Chinese settlement in New Zealand
Following the departure of thousands of European miners for goldfields in Marlborough and the West Coast, the Otago Provincial Council in 1865 invited Chinese working on the Victorian goldfields, to rework the Otago goldfields.
Most originated from Kwangtung Province in South China – an area which had social turmoil caused by the opium wars, over-population, poverty, banditry, clan fighting, natural disasters and epidemics. There were many incentives to emigrate, and gold provided the stimulus.
There have been three phases of Chinese settlement in New Zealand. The first period covers 1865 to 1900, when the Chinese regarded themselves as temporary visitors seeking gold. They tended to have little interaction with Europeans.
The second phase covers the period from 1900 to 1952 when they were regarded as aliens in the land, and were occupied principally on market gardens, fruit shops or laundries. The last phase from 1952 relates to their present assimilation and increasing absorption into the general New Zealand community.
The NZ-Chinese population peaked at 5000 about 1880. Virtually all were men, and goldminers. This can be compared with the 100,000 who settled in California, and 50,000 who settled in Australia during the 1850’s.
Because they were late arrivals they were obliged to rework old mining claims abandoned by the Europeans. Generally they were content to work for a steady return rather than chase the elusive bonanza.
The early Chinese had to contend with considerable malevolent and bureaucratic racial discrimination. However, there was little direct violence such as had been experienced in the United States and Australia. The anti-Chinese agitation in New Zealand resulted in the passing of a number of immigration Acts from 1881 onwards, with the subsequent decline in the population. By 1901 there were 3000 Chinese in New Zealand, mostly males and generally an aged, dispirited and declining group.
Chinese settlement in Cromwell
The first Chinese arrived in Cromwell via Dunedin in 1866, some four years after the founding of the township. They initially set up camp near Gibraltar Roack in the Cromwell gorge, but by 1870 some Chinese storekeepers had established themselves at the upper (west) end of Cromwell’s main street, Melmore Terrace on the (true left) banks of the Kawarau River. This gradually formed the nucleus of Cromwell’s ‘Chinatown’.
Most miners preferred to live in rock shelters adjacent to their workings in the river gorges. These shelters comprised walling up to front of the rock overhangs with slabs of schist. In areas where there were no natural overhangs they built small stone huts.
Before it was destroyed to make way for Lake Dunstan behind the Clyde Dam, Cromwell’s Chinatown was the best preserved example of a New Zealand Chinese urban settlement. It also had the greatest longetivity of some fifty years. Shops were established along Melmore Terrace, while a residential area was formed below on the steep banks of the Kawarau River.
The business sector included general stores, grog shops, gaming rooms, and at least one brothel. The area extended for some 150 metres along the southern side of Melmore Terrace. A substantial Chinese market garden was established across the road. The largely wooden stores and businesses were deserted by the turn of the century, and were demolished in 1930 because they were considered a health risk.
The closure of the Chinese stores had a detrimental effect on the life of the remaining citizens in the residential (lower) area of Chinatown. The predominantly stone dwellings were gradually deserted about 1920 as old miners left or died. After abandonment, the buildings gradually decayed, hastened by the removal of the roofing iron. The shady location of the site favoured rapid vegetation growth and the site gradually became overgrown.
Cemetery records indicate the last Chinese burial in Cromwell was in 1924 – probably representing the end of the Cromwell Chinese era. Between 1863 and 1938 there were 85 deaths of Chinese registered out of a total of 1300.
Cromwell’s Chinatown was excavated in 1980 by a team of archaeologists from the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. The site was programmed for destruction as part of the lakeshore works associated with the formation of Lake Dunstan. The excavation uncovered 20 huts, 6 suspected huts, several sections of stone revetted terraces, a spring, and two possible shafts. The excavations concentrated on the interiors and immediate surrounds of the huts, with smaller sampling undertaken on garden terraces and dumps. A wealth of structural and material remains was uncovered, catalogued and recorded.
Chinese New Year
The celebration of festivals, often governed by important events in the lunar year, was and still remains an important part of the Chinese way of life. Three main festivals were held each year. Although they had religious significance, feasting and recreational activities such as gambling and opium smoking, were the main concerns.
The three festivals were the Chinese New Year (outlined below); the summer solstice celebration (Tung-chi); and the T’sing Ming (Worship of the Tombs) which as an annual pilgrimage undertaken about April 4th to the graveyard of ancestors.
The Chinese New Year was the main festival in the annual cycle. It was usually held in February and involved several days holiday. Big feasts were held at each of the Chinese settlements, pigs would be killed and eaten, and Chinese delicacies consumed in abundance.
Vast amounts of red paper were used during the festival to signify good luck. Red paper inscriptions were pasted on doors and walls, letters were written on re paper, delivered in red envelopes, and stamped with red ink. Presents were wrapped in red paper.
During the festival the Chinese visited each other as well as attending to the old tradition of paying one’s debts. Firecrackers were often let off to discourage demons from entering houses, but local ordinances ensured that the amount of noise and revelry in the goldfield towns was very limited compared to the ‘commotion’ during these festival celebrations in China.
Festivities usually started with the beating of tom-toms and the firing-off of crackers. The great feast was prepared with tables laid out with ‘every delicacy of the season’ such as fruits, jellies. wines, poultry etc etc. The time for ‘letting off steam’ and relaxing consisted mainly of playing dominos, cards, billiards and fan-tan. Opium pipes were freely dispensed, even to small boys.
There was little variation from one mining area to another in the way the festivals were celebrated. All involved feasting and drinking, letting off crackers, and sometimes food was offered at shrines in individual huts, before being consumed. If they could afford to, most men took the days off work.
The days for celebrating the various festivals were determined by reference to the Chinese Almanac which was always imported, and provided the dates for the following year’s celebrations. It also indicated ‘auspicious days’ for doing various activities.