Hui shines a light on the history of Chinese in Otago

This December, New Zealand will celebrate 50 years of official diplomatic relations with China. But the history of New Zealand-China relations — and Chinese New Zealanders — began far earlier. The Asia New Zealand Foundation’s recent Otago History Hui ensured these often-overlooked beginnings were front and centre, writes hui participant and Leadership Network member Alex Smith.

Former Dunedin Mayor Peter Chin provided the group with insights into Dunedin's Chinese heritage

The three day trip began with a tour of downtown Dunedin.

Former Dunedin mayor Peter Chin and Sean Brosnahan, curator of Dunedin’s Toitū Museum, led 15 members of the Foundation’s Leadership Network through streets that were once home to some of New Zealand’s earliest Chinese migrants — migrants who had first arrived in New Zealand as gold miners and later moved into the city in search of new work.

These Cantonese migrants ran fruit and vegetable shops frequented by Dunedin residents and operated laundries. Chin, who grew up in the fish and chip shop and laundry run by his parents, was sure to include little asides about the families and characters that once occupied these streets.

Walking along Bath Street, the group paused outside a cafe next to Dunedin’s Ed Sheeran mural. Chin and Brosnahan explained that for a long time it was home to a popular Chinese hawker. Little evidence of the street’s past life remained.

That afternoon, Leadership Network members had the privilege of listening to a panel made up of some of New Zealand’s leading experts on Chinese New Zealand history.

Watch a slideshow of images from the hui

It was moving to hear about the history of New Zealand's earliest Chinese communities from Dr James Ng and Malcolm Wong whose own families had been directly affected by the poll tax.

Dr Ng emphasised that despite the early history of Chinese in New Zealand being marred with racist laws and discrimination, he was able to take pride both in being Chinese and in being a New Zealander. 

Dr Ng's comments made me reflect on our capacity to juggle identities that can sometimes appear to be at odds with one another - a situation more and more New Zealanders will likely face in the future as we become an increasingly diverse society. 

Dr James Ng sitting on a chair in a red room, gesticulating as he talks

Dr James Ng spoke to the group about the lives of Dunedin's Chinese residents from both an historical and personal perspective

Despite being in Aotearoa for generations, Asian New Zealanders risk being treated as “perpetual migrants,” cautioned Manying Ip, a professor emeritus at the University of Auckland and an outspoken advocate in calling for the inclusion of the history of Chinese New Zealanders in the new national history curriculum.

The day concluded with an evening visit to Lan Yuan, Dunedin Chinese Garden, which opened in 2008 while Chin was mayor and was built to provide a place of lasting recognition of the Chinese settlers who came to Otago to work in the goldfields and stayed on to found many local businesses that served the wider Dunedin community. 

The next day the group visited Lawrence Chinese Camp.

Founded in 1866 to house Chinese miners invited to work in the Otago region, by the 1880s the camp was home to over 120 residents. But the site was also the product of a racist by-law that prevented Chinese-owned businesses from operating within the town proper boundaries. The Chinese miners were given the section as “compensation.”

Despite this, marriage between Chinese men and working-class European women was common, and the group was fortunate enough to meet with Rachel Gemmell, vice chair of the camp’s trust and the direct descendant of one of these early mixed marriages.     

Rachell Gremmell talking to group of Leadership Network members in a paddock at Lawrence Chinese Camp with an old cottage in the background

Rachel Gemmell, a descendent of one of the Chinese miners who lived in Lawrence, provided fascinating insights into the lives of the men and women who once lived there

Restoration of the camp is currently underway and former household objects, long buried, are being re-discovered. Like the objects, Gemmell says that people are also now discovering their Chinese whakapapa, with many completely unaware they had Chinese heritage until tapped on the shoulder by someone in the extended family.    

The final stop of the trip was a tour of the historic Arrowtown Chinese Settlement.

As with the camp at Lawrence, the settlement’s location — it sits in the far corner of what is now a bustling town centre — reflects the stigma and isolation Cantonese migrants in the 1860s faced. Only a smattering of buildings still stand or have since been restored — an old store, a handful of tin huts, and a standalone toilet — its surroundings long gone.

But these buildings still carry the names of those who once lived and slept there. The most notable is “Ah Lum’s Store,” named after its former owner who sold food, goods and provided banking services to the community. Miners would also sleep behind the storefront, an impressive feat given the store measures less than eight by five metres.  

Even the sections that are now empty remain distinguished by wooden signs bearing the names or nicknames of their old occupiers. Walking around the settlement it’s easy to imagine what it must once have looked like, and the cast of characters who took a punt on this small mining town at the bottom of the world.

A man points out sidets to hui participants at the historic Chinese miners camp in Arrowtown

Hui participants were taken of a tour of the historic Chinese miners' camp in Arrowtown

Seeing where these miners once lived, and the cramped conditions they endured, made this history feel real in a way I hadn't anticipated. It also brought home just how long Chinese, and Cantonese communities in particular, have been living and working in Aotearoa, and how often this goes unacknowledged. 

Public heritage sites, like the one at Arrowtown, help make the history of communities that have traditionally been shut out of the mainstream narrative tangible.

In the weeks following the hui, I've found myself thinking about all the heritage sites that aren't, all the stories that are yet to be told, and the responsibility that we have to ensure these stories aren't lost to time.

Hui participants gather for a group photo in front of the shacks that make up Arrowtown's historic Chinese Miners Camp

The hui concluded at the Chinese miners' camp in Arrowtown

Chinese New Zealanders have now been in Aotearoa for generations, but, as participant Alice Wang noted at the trip’s conclusion, the details of this history aren’t always widely known and can be forgotten as previous generations pass away. Initiatives like the Otago Chinese History Hui ensure this history is rendered visible.

It’s important the stories of the first Chinese New Zealanders are told, for their own sake, but also because they’re a vital part of the history of Aotearoa.