Hui sheds light on the lives of first Chinese in Otago


Sixteen Leadership Network members explored the history of Chinese in Otago this month, learning from academics and lived experiences to shed light on this part of New Zealand’s history.

Watch a slideshow of images from the hui taken by Leadership Network member Allan Xia and the Foundation's James To

Kia whakatomuri Te Haere Ki Mua – To walk into the future our eyes must be fixed on the past.

It was with the spirit of this expression in mind that the group travelled to Dunedin, Lawrence and Arrowtown where they visited historic sites and places of significance to the first Chinese to live in the region.

Starting in Dunedin, the group heard from Asia New Zealand Foundation Honorary Adviser Professor Manying Ip and former Foundation board member Dr James Ng, two renowned academics in the area of Asian history in New Zealand.

As most of the early Chinese to come to New Zealand came with the expectation of one day returning to their villages in China, Manying Ip suggested that rather than call them 'settlers', the term ‘sojourner’ more accurately describes the intention with which they came, even though many were to eventually settle and live out there days in this country.

Duncan Sew Hoy pointing out something to the group in Dunedin

Duncan Sew Hoy spoke to the group about his family's ties to Dunedin (Photo: James To)

Visiting the historical Sew Hoy House in downtown Dunedin, the group heard from of Duncan Sew Hoy about the history of his family in city and his experiences growing up there. They also visited the Toitū Otago Settlers Museum where they were given a brief history of the city by one of the museum's curators, Sean Brosnahan.

On hearing these stories, Lincoln Dam said, “I learnt more about, and am inspired by, the ways early Chinese settlers maintained their cultural heritage, despite facing relentless racism.”

In Lawrence, Dr Ng walked the group through the historical Chinese camp, which he played a big part in saving, and shared the stories of the lives of by Chinese miners that lived there. Established in 1860s, by the 1880s the camp was home to some 40 families, mostly formed of marriages between Chinese men and Pākehā women.

Emily Wilby said hearing about the discrimination experienced by the miners was “enlightening and thought provoking”.

“Something I didn’t know was that the gold miners were invited, and that there were pre-arranged conditions before they came out.”

Dr Ng addressing the group in Lawrence

Dr Ng spoke to the group about the history of the historical Chinese camp in Lawrence (photo: Allan Xia)

In Arrowtown, the group walked through the historic settlement and visited the area where Chinese miners were forced to live, making their homes in small shacks, some of which have been restored or rebuilt, on the edge of town along the banks of Bush Creek. Picturesque in Autumn when the network members visited, the ground in this area is frozen throughout much of winter and only the hardiest of people could have endured.

Director Leadership and Entrepreneurship Adam McConnochie said  with the government currently reviewing its history curriculum for schools, now is a poignant time to learn about the place of Chinese people in the story of New Zealand.

"Some may be surprised to learn that Chinese people have been in New Zealand since the 1850’s, after being invited during the Otago Gold Rush," he said. 

"This is part of New Zealand's history that New Zealanders should be more aware of."

At the conclusion of the programme, the group spent some time reflecting on what they learnt and how they were going to keep the momentum of the weekend going.

Cleo Gilmour said, “The knowledge and skills gained on this hui makes me feel better prepared to engage in the conversation around systemic racism and has refreshed my desire to do more in this space.”

Describing the importance of learning about this history for her leadership journey, Greta Young said “Having a better sense of who I am and how my story fits in New Zealand has already given me a stronger grounding and sense of self and made me into a more well-rounded leader with a clearer, more authentic voice.”