In 1902 the ship Ventnor set out for China with the bones of 499 Chinese men who had died in New Zealand. The men were being returned home to the care of their families and ancestral villages. Most were old goldminers from the Otago / Greymouth area who had not been able to make enough money for their return passage home.
Under the auspices of a charitable association, the Cheong Sing Tong, community members pooled their money so that the remains of their countrymen could be returned home.
Tragically the men never made it. The Ventnor hit a rock off the Taranaki coast and eventually sank off the Hokianga Heads. This was a great catastrophe for the community, as it was believed the men’s spirits would not be at ease. Far from family and in a watery grave, there would be no-one to tend to their needs in the afterlife.
As soon as it got news of the sinking, the Cheong Sing Tong hired the steamer ‘Energy’ from Auckland to try and locate the wreck and possibly recover as many of the coffins as possible. This was not successful. Later it was rumoured that some of the bones had washed up and were buried by local iwi who lived along the coastline.
The present day
In 2007, while making a short film about the Ventnor, Aucklander Wong Liu Shueng made contact with Te Roroa, the local iwi of the southern Hokianga area. They confirmed that their ancestors had found bones from the wreck and that they had been buried in various locations along the coast. A number of these locations are still known.
With a small group of others from the community, Wong Liu Shueng began to contact those with direct links to the men lost on the Ventnor. In February / March last year a group of those people went up for their first visit to the two iwi Te Roroa and Te Rarawa, and to visit the known burial sites.
Discussions are now underway to erect a memorial and plaques to those lost, and to conduct, with iwi, the traditional Chinese rites that honour the dead and appease their spirits.
The Chinese group comprised representatives from the Poon Fah Association (representing the goldminers who were mostly from Poon Yu county), the Otago Southland Chinese Association (representing the area that the majority of these goldminers lived and worked in), the Sew Hoy family (whose ancestor – Choie Sew Hoy was a founding member of the Cheong Sing Tong society and his remains were lost with the shipwreck.
‘SS VENTNOR’ Q & A
What was the Ventnor? The Ventnor was a 3,961 ton cargo ship, built in 1901 in Glasgow.
What’s the story? The ship was chartered by the Cheong Sing Tong in 1902.
Why? The Cheong Sing Tong chartered the Ventnor to transport the remains of 499 (the numbers vary according to different accounts) Chinese men who had died in New Zealand back to their home villages for reburial.
What was the Cheong Sing Tong? The Cheong Sing Tong was an association founded in 1882 by Chinese men from the Poon Yu and Fah Yuen counties of Guangdong Province. Its purpose was to send the remains of men from those two counties who had died in New Zealand back to their villages in China for reburial. Funds for this were raised by subscription from members of the association. Membership of the Cheong Sing Tong was about 2,500. Most of the members of the association were goldminers from Otago, Southland and the West Coast. The leader was the wealthy Otago businessman Choie Sew Hoy. When Choie Sew Hoy died in 1901 leadership was taken over by his son Choie Kum Poy.
Why was it only a Poon Yu and Fah Yuen association? Most of the Chinese goldminers in New Zealand were from Poon Yu and Fah Yuen counties.
Why was it important to send back remains to China? Culturally it is essential for Chinese people to have their graves tended by their family to ensure a good afterlife for the deceased, and prosperity for the descendents of the deceased. This can only be done if the person is buried where their family are, usually in their home village. To be buried where family cannot perform these cultural observances means the deceased will not be able to rest in peace. They will become what is known as ‘hungry ghosts.’
What happened? On 27 October, a day after leaving Wellington, the Ventnor struck a reef off the coast of Taranaki near New Plymouth. The captain decided to make for Auckland but the ship was too damaged and sank at 9.00an on 28 October off the Hokianga Heads. The crew took to the four lifeboats. Only three reached the shore at Omapere. The other boat was lost. Officially 13 men died, including nine (some accounts say six) elderly Chinese ‘attendants’ who had been given free passage home by the Cheong Sing Tong in exchange for looking after the coffins.
What happened following the sinking? The Cheong Sing Tong hired the steamer ‘Energy’ from Auckland to try and locate the wreck and possibly recover as many of the coffins as possible. Choie Kum Poy was especially keen to locate and recover the ship as the remains of his father Choie Sew Hoy were on the Ventnor.
Were any remains recovered? The remains of the Cheong Sing Tong men were in lead-lined coffins stored beneath decks and it is assumed they went down with the ship. The coffins of the ten Jung Seng men were made of wood and were stored on deck, and were supposed to have floated free and come ashore south of the Hokianga Heads.
What happened to the recovered remains? They were supposed to have been rescued by local Maori and buried in a whenua tapu in the Waipoua Forest.
What happened after that? The shock of the loss of the Ventnor and the 499 remains among the Chinese New Zealand community caused the disbanding of the Cheong Sing Tong (exacerbated by disputes over what to do with the substantial insurance money) The association reformed as the Poon Yu Association in 1916. The incident also dealt a death blow to the practice of large-scale repatriation of the remains of men to China, although the practice continued for many years, but on an individual basis.
What happened to the remains of the Ventnor and the coffins? The Ventnor remains where it sank, as have the coffins, although after 105 years no doubt much damage has been done to the wreck and the remains. Despite the crucial importance of funeral customs in Chinese culture the Ventnor has until recently been largely forgotten in popular Chinese New Zealand culture.
Why? What about the families of those 499 men? Presumably as there was nothing that could be done, the families grieved in silence and moved on.
Does anyone know the names of the men? Apart from a very few, such as the famous Choie Sew Hoy, and despite research into this question, the names of the men on the ship remain unknown.
What of the ‘spirits’ of the men on the Ventnor? According to traditional Chinese belief these men will not have found peace since the sinking of the Ventnor. As Choie Kum Poy exclaimed at the time ‘poor my father, he has died twice.’
What is the significance of this event? In many ways the Ventnor incident symbolises the estrangement of Chinese in New Zealand, as well as the terrible losses and sacrifices the men who came to look for gold to support their families back home in China had to make. It also symbolises the reality for those men, where New Zealand was a ghost in a land of ghosts, and China was the reality. In the end the men of the Ventnor became ghosts in the land of the ghosts, continuing to exist in a spiritual limbo much as their living fellows continued to live a marginal existence in the land of the white people.
Were all Chinese gold miners from Poon Yu? No, there were also men from the Seyip, Jung Seng and Dong Guan districts.
What happened to non-Poon Yu gold miners when they died? They had fellow countrymen make private arrangements for their repatriation to China.
Were there any non-Poon Yu men on the Ventnor? A Jung Seng man named Chan Fook On arranged for the remains of ten Jung Seng men to be taken on the Ventnor.
Was the 1902 exhumation the only one? No, the Cheong Sing Tong organised a shipment in 1883 with the remains of 230 men from Otago and the West Coast. The second shipment in 1902 included the remains of 265 men loaded at Dunedin, 173 at Greymouth, 26 at other ports and 10 in Wellington (numbers vary according to different accounts). The 499 remains were disinterred from 40 cemeteries.
When were the other exhumations done? Disinterments commenced in late 1901 and continued till September 1902. Loading took place during October 1902 and the Ventnor departed Wellington for Hong Kong on 26 October 1902.