Kiwiosities: Chinatowns

Chinese goldminers, mainly from Kwantung Province in southern China, were encouraged by the Otago Government when the European miners left for the Westland fields in 1866. The Chinese were recruited from the Victorian goldfields in Australia and by 1866, there were 1200 of them in Otago.

Chinese miners often worked the poorer fields, even re-working the places where Europeans had been before. The neat stacks of washed stones piled in orderly tailings are still a sign of goldfields worked by the methodical Chinese.

Although the population of immigrant Chinese reached 5,000 in the 1870s, their communities were often set apart from the European towns. The Chinese miners often contributed to the wider community but some feared their industry, and prejudice was obvious in satirical songs and disrespect for their culture.

There were several significant Chinese settlements: at Cromwell (where a Chinatown survived until the 20th century, only to be drowned by the rising waters of Lake Dunstan), at Lawrence on the Tuapeka field, and Arrowtown, the latter recently restored by the Department of Conservation as a tourist centre.

Some Chinese made their fortune and returned home while others stayed in New Zealand as founders of the community here. Many of those who died on the goldfields were later dug up and returned home to China for reburial according to their own rites.

Excerpts from Kiwiosities, a book by Gordon Ell on the traditions and folklore of New Zealand.

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Gordon Ell, a former journalist and wildlife film-maker, is the author of many popular books about New Zealand's historic and natural heritage.