The Chinese Miners
Our Shantytown visit gave us a unique opportunity to look at the world of the Chinese miners, we began in a large hut and read all the information boards with interest. Bowls and knick-knacks along one wall, opposite a fireplace all authentic.
Next we were in a recreated general store. Bigger than this usually, but this size might be found at remote mining localities. Chinese stores sold a wide range of both European and Chinese goods and tried to supply everything that their fellow countrymen might need on the goldfields. Europeans also visited these shops, often to purchase fruit and vegetables grown locally by the Chinese.
There was a replica mine to get a feel of the cramped, cold and dark working conditions.
Unknown Chinese man 1870’s.
The arrival of the Chinese wasn’t met with enthusiasm by the predominantly European mining community. “They are different to us.” Not only did the Chinese look different with darker skin, baggy clothes and long pigtails, but they also had different religious beliefs, AND worked on Sundays. Because they didn’t intend to stay in New Zealand many Europeans thought the Chinese were not useful immigrants.
Where did they come from ? Almost all of the Chinese who came to New Zealand goldfields came from the Pearl River Delta, in south-east China’s Guangdong – Canton, province.
Why did they leave China ? During the 1800’s the people of the Pearl River delta were suffering considerable hardships. The area was over-populated and many people lived in poverty. In addition they were suffering from the destructive effects of British Imperialism and the opium trade. For many of the rural poor the solution was to send sons and bothers to work overseas. The money they sent home could be the difference between life and death for their families. It was also thought they would return to their village as rich men, enhancing their family’s position. Mainly they went to the goldfields in California and Australia but some came to New Zealand.
Why did they come to the West Coast ? The gold-rush on the West Coast in 1865 offered new opportunities and by mid 1866 Chinese were arriving here, coming either from Otago or from the gold fields in Australia. Not all of the Chinese came to work as miners, they were also storekeepers, cooks, gardeners, at least one Chinese doctor and sadly opium dealers. The population of Chinese miners fluctuated, with successive miners returning to China as soon as they had saved at least a hundred pounds – six thousand pounds-ish in todays money. For a lucky and frugal miner this would take about five years.
Grey River Argus, 5th of February 1867:- “We learn that the first installment of Chinese, fourteen in number, arrived in Hokitika on Friday from Sydney and their presence caused quite an excitement, the wharf being lined by a large crowd of persons, who shouted and yelled vociferously, and so frightened the unfortunate Celestials that they dived under the hatches and postponed their landing until an opportunity presented itself.”
In some of the smaller mining settlements, such as Stafford, No Town and Maori Gully, Chinese miners were jostled, abused and in one case stoned when they first arrived.
Grey River Argus, February 1872:- “.....although no great amount of violence was used toward them beyond pulling and pushing them along the road, some forty to fifty people joined in the crowd and the Chinese were sufficiently alarmed to run for their lives.”
After initial reports of intimidation it appears that things usually settled down. Warden Fitzgerald wrote in April 1874 that “the good feeling to which I referred in my last report as existing between the Europeans and the Chines still continues.”
Letter from Long Wah to the West Coat Times on the 8th of May 1876:- “I claim for my countrymen the credit of being, here as elsewhere, a harmless, inoffensive, hardworking, and persevering section of the community, conforming with your laws and contributing to the revenue of the Colony.”
The overall reaction of West Coast Europeans was, however, probably one of suspicion and dislike, especially when the country experienced periods of economic decline starting in the mid 1970’s. Anti Chinese feeling was partly fuelled by the idea of losing jobs to the Chinese.
Bamboo water wheel. Miners working Greenstone, near Kumara. Miners sluicing Blackwater, near Reefton.
The Chinese have a long history of engineering works based on simple labour intensive technology. In New Zealand the Chinese miner was not averse to working over ground which had already been tried by European miners and used traditional methods, such as wing damming, water wheels and pumps to good effect. They were systematic workers who were prepared to work long hours.
Caleb Whitefoord, Warden, No Town, April 1874:- “I believe the introduction of the Chinese here has been productive of much benefit, as they have reopened old-tail races long since abandoned and blocked up – and which the ordinary miners would not have gone to the expense of repairing, and by doing so have drained and rendered available for mining purposes a large tract of ground besides that which is taken up by themselves. They have also erected large wing dams in the creek, and by means of these, and water-wheels, are working very wet ground that the other miners would not take up.”
Otago Witness, 9th of October 1875:- “John Chinaman is not only a patient worker, but he is likewise a skillful engineer, and many a useful hint have the so-called enlightened Europeans been glad to borrow..... Their system of dead level tail ditches fitted with those ingeniously-contrived dummy sluice entrances which, while admitting all water, keep back the gravel and silt, together with their admirable manner of constructing dams and river walls......prove the ‘heathen Chinee’ to be anything but........stock of knowledge we should make light of......”.
The goldfield’s wardens were unanimous in praise of the Chinese and their comments on the Chinese in their districts are littered with words like ‘industrious, peaceable and well-conducted’.
A group of Chinese men and children at Kumara, 1897.
The Chinese looked for ground which would provide a steady income and where they would be allowed to work in peace. Huts were generally simple with a chimney near the door, few windows and were sparsely furnished. There would be a sleeping platform, boxes for food storage, a meat safe and wash buckets. Inscriptions on red paper were common both inside the huts and on the outside to greet visitors.
Reminiscences of Jack Aynsley:- “They were hardy. There was no lining in the huts except sometimes a piece of rice-bag along the wall by their bed and only rice matting for a mattress. They would have either a block of wood with an old piece of cloth on it for a pillow or a round log to lay their necks on.”
Reminiscences of George McNee, 1880-1946:- “I never saw a dirty or untidy Chinese whare – they were crude, with no lining on the walls, earth floors and so on, but their tables, cooking utensils etc were spotless....I was pleased to arrive at the Chinese place.... and have a clean cup of green tea and some fried chop suey placed before me with the utmost cleanliness and hospitality”.
When in New Zealand the Chinese adhered to their traditional beliefs one of which obliged people with a common ancestor or relative to help each other. In New Zealand the family was extended to include people from the same country. In the early days the Chinese often worked in groups – almost always with men from the same clan or village as themselves, and lived in camps either of individual huts or one big community dwelling.
Chow Sing, market gardener of Akaroa, around 1898.
West Coast Times, 4th of August 1868:- “On the south side of the Hokitika River gardening operations are being pushed forward with great vigour, not alone by Europeans, but also by those most industrious and successful horticulturists the Chinese....four acres of land have been leased by five Celestials under the leadership of Mr James Ah Che...... They have already cleared the greatest part of the section, and placed nearly an acre of crop.”
Reminiscences of George McNee 1880-1946:- “Ah Ten, who was a market gardener, was one of the better-known members of the Chinese community. He was seen regularly walking from Welshmans to Paroa and then to Greymouth carrying baskets of vegetables across his shoulders. On the return journey the baskets would be filled with rice. They were thin, active men of short build, weighing as they said “allee same bag of rice” – that was around eight stone...... As they were such small men it was surprising the weight they could carry in their baskets, one on each end of their poles.... That was how they transferred any weight or quantity of goods from one place to another.”
Chinese gardener, around 1882 by H.J. Graham. Chinese miner next to his garden at Waikata, Southland around 1900. With him is Presbyterian Missionary Rev. A. Don. – Alexander Turnbull Library.
There is no definitive record of what the Chinese gold miners ate but it is likely that their staples were rice and vegetables flavoured with whatever meat was available and traditional sauces and spices. Most Chinese miners had a small garden to supply themselves with vegetables and any surplus would be sold to other settlers.
Reminiscences of Jack Aynsley:- “The Chinese could live on four or five shillings a week, all they used to live on was rice. But when they were getting good wages they used to live it up and would buy all the fowls they could get. My mother must have sold them over a hundred”.
Until the turn of the century there was quite a number of Chinese stores with the main towns being Greymouth, Hokitika and Reefton. Chinese storekeepers would import large quantities of rice tea, preserved vegetables and condiments as well as Chinese alcoholic beverages, fireworks and herbal medicines. Greymouth was the largest business centre for West Coast Chinese and in 1900 there were about twenty men who described themselves as merchants, storekeepers or fruiterers. At this time there were also several boarding houses and a billiard saloon. Chinese storekeepers were an important part of the community, their shops acting as meeting places where news could be exchanged. As the storekeepers could usually read and write both Chinese and English they were often called upon to act as interpreters and letter writers.
Altar in the Joss House.
The Chinese miners adhered to a complex mixture of beliefs and customs drawn from three major religious doctrines in China – Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. The Chinese had a strong belief in evil spirits and the supernatural and had many rituals designed to keep away evil or invite good fortune. Ancestor worship was very important to them and they worshipped many different gods. The five Chinese virtues are humanity, integrity, courtesy, wisdom and truth.
Some of the Christian churches sought to convert the “heathen”. Although the Chinese were very polite and often prepared to listen to sermons, very few converted to Christianity. The Chinese had great faith in their traditional religions and they were also worried about what the spirits might do if they stopped worshipping the souls of their departed relatives.
The Eight Immortals are from Taoist mythology. They represent the eight conditions of life. From left to right: He Xian-gu – feminine. Zhong Li-quan – wealth. Han Xian-zi – the common people. Cao Guo-Jiu – nobility. Zhang Guo-lao – old age. Lan Cai-he – youth. Lu Dong-bin – masculine and Li Tie-guai – poverty. Throughout China they are known as the symbols for good fortune.
Breeding of goldfish for colour and shape began over a thousand years ago in China and the fish were highly valued especially by the Imperial families where yellow varieties were the most prized. As the word for fish sounds very like that for abundance so gold-fish symbolises an “abundance of wealth or gold”. An immortal child with a large goldfish and lotus blossom is a common theme for New Year motifs symbolising “successive years of abundance”. Cards for newlyweds often show a pair of goldfish wishing the couple future wealth and faithfulness. Goldfish are often kept in ponds or aquarium as a symbol of future wealth with eight gold or eight gold and one black fish being the luckiest numbers. The first goldfish were introduced to North Island in the 1860’s and their use in ponds rapidly spread. They can now be found in isolated streams and ponds and are not seen as a hazard to indigenous life.
Symbolic of ongoing wealth, gold fish would have been especially significant for the Chinese gold diggers on the West Coast.
Local Chinese taking part in the Greymouth Queen Victoria Jubilee Parade in 1897.
When in New Zealand the Chinese continued to celebrate significant events. New Year was the most important annual festival. Several holiday days would be taken and there would be big feasts at each of the Chinese settlements.
Thomas Feary, Grey River Argos. 20th of July 1960:- “My father, who was friendly with the Chinese, often used to take me with him on his visits, and I will never forget one time when they were celebrating their New Year, and the large hut was decorated with Chinese lanterns and illuminated by numerous coloured candles. The table was laid out with good things of all descriptions such as I had never seen before and, as if a small boy of my age symbolised the children of their own country, they lavished sweets and gifts upon me.”
A pak-a-poo gambling shop, Dunedin 1904. Pak-a-poo lottery ticket.
The Chinese miner was generally extremely industrious but when he had time off he seemed to have been determined to enjoy it. They worked long hours at a tedious job and gambling, as well as being socially acceptable, provided excitement and a chance to relax with friends. Fantan, pakapoo and later dice were the most popular gambling games.
In the Chinese miners home province of Guangdong opium addiction had reached epidemic proportions. Many of the miners brought their addiction with them while others took up opium smoking in New Zealand as an escape from hardship and loneliness. It has been estimated that about ten per cent of the Chinese miners were addicted to opium with as many as sixty per cent smoking occasionally.
Opium poppy and paraphernalia.
Opium is the milky fluid which leaks out of the unripe capsule of the poppy when it is cut. This hardens to a resin with exposure to the air. The narcotic effect of opium is obtained by inhaling smoke given off from a piece of heated opium resin and is traditionally smoked in an opium pipe.
Tobacco smoking was common among the Chinese miners and Rev. Don commented that “a non-tobacco smoker is about as rare as a non-tea drinker or non-rice eater.”
Alcohol consumption was an accepted part of Chinese life and traditional drinks were fermented grains or starches. In New Zealand the Chinese drank brandy, gin, whisky and beer but there were very few reported cases of Chinese drunkeness.
Few Chinese women came to the goldfields; in 1878 there were only nine Chinese women, and only eighty nine by 1900. Most of the miners could not afford to pay for their wives to come out to New Zealand, especially after the introduction of the one hundred pound poll tax in 1896.
The women who did come here were usually the wives of wealthy merchants. In the late 1890’s there were at least six Chinese women living in Greymouth, four of whom were married to Luey Goek, Tso Fong, Young Saye and his father Young John, all merchants. Another was the wife of a Chinese Presbyterian Missionary – Timothy Loie.
Occasionally a successful miner, market gardener or cook might marry a local woman but this was the exception rather than the rule. When Chat Sing – a storekeeper from Stafford, married seventeen Charlotte Grey the local paper, the Kumara Times of the 12th of October 1888 reported:- “The unusual event excited great curiosity, which was increased by the newly married couple driving in state down the Revell Street, Hokitika in the afternoon, attended by European friends, there being three buggies in all, and having their photograph taken at Mr. John Tait’s. The bridegroom is described as being celestially handsome. Prior to the party leaving a store in North Revell Street, where a goodly crowd of almond-eyed brethren had assembled, they were treated to a heavy fire of rice, a ceremony which John looked as if he could have dispensed with. They then proceeded to their future home in Stafford, where they gave a free ball and supper in the Oddfellow’s Hall to their European friends, and a supper to their Chinese admirers in one of their own stores.”
For the Chinese women who came to New Zealand described as being “dressed in the most elegant of oriental costume and silks, with feet only inches long”, Greymouth must have been in some sort of conniption.
Annie Ah Long with her son Harry, 1900.
Annie - Tang Ah Moy was born in 1879 and came to New Zealand to marry Ah Long, a storekeeper at Ahaura, when she was seventeen. The couple had seven children and ran a store and market garden. At one time Annie had her own sweet shop and during the 1930’s she had a laundry in Greymouth, it was there that her husband died in 1930. Annie died in Oamaru in 1963.
Harry Kin Hong Long and his siblings went to school in Ahaura. After leaving school Harry worked at various jobs while studying engineering by correspondence. In late 1922 he passed the NZ Government Engineering Exam. In 1932 he was offered the job of Engineer Superintendent at the Hong Kong and Yaumati Ferry Company, a position he held for thirty five years.
Young John, a merchant in Greymouth, with his wife, his two sons, Young Hee – on left and Young Saye along with their wives and his grandchildren in 1901.
Young Saye arrived in Greymouth in about 1887 when he was seventeen years of age. His father, Young John, ran the Kwong Lai Yun store and had been in Greymouth for some time. His elder brother, Young Hee, who worked as a law clerk had arrived about a year earlier. By 1893 Young Saye was a storekeeper in the town. The Young family were important to the Chinese community, acting as agents, bankers and interpreters as required.
Young Saye’s father and brother left Greymouth in late 1901 but Young Saye stayed and continued with the storekeeping business. His wife, Tsao Oi Ling, was married to him by proxy while still in China and then travelled to New Zealand. She didn’t know a word of English and had tiny bound feet. One can only imagine the enormous culture shock of crossing an ocean and trying to hobble off the boat to find your husband....... The boys in the picture went to local school and one of the dons, James, won the school’s Watkins Medal – awarded annually to the best scholar, in 1913. The family left Greymouth for Hong Kong in late 1915.
Many Chinese did make enough money to return home rich men, but as the numbers of new arrivals dwindled the men who remained were often those who had experienced bad luck or who were perhaps not as frugal. There was also the occasional miner who did not want to return to China.
By the 1920’s and 1930’s only a small number of Chinese remained on the coast. There were still wealthy storekeepers but as time passed those who relied on manual labour became increasingly dependent on charitable aid.
T.F. Loie, West Coast Chinese Missionary, September 1908:- “Those who are still vigorous keep working diligently with the hope of making a living. As the years and months are added to their age, some make enough for food, but insufficient for clothing; if they are well clad then they are ill-fed. As for those frail in body, who can imagine fully their pains and toils ?”
New Zealand introduced an Old Age Pension in 1898 but Chinese were specifically excluded from receiving it. This was repealed in 1936.
Presbyterian missionary Dr. John Kirk describes a visit to Blue Spur, Hokitika in 1907:- “He has seen fifty New Zealand winters come and go since he first came to the ‘gold hills’ to seek his fortune. His grey hair is matted and long, and his brown face tanned with long exposure to many weathers; but there is a bright light in his eyes when he hears one of the strangers greet him in his mother-tongue. he is not slow to lay aside his spade, and as one watches him there talking of past years and of his far-off friends and home, one feels the pathos of it all. For, as we look on this old son of toil, we know he will never see his beloved China again; but as he has lived so he will die; in a strange land far from kith and kin.”
Kai of Rutherglen circa 1920’s and years later.
Recollections of Sam Hayden 1901-1988:- “One very small Chinese, named Little Kai, was quite a character, with an infectious grin. He frequently called at our place to purchase tobacco, and my mother kept a special cup to give him some tea. On one occasion, Mother told him the kettle was not boiling, so she gave him a cup of milk, whereupon, with his likeable grin, he said. ‘Whisky much better, Missus’.”Kai lived in a hut near the entrance to Shantytown. He had lost an eye in a mining accident and lived in semi-retirement. He died in Greymouth in about 1930.
Reminiscences of Jack Aynsley:- “We were going into Kumara one evening when one of the Chinese men had just ben killed at Westbrook through being swept through the race. They had him lying beside the road with two big fires to keep the devil away. They were bending over and waving their hands, some of them with tears running down their cheeks.”
Europeans were fascinated by Chinese funerals and sometimes a description of one would appear in the paper. West Coast Times, 31st of August 1889:- “The cemetery was crowded yesterday afternoon, the occasion being the funeral of Sam Sing who will be remembered as cook for a long time at the Empire Hotel..... The deceased was arrayed in full dress and wore his hat as one was prepared for a long journey. In his mouth was a half-a-crown, the toll expected by some exacting deity. Shillings were distributed to those Europeans present, a part of the ceremony which seemed highly appreciated and might with advantage be imported into our funerals during these dull times. For the rest there was great firing of crackers....there was also lollies and the serving out of much fire water. In order that the deceased might not hunger on his long journey home, a plentiful supply of provisions was heaped on the grave....a bowl of rice, hard boiled eggs split in halves, and, better than all, a savoury roast duck. The mourners during the ceremony wore white crepe on their hats which directly the funeral was over they burnt on the grave.”
Cemetery Notice - Grey River Argus, 1st of October 1901.
The Chinese tradition of ancestor worship meant that it was important to return to China so that their descendants could worship their burial site. If it was not possible to return home during their lifetime they might be sent back to China after their death as Sin Yan – former men. Chinese were exhumed from West Coast and other cemeteries in New Zealand during 1900 and 1901. It is estimated that at least one hundred bodies from the West Coast were part of the shipment of four hundred and ninety nine bodies being sent home on Ventnor. Unfortunately the Ventnor sank with no survivors off the coast of New Zealand in October 1902. What a terrible shame.
ALL IN ALL A WONDERFUL INSIGHT INTO THESE HARD WORKING LITTLE PEOPLE
INDUSTRIOUS, WELL TRAVELLED AND FAR FROM HOME