It is hard to envisage in 2013 that the Westland town of Hokitika was once one of the most important towns in New Zealand. Today its economy relies on the surrounding dairy farms that feed the Westland Cooperative Dairy Factory, and tourism-based ventures. In 1866 however, Hokitika was the second biggest town in New Zealand after Auckland. Gold had been discovered on the West Coast in 1864 and the town grew rapidly as people flooded into the area to seek their fortunes. On one day in 1867 it was reported that 41 vessels were tied up at the Hokitika wharf, with more waiting off shore. How times have changed.
Ever since my first visit to the town way back in the 1960s I have been fascinated by the connection of the town with Andrew Carnegie. How could this rich American philanthropist have become aware of and have an interest in this far-flung isolated town in a distant corner of the southern Pacific Ocean? On a corner, one block away from the main street of Hokitika, is a grand building with “Free Public Library” emblazoned across the frieze above the columns at the entrance. It’s in that sign that the connection is made.
Andrew Carnegie made his fortune in the iron and steel business. While still a boy working in his father’s cotton milling business, he and other boys working in the mill were granted free access the library of a local businessman. Carnegie became an avid reader devoured most of the 400 books in the collection. After he sold his steel milling business to banker J P Morgan in 1901 for $200 million, he set out on his philanthropic endeavors. In recognition of the help received from free access to books in his youth, Carnegie established a grant system to assist towns and cities in the English-speaking world to build library buildings on condition that access to and lending of books was free. Eighteen such libraries were built in New Zealand, including the one in Hokitika which was opened in 1908.
The building ceased to be a library in April 1975. It was later restored and reopened in May 1998 as home to the West Coast Historical Museum. So that’s how Andrew Carnegie came to be connected to the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand.
In researching for this post I discovered another interesting fact about Hokitika. It has a digital 3D cinema, in a town with a population of just 3,078 (2006 census), plus another 828 people in the surrounding district. The Art-Deco Regent Cinema was built in 1936 and has served the town ever since. When in 1975 it was threatened with demolition due to its state of repair and lack of patronage, a group of concerned citizens lobbied for its retention and formed a trust for its preservation. Funds were raised to refurbish the building back to its Art-Deco heritage style and it has been turned into a successfully functioning cinema again – a digital 3D cinema to boot.
So there you have it, a boom town of the 19th century is booming again in the 21st century (albeit in a much different way).
The story of Chinese immigration into New Zealand at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is not a happy one, as witnessed by a Government Apology in 2002 by the then Prime Minister Helen Clark. Chinese immigrant stories, especially around the goldfields of Central Otago, went generally untold and therefore unnoticed by the general population until well into the twentieth century. From 1977 – 1987 the New Zealand Historic Places Trust commissioned an archaeological study of Chinese gold mining sites along the Clutha River near Cromwell before it was dammed and flooded, and in 1993 Chinese physician Dr James Ng produced Volume 1 of his four volume definitive work “Windows on a Chinese Past”. These two documents brought many of the issues and hardships that faced the hard working Chinese settlers into public view.
The Alaskan, Californian, Australian and then New Zealand gold rushes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries attracted fortune seekers from all over the world, with many moving from one boom to the next as hopes of hitting pay dirt diminished. Among those numbers were peasant men from China seeking another means of supporting their families. Because few spoke English they tended to cluster together and there was only a minimum of interaction with other miners. They were generally no more of less successful in their search for gold than any others however. At best they were tolerated, but when times toughened and the gold ran out they were ostracised. As a result of intense lobbying to politicians by “European” settlers the Government introduced a Poll Tax of £10 at the border for new Chinese immigrants, which was increased to £100 in 1896. It was for this and other discriminatory laws that the Government apologied in 2002.
Chinese miners were represented in many of the early gold fields in Central Otago, the best known and documented site being at Arrowtown near Queenstown. So also it was the case at Naseby and nearby Blacks. But what happened to them when they died?
In some settlements grave sites were established by the Chinese communities themselves, but in others such as Naseby they were buried at the local cemetery – sort of. Being non-Christian, and considered by many therefore to be heathen, they were interred in unconsecrated ground outside the boundary of the normal cemetery. Such was the fate of Luey Mee Hok in 1907, whose grave can be found under the trees with other members of his Chinese fraternity. Its a sad reflection of former less tolerant times.
A Bit of China
Although Dunedin was founded by settlers who were predominantly Scottish in origin and is known as the “Edinburgh of the South”, another ethnic group that played a significant part in Otago history was the Chinese. As in most settler countries that experienced big “gold rushes” in the nineteenth century, people from China were part of the ethnic mix of people chasing the allure of the yellow metal. It was also common at that time for European settlers to have a deep suspicion, even hatred, of the Chinese migrants, who were segregated, taxed excessively, denied status in the community, and consigned to menial work. But these people were resourceful. They came from a place where they knew real hunger and hardship and were looking for the better life that a fortune in gold could provide. The gold was, as usual, harder to find that everyone had hoped and many of the gold-seekers moved on the the next big find to try their luck there. Like others in the gold rush communities, some of the Chinese settlers saw opportunities to grow and sell food, provide laundry facilities and trade in other goods needed by the miners. As time moved on attitudes changed and the Chinese settlers gained more rights and became integrated into the community, but still retained their cultural roots.
As a fitting, permanent, recognition of the Chinese people who first came to Otago during the 1860s gold rush and stayed to establish some of the city’s businesses, the Dunedin Chinese Garden Trust developed a yuanlin style garden in Dunedin which was opened in 2008. The garden has become an important attraction in Dunedin.