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The secret gangsta rapper ‘pushed’ into law to help others

31 January 2019 - By Jock Anderson

Kiriana Tan laughs a lot when recounting her childhood in the back of a Chinese takeaway and how her uneducated granddad pushed her toward a career in law to help her people.

But the family lawyer’s latest role on a “mortality committee” is a sombre reminder of the grim task ahead.

Kiriana was recently appointed by the board of the Health Quality and Safety Commission as a member of the Family Violence Death Review Committee in recognition of her expertise working in the area of family violence.

NameKiriana Marie Siew Hwa (Kiriana) Tan
BornHamilton
Age44
Entry to lawGraduated LLB (Hons) from Waikato University in 1997. Admitted in 1998.
WorkplaceBarrister at Te Kopu Chambers, Hamilton.
Specialty areaFamily law and dealing with people in crisis.

She joins law Professor Mark Henaghan as the legal professionals on the committee, which is an independent expert committee that reviews and advises the health, social and justice sectors on how to reduce the number of family violence deaths.

“Part of that ties in with family law, and you see so many things go wrong for families — the worst is resulting in death from family violence,” Kiriana says.

Photo of Kiriana Tan

“All my work is at the coal face ­— with people who are struggling to pay the bills, struggling to look after their kids and struggling with domestic violence.

“This is a chance to look at how systems can be improved and changed so that the outcomes do not result in deaths from violence. It’s one of a number of what they call mortality committees.

“For me there’s got to be a fundamental change in the over-representation of Māori in statistics that relate to certain areas of family law and we need to work in all areas to make things better.”

Kiriana’s Dad is from Penang in Malaysia, and her Mum is part Māori and part Pākeha. Both are retired. Her father’s sister was a lawyer.

“I am Ngati Ranginui from Tauranga Moana and also Ngati Mutunga in Taranaki. My marae is at Bethlehem.

“My parents met at university and ran a Chinese takeaway. I spent a lot of my childhood growing up in the back of the takeaway. They later went back into another food business and then worked for a church.

“I am the oldest of five. My second brother is a presenter on Trackside, my middle sister is manager of a food company, my other brother is a teacher and my younger sister is a doctor.”

House of teenage rugrats

Kiriana is married to wharekura educationalist Jason Kora, who works as a Māori advisor in one of the government’s reviews.

“We have three rugrats. Our 19-year-old son Raukawa is in his first year at Canterbury University, where he’s meant to be doing engineering but I suspect he’s doing what first year students do when they leave home.

“Our second boy, Temaia is 14 and our third, Pounamu is 13. A household of teenagers.

“Life has been predominantly about chasing round after the kids so I don’t have much time for hobbies but Jason and I have a common interest in food so we do a fair bit of entertaining.

“I like cooking — not Monday to Friday cooking — but cooking at weekends when I have spare time and trying something different. I like to blend Asian food with Māori food.”

“My husband likes boil ups, and Dad likes Asian. We live in an extended whānau environment with two houses on one property, with my brother and parents living at one end.

“I like to make what I call a Chinese boil up. Pork bones for my husband, served with noodles as opposed to potatoes and that meets Dad’s needs. Mix and match both sides.

“We have a lot of whānau come through our house and tend to have a marae-type revolving door.

“I would love to do sport because eating food is not good long-term for the health. But I’m definitely not a sports person. The kids and husband are and I try to get a game of tennis now and then but nobody wants to be my partner.

“Tennis seems to be the whānau game, and we draw straws for who plays who. It’s a tradition. I follow the kids’ tennis, netball, rugby and basketball.

“We travel a bit to Penang. Dad is the youngest of 13 and I have a huge amount of whānau in Malaysia. My husband is from Aitutaki in the Cook Islands and we go there and see his home and whānau. My favourite place in the world would be Aitutaki.

“I went to Canada last year with some colleagues to look at their indigenous models for trying to deal with the over-representation of indigenous people in the criminal justice system. I have never been to Europe, so that’s a goal at some point when time permits.

“We’ve done a bit of travel round New Zealand and road trips around the North Island. My favourite holiday spot is Tauranga, where my marae is.

“Our little marae in Bethlehem is probably one of the most beautiful spots in the country. When I was a kid it was down the end of a dirt road and nothing there. It’s probably got all judges’ houses next to it now, with some of the most expensive real estate in Tauranga.

“There is a lodge my grandfather built in the bush near Tauranga, just past McLaren Falls at Omanawa, on some land that was given back. No cell phone coverage and one marae-style building. We’ve had a few Christmas holidays there with extended whānua.”

You can’t help everybody

“When I was young and idealistic I was attracted to law because initially I thought I could help people. What’s changed is you can’t always help everybody.

“You go in wanting to change the world. I used to do Treaty work as well, then chose to specialise in family law.

“I saw that as a bit more in need of immediate resolution but still wanting to make things better. Along the way you get a bit battered and bruised and realise there are less idealistic views. I was really drawn to try and make a difference.

“I am certainly not musical. It’s hard when my children are musical and particularly when you are Māori there’s an expectation.

“My mum liked Kiri Te Kanawa, but dad being Asian couldn’t say the whole name properly so he got Kiri and Ana and put it together – how about that? But I got none of my namesake’s voice whatsoever.

“I like Beyonce and I’m a secret little gangsta rapper, but that probably doesn’t go well with my career choice.

“It’s always a goal if I can read a book in the holidays. I read crime writers Martina Cole and James Patterson. I’m usually having to read a report or having to do something for work so reading for fun has not happened very often recently.

“I like to watch rubbish television because it’s away from reality and I don’t have to think about the plotlines. The best rubbish is the Kardashians. It’s far removed from reality, it’s shallow and it means nothing.

“I like some stuff on Netflix, like Narcos, and Queen of the South is one of my favourites. Things that don’t require a lot of thought. I’m not one of these intellectuals who watches arty stuff and things like that.

“I had a Toyota Highlander but had an issue with hitting things that didn’t move, like poles, and a tree at my house that had been there 10 years. I was told I had to get a smaller car, so I’ve got a Mazda CX5 now.

“We have a two-year old long haired blonde German shepherd called Khan.”

Malcolm, Martin and Oprah for dinner  

“Dinner guests would be Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Oprah Winfrey and my grandfather Des Smith. He would keep the conversation going.”

“Granddad was probably the motivator for me to go to law school and he died in my second year of law. He was uneducated himself, went to World War II, lied about his age and was a prisoner of war.

“He wanted things to be better and saw education as the key, but he never got the chance. He kept pushing and pushing for me to become a lawyer and help our people. He didn’t always say the right things but I would want him there by my side and also want those activists.

“I like the approaches – although they are quite different – of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Oprah might even them out.

“To know that you have made a difference somewhere along the line and in doing that trying to do the least harm possible is a good legal ambition to have.

“We are often in a position of privilege as lawyers and in family law you come across so many damaged people. I guess the ambition is to get through my career without doing any harm and for some people to look back and say “she actually did all right, she did good for us”.

“I know in litigation some people hate you, it’s a given. But you are still trying to do no harm and hopefully somewhere along the line someone will say ‘she really helped me through that process’.

“My husband and I would love to have a beautiful bed and breakfast lodge and host people coming to New Zealand, cook them a feed, and Jason would share some stories with them.

“We like hosting people. It might be a retirement plan. Open up our home, sharing kai, stories, a bit of manaaki.”

Last updated on the 31st January 2019