revered writer, Katherine Mansfield) was so ‘other’, and more often than not, very negative and stereotypical.

She was inspired, too, by the stories of her great-grandparents and grandparents, whom she did not know well. In a reflection for the Academy of New Zealand Literature, she recalls learning through a cousin that one of her great-grandfathers may have had an affair with a Pākehā woman. While none of her parents’ generation knew anything of it, her father “understood that it would have been a very lonely life. Because of the poll tax and other discriminatory legislation directed exclusively towards Chinese, very few Chinese women and children came to New Zealand.” Writing about this in the Griffith Review, Wong paints a stark picture of this context:

The 1920 census showed 2,349 males born in China and only twenty-seven females, yet from 1925 all Chinese females were denied permanent entry. Then for twenty-five years, adult Chinese males were denied permanent entry. From 1935, ten New Zealand-born Chinese men a year were allowed to bring over a Chinese wife. Five naturalised Chinese a year were allowed to bring over their wives and unmarried minor children, though given we were denied naturalisation from 1908 few are likely to have come. Until 1939, females were never more than 21 per cent of the Chinese New Zealand population.

Reviews at the time of publication were positive, often noting Wong’s poetic voice, the tight structuring of the novel and its emotional heft. Christopher Moore, writing for Your Weekend, wrote, “Alison Wong’s first novel is not merely a good book, it is a prodigious one… As the Earth Turns Silver is, as one critic remarked, written with a poet’s ear for language and an artist’s eye for detail.” Graham Beattie wrote, “Gut-wrenching, distressing stuff and I know it will be a long time before I will be able to let go of the two protagonists.” while Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton later described it as “lyrical, poised, full of feeling.”

As the Earth Turns Silver received the Janet Frame Fiction Prize in 2009 and the Fiction Award at the New Zealand Post Book Awards in 2010, and has been translated into French, Spanish and Polish.


Key awards

2010 — New Zealand Post Book Awards: Fiction Award

2009 — Janet Frame Award for Fiction

Related entries

Last updated: 29 February 2024 Suggest an Edit


A woman wearing a burgundy knit reading from her book in front of a microphone in a bookshop

Book launch for As the Earth Turns Silver, 2009

A woman wearing a burgundy knit signing books at a wooden table

Book launch for As the Earth Turns Silver, 2009

Two women with pink tops laughing with one another

Alison Wong and Fiona Kidman at the book launch for As the Earth Turns Silver, 2009

Newspaper clipping

Review of As the Earth Turns Silver in The Irish Times, Sat Nov 20, 2010

A woman in a crinkled top and a red name tag stands in front of a pull-up banner that says 'New Zealand Post Book Awards"

Alison Wong at the NZ Post Book Awards, 2010

Reward notice offering a £100 reward

Reward notice for information for the murder of Wong Way Ching, Alison Wong's great-grandfather, 1914

Handwritten notes

Notes for As the Earth Turns Silver, date unknown

[pdf ↓]
Hand-drawn map

Layout of Alison Wong's family's old fruit and vege shops / dwellings (hand-drawn by her mother, Doris Wong nee Hing) with added annotations by Alison, used as background reference for As the Earth Turns Silver, date unknown

[pdf ↓]
Newspaper clipping

Feature on As the Earth Turns Silver in The Dominion Post, Sat July 4, 2009

Handwritten notes

Notes for As the Earth Turns Silver, date unknown

[pdf ↓]