by John Douglas
Chinese gold miners who mainly came from villages near Canton, Kwantung province in southern China, were encouraged by the Otago Provincial Governmen to settle here as a result of decline in the number of European miners when a large number of them left for the Westcoast goldfields in 1864 -1866. The first 200 of these Chinese were recruited from the Victorian goldfields of Australia and by 1868 there were some 1200 of them in Otago.
Chinese miners often either re-worked the places where the Europeans had been before or the poorer fields. At nearly all the well known alluvial gravel goldfields, Chinese settlements were established - Lawrence, Teviot (Roxburgh), Blacks (Ophir), Naseby, Nevis Valley, Conroy's Gully, Arrowtown, Skippers, Cardrona Valley, on the Kawarau and the Clutha River - Cromwell / Clyde (Cromwell Gorge), Alexandra (Roxburgh Gorge) and Nokomai Valley, Southland. In the summer months, small numbers worked the winter snow areas of the Serpentine, Macetown, Potters No 2 and the Fraser Basin territory, moving back to their river claims in winter.
Neat stacks of rewashed stones, piled in orderly "tailings", are still evident of their workings worked by the methodical Chinese. They worked the riverbeds and terraces as well as hydraulic sluicing on a small scale. Generally they didn't like working in the tunnels and as well, lacked the capital to get into rock mining.
The Europeans, as a rule, were not fond of small earnings on a goldfield while the Chinese were perfectly satisfied with a fair return or wages living in either cave shelters, under canvas or in stone dwellings. Some Chinese set up trading stores - mainly for there own kind, a few as part time interrupters, others went into small scale market gardening, fruit growing, selling their produce mainly to the European (most Chinese had their own little garden plot), while others worked on road and bridge construction when work was available.
Despite the active early Otago Provincial Governmen encouragement of the Chinese diggers, the majority of the mining communities did not always accept them. The culture differences led to misunderstandings and even active racism. Chinese miners often lived apart from the Europeans in Chinatown's along side the mining villages. In the early 1870's shiploads of Chinese were coming direct from China itself and by now the Chinese population in New Zealand reached some 5000 - 4300 in Otago. This increasing the pressure of prejudice and a demand that there numbers be restricted. As well the Government imposed a “Poll Tax”.
Immigration slowed down and by the 1890's the Chinese population began to recede with the majority making their way back to their "Home Land". Many of those that had died here were later disinterred from New Zealand soil to be returned home for reburial according to their own rites. The first shipment was in 1881. The next shipment was in 1902 when the SS Riniu picked up 265 that had been buried in Otago along with another 177 from the Westcoast and off loaded at Wellington onto the SS Ventnor with another 32 being picked up. Of the 474 dead (some records said 499) while returning home on their coffin ship, the ship hit a reef somewhere off Opunake, Taranaki and finally sank just south of the Hokianga Heads, Northland. The captain and 15 others were lost while 20 of the crew survived as well as the four Chinese accompanying the coffins. The bones of the Chinese miners went down with the ship. Later some coffin pieces and bones were washed up on the beach and local Maori reburied then in the sand dunes.
Those Chinese that stayed behind either couldn't return for family reasons or married a European woman and merged into the European way of live. There were a few rascals amongst the Chinese but the bulk of them were descent honest citizens. Amongst them were some exceptionally fine types capable of holding their own with the best of any race.
The most successful of these would likely to have been Choie (Charles) Sew Hoy, a wealthily and enterprising Chinese, a Dunedin merchant who in 1889 took up a claim of 97ha on the Lower Shotover River at Big Beach and worked at first one small steam bucket dredge and later to replaced with three dredges, all with some success. Then in 1897 after Big Beach claims had been worked out and the company had gone into liquidation, Sew Hoy with his son, centered there interest on Nokomai, were they worked a very successful hydraulic-sluicing claim till these workings closed down in 1942.
Today nearly all of the original Chinese settlements have now disappeared. The last big remains of the Cromwell Chinatown settlement on the lower Kawarau riverbank, vanished in 1992 along with most of old Cromwell under the waters of the newly formed Lake Dunstan. In 1980 a major archaeological excavation was carried out on site at the Arrowtown Chinatown. With some recreated dwellings, it's now opened for viewing while those traveling through the Kawarau Gorge can visit the recreation of a Chinese settlement at the Kawarau Goldfields Centre. At some of the Chinese mining sites throughout Central Otago, can still be seen some remains of stone huts, evidence of cave dwellings or could be just of an excavation site where once a tent stood.
What could be regarded till recently as being of the most interesting of the Chinese miners presence left behind, is of the Chinese writings on gravestones at several cemeteries. Here they record the names of a few of the early Chinese buried that still remain in this country. At most of these early cemeteries they are either in a separate section away from the European graves or lie on the cemetery perimeter.
The most significance presence of the Chinese present in Otago will shortly change. In 2005, archaeological digs on the site of the old Lawrence Chinese Camp was undertaken to find evidence of what the 3ha Camp was liked that was established 1867 till its decline in 1899. This information will provide the blueprint for a multimillion-dollar reconstruction of the Camp to be undertaken by the Lawrence Chinese Camp Charitable Trust. When the Trust’s plains come to fruition, Lawrence and Otago will have a major visitor attraction.
The evidence of the Chinese miners is still there to be seen at nearly all of the Otago goldfields sites and in most of the early gold mining towns
Tours to where the Chinese mined and lived, tours of the Otago Goldfields, to the mountain ranges of Central Otago , wild flower walks and general tours can be arranged with John Douglas of Safari Excursions.
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