I once filmed a TV documentary called Chinaman’s Gold which told the story of the Chinese miners at the Central Otago goldfields. During the month long shoot, I paid visits to a couple of small cemeteries to film the graves of some Chinese miners. The modest weather beaten wooden grave markers, usually on an angle because they were not embedded well into the ground, were forlorn sights placed at the edge of the graveyard partly hidden under trees or in gullies. The idea was to have them as far away as possible from the Christian European graves. These unfortunate men were disparagingly called ‘Celestials’ and were regarded as inferior to the Europeans who they shared the goldfields with.

NZ Segregated Chinese Grave (Nasbynz)


The few thousand Chinese men who came from Canton to New Zealand in the 1860s to search for gold were not classed as immigrants. They were in the country for a limited time to make as much money as they could then return to China with the funds to make life for their families more bearable. While in New Zealand they were shunned by most Europeans who regarded them with contempt and distrust. While making Chinaman’s Gold, I learned about countless episodes where Chinese were discriminated against. It was not uncommon for them to be pushed into the Clutha and Shotover Rivers just to get them out of the way. Dead bodies floating down the rivers were common especially in the winter when the water could suddenly rise after rain in the mountains. These flash floods caught many miners by surprise and it was often difficult to escape the deadly torrent. When a Chinese body floated by there was little effort made to retrieve it.

Apart from the unfriendly treatment, the Chinese also endured scorching summers and freezing winters. Most lived in appalling conditions and had no access to medical care or even decent food. I filmed a Chinese village that was being catalogued by historians from Otago University before the site was lost forever with the formation of Lake Dunstan. I was amazed at how small the hovels they lived in actually were. Small vials of opium offered solace from the terrible conditions. In fact, it was legal for a while to be sold to the Chinese in Otago.


There were however, a handful of Chinese who saw the potential to make money from the goldminers themselves. These enterprising men set up businesses to supply food and equipment to them. One whose name is still well known in Dunedin is Sew Hoy. Charles Sew Hoy was involved in a number of enterprises apart from his merchant business. He organized trips to Hong Kong for both miners and local settlers. He also supplied goods and services to other merchants who dealt directly with the miners. However, he is best remembered for introducing the steam powered dredge to rape the land for gold. Like all other Chinamen, he hoped to be returned to China for burial when he died. Sew Hoy’s bones were among the other deceased Chinese who were loaded on the SS Ventnor on its tragic voyage..


The Cheong Shing Tong Society was set up to arrange the exhumation of dead Chinese and return their bones to China. The first ‘voyage of the dead’ was onboard the SS Hoihow which carried the remains of 230 miners to Canton in 1883. These men had paid ‘insurance money’ to Sew Hoy to cover costs for their remains to be shipped home if they should die in New Zealand. The majority of miners who laboured on the New Zealand goldfields were unsuccessful in their quest for riches so the dead Chinese men were mainly paupers.

The Cheong Shing Tong Society’s operation was not approved by the European community and in September 1883, the Timaru Herald wrote: This wholesale disinterment of the Cantonese Chinamen is surely a very peculiar piece of business. We do not allude to the practice of sending bones back to the Flowery Land (China) because everything the Chinese do is peculiar according to European ideas. What we are puzzled at is the government should allow the cemeteries to be ransacked for dead Chinamen, and great numbers of bodies to be exhumed at various stages of natural decay.


The second shipment of bones took place two decades after the first shipment. Sew Hoy had died during that time and he was included in the shipment of 500 coffins that were loaded onto the SS Ventnor which sailed from Westport on the 26th October 1902. The following day, the tired old tramp steamer struck a reef near the entrance to the Hokianga Harbour. The crew took to the lifeboats but 13 of them died as the ship disappeared under the waves. The Cheong Shing Tong Society charted a ship to search the wreck area. Since many of the coffins were lined with lead, they sank to the bottom with the ship. However a few wooden coffins floated to shore and ended up on the beach. They were collected by the local Maoris and reburied. These men who ‘died twice’ now rest in peace in the small cemetery near the Hokianga Harbour. Because the manifest went down with the ship, Sew Hoy is the only person identified as one of the corpses onboard.

SS Ventnor (Hokianga Historic Society)

Although no further shipments of bones were made, embalmed remains of some individuals were shipped back to China over the following two decades.


In 2003, some Chinese contacted the local Maoris seeking information on their descendants. In 2013 a memorial plaque was unveiled and some kauri trees were planted. A larger memorial is currently being built at Rawene on the Hokianga Harbour by two New Zealand Chinese businessmen.

In 2014, local filmmaker John Albert announced he had located the wreckage of the SS Ventnor but the Chinese community was unhappy with him disturbing the site. Heritage New Zealand has now listed it a protected archaeological site so it is now illegal to remove anything from the wreck. It also assures the remains of the Chinamen who lie there can rest in peace for a second and final time. They may not be home, but they are protected forever.

If you found this blog interesting, please let me know.

Ceidrik Heward


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