Chinese Whispers: Making a fortune on the goldfields?

Visiting a Chinese Camp Part 2.

Today Les and Maisie Wong continue their trip back in time to the Lawrence Chinese Camp, bringing to life the stories of the Chinese on the goldfields…

Sleeping in the loft was not without its problems. Apart from being unfamiliar with sleeping on bales of straw there was the continuous disturbance of rodents, but this is colonial New Zealand and the rats are no surprise…

In the early morning Missy climbed up the ladder and beckoned us to follow her. “I will show you the facilities and you can do as you wish, but there is no door. There is a basin of water for you. After you wash your hands and face, pour water over Ah Bok’s white lilies” she said. She led the way and added, “when you are clean, come and join Ah Bok for sunrise tea.”

We joined Ah Bok, Missy poured the tea. Ah Bok nodded and put the palms of his hands together; he closed his eyes and tilted his head skyward. Missy gave us a nudge and we did the same.  Ah Bok recites words of wisdom.  He explained, “I ask the spirits to protect our home and all living here.” And then he continued with deep sadness, “I grow white lilies, they symbolise compassion and mercy, and remind me that some who come to seek a fortune here die here.”

But in a much happier voice he says, “Today at high sun I have banquet, to farewell ‘Charlie’ the market gardener, he go back to China. Everybody invited.”

We questioned Ah Bok about ‘Charlie’, who was he? Where did he come from? How did he get enough money to return to China?

Well, ‘Charlie’ was brought out to help his uncle who had a small mining claim in a gully nearby. Uncle had suffered a ‘bad chest’ and became very ill. The claim was always damp and giving very poor returns, it had a small stream running through it making the ground very muddy. Uncle deteriorated and fellow miners raised donations to send him back to China. ‘Charlie’ being a peasant farmer seized on the opportunity of the fresh water, terraced the damp soil and grew vegetables. He added fruit trees, plums, apricots and apples.  

Every week he hawked his produce to the local settlers and the European women named him ‘Charlie’ when they were trying to teach him English. His fortunes grew when he discovered a brown fungus called ‘wood ear’ growing from the tree bark in the forest.

There were fortunes to be made with delicacies such as wood ear (photo: wikicommons, author – Svmolden, CC BY 2.5)

This highly sought after delicacy was dried and sold to a Dunedin merchant who exported it to China. In a few short years he paid off all of his uncle’s debts and became very wealthy he also made donations to the hospital. Now he has sold his business to his workers and is going home to see his wife and ten year old son, born after he left China.

‘Charlie’ will have been one of many Chinese residents donating to the Tuapeka hospital.
Here the Tuapeka Times records other Chinese benefactors (Volume VI, Issue 286, 24 JULY 1873, accessed via Papers Past)

There is a commotion outside. Men had arrived by horse drawn cart carrying trunks and baskets. Ah Bok smiles and excitedly calls, “my friend, my friend, today my good friend go home”. He holds Charlie’s hand in the air. “We must feast and drink, you pass on good fortune to son hmm?” The wife is not mentioned as it is not polite to ask after another man’s wife. “You must put lily on uncle’s grave, yes?” Ah Bok commands.

‘Charlie’, a lean prosperous looking young man greets all the guests – Chinese and Europeans. He mingles and gives each guest two shillings as a token of settling past debts. Guests are slurping their soup noisily – a sign of enjoyment.  The vast variety of food ranged from rice, salted fish, black mushrooms, fried chicken feet, vegetables, noodles and dumplings to name a few, all washed down with Chinese wine. Nobody bothers drinking tea.

All the classic components of a feast : chicken feet, steamed dried fish and vegetables … Yum! (Photo credit: Les Wong)

A large gong sounded and the place went silent. ‘Charlie’ sat on an old crate. Missy brought in a large basin of warm water and aromatic powders. She knelt down washed and massaged ‘Charlie’s’ feet, carefully dried them and put on new socks and shoes. We learned that it is a good omen for a man to have his feet washed by a woman before a long journey. Ah Bok stands, holds a bottle of wine and calls out, “Yum Hei”, requesting that the guests drink.

‘Charlie’ gives Missy a small gold nugget and mingles with the guests one last time. We asked Missy why there are Europeans here? We thought they stayed clear of the Chinese. She explained they are miners that worked on the same river on the opposite bank to the Chinese. They hated each other but one day one of them got swept down the river and a Chinese miner leapt in and saved him. Now they are good friends.

The camp suddenly bursts into life with the banging of fire crackers. The noise is to ward off evil spirits. ‘Charlie’ departs on the horse drawn cart with all his worldly possessions and heads for the stagecoach depot. He leaves behind a lifestyle that others may have to endure until the end.

Oh well, at least we can be Ah Bok’s guests for another night.

‘going home’ – detail from Melbourne Chinese Museum. Photo: Les Wong.

Les and Maisie Wong, 20th December 2019

2 thoughts on “Chinese Whispers: Making a fortune on the goldfields?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s