On a clear 2nd November morning back in 1934, Reverend Alexander Don boarded a Dunedin bound train in Alexandra. He clutched the only copy of his precious manuscript “Memoirs of the Golden Road” he was taking to his publishers.

It was never published. He died on the train and the manuscript mysteriously disappeared.

In the closing decades of the 19th century, the Reverend Alexander Don was New Zealand’s only Christian minister to attend to the needs of the Chinese. However, he only managed to convert 20 of his Asian flock during his long ministry. I guess with comments like, “It is very hard to say anything positive about a Chinese,” it is no wonder he had little success with them.

Alexander Don (seated)(

Alexander Don arrived at Port Chalmers on 16 January 1879, and briefly took up the position of second assistant at the Port Chalmers School. Later that year the church sent him to Canton where he learnt Cantonese, one of the world’s most difficult languages, in just16 months, but a severe attack of yellow fever forced him to return to New Zealand.


By the late 1870s, there were well over 5,000 Chinese living in New Zealand with most of these being attracted to the Otago gold rushes. In 1886 Alexander Don was made Missionary to these Chinese miners, with headquarters at Tuapeka (now called Lawrence). Over the following 3 years he walked a staggering 16,000 miles over rough terrain during the blistering heat of summer and biting cold of Central Otago’s bleak winters visiting every isolated Chinese settlement in Otago and Southland. Short and wiry, he was tremendously fit. He lived simply and devoted most of his income to church work. He also had a sharp mind and kept meticulous records of his activities.


Although he spent so much energy on them, he didn’t really like the “celestials” as the Chinese were known at the time, and treated them with an overbearing attitude. He also betrayed confidences in his detailed journals which added further mistrust between him and his Asian flock. For their part, the Chinese called him “Jesus Don” and mainly ignored him. However, he was of value to them as an interpreter and for passing on news from Chinese living in the other isolated settlements of the south, so they gave him time whenever he arrived to preach to them in Cantonese.

Alexander Don (standing) with Chinese Miners(


In the1880s, gold was found in Round Hill near Riverton in Southland. Like other southern New Zealand gold rushes, the Chinese soon moved in to be part of the action. About 300 of them, all men, as well as a handful of Europeans, created a village called Canton. The single street was only 7 feet (2metres) wide. There were two hotels. Ly Chong’s hotel was known for the fine food served and the hospitality he offered to both Chinese and European guests. There were also various shops and a billiard hall made from canvas, fern trees and wooden slabs. Opium and gambling dens were built to satisfy the Chinese miners looking for diversions from the back breaking work of searching for gold. The Presbyterians soon added a small church to the village for Alexander Don to hold his meetings. Dark alleyways between the clustered buildings provided a somewhat uninviting atmosphere for any visiting European.

Canton (

Opium was legal for the Chinese to use so opium dens prospered without interference from the authorities. The Chinese were also keen gamblers and Canton inhabitants broke the law with their gambling.  One day a group in a gambling room heard a policeman was arriving so the man in charge of the money swept the coins off the table and put them in a bag. There was a cat sitting beside the fire so he put the cat on top of the bag. He was heading out the door when the policeman arrived and asked where he was going. “Me go drown cat” he said. Alexander Don frowned on these activities but knew he couldn’t change their culture so decided to put up with their vices.

Gold ran out within 20 years of the establishment of Canton and by 1930, the Chinese settlement ceased to exist.


The Chinese camp near Lawrence was once home to 500 Chinese miners. They were banned from the town itself  because of the anti-Asian sentiment prevalent at the time in New Zealand, so this explains the camp’s location just outside the town. I guess it also explains why it was called a ‘camp’ rather than a village or settlement. Apart from tents, the camp, set up in 1867, also consisted of 25 buildings including two hotels. The Empire Hotel was halved in size in the 1940s when Lawrence went ‘dry’. The shortened brick building is the only surviving structure from this Chinese camp but with Chinese tourism to New Zealand increasing, plans are under way to re-construct the camp as an historic attraction.

Being close to Alexander Don’s headquarters, the inhabitants of this camp no doubt had frequent visits from him and could call on him for help when needed. Alexander made sure the Chinese he was responsible for understood the law of the land and would advise them on legal matters when required, especially with disputes over gold claims.

Lawrence’s Chinatown 1911(

Standing 6ft 6ins tall, Sam Chew Lain, was the camp’s best known inhabitant. He was a giant even by European standards and managed the Chinese Empire Hotel for 30 years. Sam became widely known around the district for his generosity and friendliness. His hotel mainly catered to Europeans and provided 7 clean bedrooms and enjoyed serving fine food in his pleasantly decorated dining room. When he died in 1903 at the age of 63 his funeral was attended by people from all around the colony.

It has been noted that this small Chinese village beside Lawrence has generated more interest in China than any of the other Chinese settlements in New Zealand. I guess this is partly due to the reputation of Sam Chew Lain. There has even been a book written about him called The Little Empire of Sam Chew Lain by local author Jean Jackson. A TV documentary on Sam and his village is also being considered.


Arrowtown’s Chinatown is the only preserved Chinese settlement in New Zealand. The village was once home to 5004 Chinese miners with only 9 being women. The site was studied extensively by archaeologists in the early 1980s and is now on the tourist circuit. It consists of hut ruins, a few reconstructions and some restorations. The most prominent building is Ah Lum’s Store, built about 1883. The small store, which also operated as a bank, had 5 rooms partitioned from the shop which occupied half the space with some of the goods hanging from the ceiling by hooks and wires. Behind were a bank/office, kitchen and bedrooms. It is staggering when you step into the confined space to imagine just how much activity took place here.

Ah Lum became a local hero when he saved a European miner from drowning in the Shotover River. This popular Chinese businessman died in 1927 and was one of the last entrepreneurs of an ageing, dying Chinese community. His store closed and fell into disrepair until it was restored to its former appearance in 1986. Young mainland Chinese are becoming interested in overseas Chinese history and an increasing percentage of the thousands who visit Queenstown each week, are making a side trip to see for themselves how their countrymen lived in a faraway place as they struggled to make enough money to return to China, mainly Canton (now Guangzhou), to lift their families out of the grinding poverty they suffered.

Ah Lum’s Store Today

Ah Lum would’ve known Alexander Don well and no doubt put things in order when he heard the minister was on his way.  When the gold rush ended, many of the Chinese moved to the towns, especially Dunedin, where they set up various businesses. Alexander Don followed them opening the Chinese Church in Carroll Street in 1897.

In December 1913, Alexander was appointed Foreign Mission Secretary, which he retained until he retired to Ophir, Otago, in March 1923. He remained busy  with his church work, meteorological observations, and the development of a magnificent garden which became the talk of the district. He died in Ophir in 1934.

Chinese Gold Miners 1900(

Today, Alexander Don’s writings provide valuable information about the  Chinese during the New Zealand gold rush era. His three surviving diaries and reports of his annual tours in New Zealand from 1883 to 1913, and his wonderful collection of photographs, combine to form a detailed record of the Chinese gold miners of last century unmatched in any other country.

Alexander Don’s services were recognised by the Chinese Government in 1924, with the award of the Seventh Council of the Excellent Crop being awarded to this hard working Presbyterian minister.

Ceidrik Heward

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