Chinese whispers: The lure of gold during the 1800s

Today’s post is the start of our ‘Chinese Whispers’ series giving insight into the life of the Chinese in Otago, written by Les and Maisie Wong from the Otago and Southland Chinese Association. Les and Maisie, as representatives of descendants of the Chinese goldminers, are sources of massive amounts of genealogical, cultural and historical knowledge. They are important collaborators on the Lawrence side of the project and today they explain how the Chinese came to be on the goldfields…

Let’s take a brief peek at early Chinese history of the Guangdong Province, Canton in the Pearl River Delta, Southern China. People were suffering from poverty, unemployment, over population, the ravages of the Opium Wars, rebellions against the warlords and raiders from the north.

Typical Chinese village housing in South East China. Left: a living village lane in 2009 and Right: abandoned living quarters in another village. Local residents tell us that nothing has changed in the past 150 years.

With the news that gold had been discovered in California in 1848, it was an obvious alternative to starvation. Young men, single and married, borrowed money to head to the goldfields. In 1851 gold was found in Victoria, Australia causing another exodus from South China. There were now tens of thousands of Chinese in the two continents looking for the rewards of untold riches.

In 1861, the New Zealand gold rush began after gold was discovered by Gabriel Reid working in a gully near Lawrence with a gold pan and butcher’s knife collected 7 ounces of gold in 10 hours. Today, this location is named Gabriel’s Gully. Miners from all over the world poured into this region. More gold was found by Hartley and Reilly on the banks of the Clutha River just downstream from Cromwell in 1862. The gold rush was well and truly under way but the easy-to-find gold soon began to run out.

Men left the Otago goldfields to new discoveries on the West Coast. This meant that the townships established during the gold rush were diminishing in population causing a downturn in business. In an effort to stimulate commercial activity, the Otago Provincial Council sent an invitation to the Chinese miners in Victoria, Australia to bolster the business and to rework the ground European miners had abandoned. Chinese miners were chosen as a quick available source of labour, thought to be law abiding, hard working and would prefer to return home after a period of time.

Initially in 1865 12 miners came to Otago from Victoria. By 1869 gold seekers were coming from China as well and became the main source of Chinese arriving into New Zealand. Not just young men but older ones aged over 50 as well. To the Chinese, New Zealand was called the New Gold Mountain whilst America and Australia were called Gold Mountain.

Few of the new arrivals intended to stay. Their aim was to send money home to support their family, to strike it rich and return home. £100 was the trigger point, enough to go home, buy some land and build a house. Their population peaked at about 5000 between 1874 and 1881. Being sojourners and living in such harsh conditions, very few women ever came. Only 15 Chinese women were recorded in 1886.

Though initially welcomed cultural differences eventually took its toll. Chinese were different in their dress, had a long pigtail, could not speak English and preferred to eat the food they brought with them using chopsticks. They worked beyond the acceptable hours that Europeans considered fair. And, they found gold in places previously deemed unrewarding.

Example of the very prevalent anti-Chinese sentiment on the goldfields printed in the Otago Witness (6th May 1882, Issue 1589, accessed through Papers Past)

New Zealand was no different to America and Australia and racial tensions boiled over. Chinese were forbidden to live in the established townships. They had to set up their own Chinese camp on the outskirts of town. However, Chinese were self sufficient having food supplies from their merchant stores. If one Chinese in ten could speak some form of English, that would be sufficient for group survival. Chinese kept to themselves. But if there were any disturbances, the Europeans would quickly point the finger at the Chinese and say, “Johnny did it”.

Les and Maisie Wong, October 2019

One of the questions our Southern Cemeteries bioarchaeology project is trying to answer is whether there is archaeological evidence of anti-Chinese prejudice and marginalisation of Chinese communities on the goldfields. We have so far found the graves of some of the earliest Chinese to come to Gabriels Gully in the Ardrossan Street cemetery (which was closed in 1866), and also evidence of the exhumations of Chinese burials in the Chinese section of the Gabriel Street cemetery in Lawrence.

Our work on the diet, health and material culture of the Chinese people we have found is underway and in later blog posts we hope to tell you more about how the Chinese were living (and dying) on the goldfields.

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