Source: TV3 News, 7 Jul 2009
In a hauntingly beautiful area in Northland comes a story of two cultures and a discovery that will close a chapter in history. Their story began in 1902 when a ship left Otago carrying the bones of around 500 Chinese gold miners. They were returning to their homeland, but tragically the ship sank just a day after leaving New Zealand. Woven through the sands of the remote Hokianga Coast, the secret was kept for more than a hundred years before it was finally uncovered.
“It was like finding gold,” says Ventnor Project founder Liu Shueng Wong. “You know you dig around and you dig around and then, wow, I’ve got some gold. And this is so precious because it is a precious story for the Chinese community.” For Dunedin’s Duncan Sew Hoy, that precious find was the totally unexpected discovery of the bones of his great-grandfather at the opposite end of the country
Like so many other Chinese men, the gold rush brought Choie Sew Hoy to New Zealand, although he never intended to stay here in death. In Chinese custom its crucial a body is buried near family for a peaceful afterlife. So in 1902 he organised for a ship, the Ventnor, to return the bodies of the Chinese gold miners back to their homeland.
Choie Sew Hoy himself died before the ship could depart, so his body was added to the unusual onboard cargo. But the Ventnor struck a reef and sank 10km off the Hokianga Heads.
For Maori living along the remote Hokianga coastline it must have been an eerie sight to see coffins floating into shore. They didn’t know who the people were, where they had come from or where they were meant to be going. But they pulled them ashore and in some cases buried them with their own ancestors. So tangata whenua and early Chinese settlers rest side-by-side.
Historians believe the Chinese community was too distressed to discuss the tragedy and suffered in silence, assuming the lonely spirits were lost at sea.
Now, because Liu Sheung Wong recently decided to embark on a documentary about the shipwreck, the local Te Rarawa, Ngapuhi and Te Roroa tribes began talking about it and revealed the stories they had grown up with. “I always heard that there were Chinese people buried in different urupa and in the sand dunes and places like that,” says Te Rarawa Paul White. “People got told by the old ones don’t forget to look after the Chinese people that are buried over there.”
The unexpected news sent shivers through both communities and emotions were reignited through a series of hui. “The sad thing to me was that there had been no closure particularly for the Chinese community, but also for the various hapu communities around the place,” Mr White says. “They didn’t know what they had, what the kaupapa was, why bones were being transported in a ship.”
An emotional experience will soon be shared with the wider Chinese community as memorial options are unveiled. Possibilities include an official Chinese bai sang ceremony in Hokianga, a permanent memorial, or the bones would continue their journey to China.
And there is some comfort for the Chinese community already. While their ancestors endured hardship in life, they now know they also experienced an incredible act of respect in death – a respect that’s intertwined two family trees, two cultures and an ongoing relationship founded on a tragic accident.
The Ventnor Project team will present an update on Maori and Chinese relations around this discovery at the Rising Dragons, Soaring Bananas conference – http://www.goingbananas.org.nz – on Sunday July 19 in Auckland.
Comment by Suzanne Chan On
The recently Northland Discovery was fanstatic news for the many Chinese and Maori families and the intrigue and fascination to the Early Maori who came upon the find over 100 years ago. Their hearts and respect were in the right place to lay to rest the Chinese remains from the Ventnor next to their own people.
Two Cultures, two family trees, two spirits entwined forever. My late grandfather, Chan Fook On, owned a Zengcheng store in Manners Street, Wellington from around 1893 known as Yee Chong Wing & Company, they also shipped 10 coffins on the Ventnor in 1902.
May they now all rest in total harmony and God Bless them all.
Other postings on the SS Ventnor are on this website:
SS Ventnor shipwreck – the historical account
SS Ventnor Shipwreck Revisited – a perspective from the iwi
Source URL TV3