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East Meets West (Coast)

Golden Prospects: Chinese on the West Coast of New Zealand by Julia Bradshaw
Shantytown (West Coast Historical & Mechanical Society Inc.), 294 pp. $55. Reviewed by SIMON NATHAN

A large number of Chinese men emigrated to New Zealand during the gold rushes to Otago and the West Coast in the 1860s. Most came seeking to make money and return to their families in China. Some were successful, but many died unmarried, without descendants. Julia Bradshaw has undertaken a long-overdue project in researching the story of the Chinese on the West Coast. It was not an easy task as there are few people of Chinese descent living on the West Coast today. Their story has been largely overlooked. For example, in the article on the Chinese in New Zealand in Te Ara, the West Coast gets only a passing mention.

Most of the Chinese came from a small area in the Guandong Province. Life was difficult there in the 1860s, and young, single men were often chosen by their families to travel overseas and send money home. They were generally unwelcome on the goldfields, and often the subject of prejudice and ridicule. But the suspicion was not entirely one-sided. The Chinese made little attempt to fit in with local communities as they did not plan to stay any longer than necessary.

By 1883 there were more than 1700 Chinese miners on the West Coast – a small, but highly visible proportion of the total mining population. They often picked old alluvial claims that earlier miners had thought to be uneconomic. They always worked together in groups, and Chinese workings are typically systematic and thorough, with neat piles of tailings that can still be recognised today.

Some of the Chinese who came to the West Coast turned to market gardening. Most came from rural villages, and horticulture was a viable alternative to mining because there was a ready market for fresh food on the goldfields. It was fascinating to realise the extent of Chinese gardens all over the region. When we lived there in the 1970s market gardening had ceased, and vegetables were imported from Canterbury.

One of the problems of researching Chinese miners is that there are few contemporary photographs. Julia Bradshaw has managed to unearth new material showing Chinese miners at work, although sadly few individuals are identified. She has also combed the newspapers, which have been a useful although sometimes biased source of information on the Chinese.

The treatment of Chinese in New Zealand in the late 19th and early 20th century is a matter of national shame, for which Prime Minister Helen Clark apologised in 2002. Julia Bradshaw devotes a chapter to the activities of West Coast politician Richard John Seddon, who led a long-running campaign against Chinese, which was clearly popular with his constituents, many of them miners.

Few Chinese women were allowed to enter New Zealand. Julia Bradshaw has painstakingly tracked down the small number of Chinese marriages, and the families that resulted. Even more unusual were Chinese-European marriages. In 1902 Greymouth residents were shocked to hear that a local woman, Mary Ann Ford, had gone to Hong Kong to marry Young Hee, a young man she had met in Greymouth, who already had a Chinese wife. She had four children, and lived in Hong Kong with Young Hee, his eight other Chinese wives and four concubines.

This volume is a valuable contribution both to the history of the West Coast and to knowledge of early Chinese immigrants to New Zealand. It is part of an ongoing project led by Julia Bradshaw, and publication of this book is bound to open some new leads. The Board of Shantytown is to be congratulated for supporting publication and the research that led up to it. While the story is intensely sad, it is good that it is not forgotten.