Manaakitanga and Aroha: The story of the SS Ventnor

We’ve been hearing the Māori expression manaakitanga quite a lot recently.

It’s come up in tourism marketing; can be found in the guiding principles, vision statements and corporate messaging of both public and private organisations; and most notably referenced in Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta’s address to the diplomatic corps in Waitangi earlier this year, where she outlined from her perspective the key values of how Aotearoa’s international relations should be conducted.

The term translates roughly as ‘kindness’, ‘hospitality’, ‘looking after people’ or ‘reciprocity of goodwill’. You might say it’s become a bit of a buzzword to reflect and encapsulate New Zealand’s values – especially after all we’ve been through as a ‘Team of Five Million’.

In mid-April, to coincide with the traditional Ching Ming tomb sweeping day (清明節), my family and I were fortunate to appreciate and embrace manaakitanga in a most holistic manner.

We were part of a 150-strong New Zealand Chinese Association (NZCA) group paying respect to our tūpuna in the Hokianga – acknowledging and thanking local iwi in the region for taking care of the bones of 499 Chinese goldminers and 13 crew who were lost at sea in the sinking of the SS Ventnor in 1902.

p32 merchant choie sew hoy crop

Choie Sew Hoy, head of the Cheong Shing Tong which chartered the Ventnor for its trips to China / photo Wikipedia

The ship had been chartered by the Chinese benevolent society, the Cheong Shing Tong for a voyage to China , carrying the bones of Chinese men who had died in New Zealand back to the care of their families and ancestral villages.

Most were old goldminers from Otago and Westland, many too poor to afford a return passage home.

We were welcomed onto the marae of Te Roroa, Te Rarawa, and hosted by Te Hua o te Kawariki Trust at the newly opened Manea Footsteps of Kupe Centre in Opononi. And everywhere we went, we were greeted and showered with aroha as whānau.

The story of the SS Ventnor is a largely forgotten part of New Zealand Chinese Māori history that has only recently come to light – and now, with the NZCA memorial erected, it's a story that will not be forgotten. 

Our journey began just outside the Waipoua Forest - the home of the mighty kauri Tāne Mahuta, nestled amongst the lushest greenery and golden toe-toe you’ll see anywhere in New Zealand. Along the private beachfront belonging to Te Roroa, we were escorted up a scraggly rockface to the plateau, where an urupā includes some of the Chinese bones that had washed ashore 119 years ago.

That moment brought to mind the waiata we sang to our hosts, a Cantonese refrain reflecting the plight of early Chinese sojourners to Aotearoa New Zealand, their tenacity in overcoming challenges while far away from ‘home’, and our need to hold fast to our culture as Chinese New Zealanders:


Ngao ding ching sarn but fong so-o-ong

Gripping firmly to the mountain side,



lup gun yuen joy por ngarm jo-o-ong

Rooted deeply amongst the craggy rocks,



cheen moh marn gi-ick wahn ge-en ging

gaining strength from 10,000 adversities,



yum yee dong sai larm buck fo-o-ong

indifferent to the east, west, south or north wind.


After paying our respects we were then welcomed onto the marae with a pōwhiri, followed by a sumptuous hākari. All throughout, we could feel our tūpuna swirling around, as the wind gathered pace to acknowledge our presence.

And tūpuna were certainly looking down on us, for that afternoon tears from heaven began to fall.


The SS Ventnor Memorial in Opononi / photo James To

The next morning was the official dedication ceremony for the Ventnor Memorial.

Thick mist and rain surrounded the Manea Footsteps of Kupe centre where the blessing was being held.

The event brought together prominent rangatira – kaumātua and kuia, government ministers, officials and community elders – all joining as one with whānau from all across the country. We heard from locals and visitors alike and their connection to the story that united us.

The Honourable Kelvin Davis (MP for Te Tai Tokerau) was already well-acquainted with the Ventnor project – he was among those who welcomed Chinese descendants onto Matihetihe marae in Mitimiti back in 2013.

Now in 2021, with the Memorial overlooking the sand dunes across from the Opononi beachfront, he remarked: ''Your ancestors lie with our ancestors in this soil. There is no difference. They lie with us. They are at home.''

Shane Jones (former Minister for Regional Economic Development) recalled how as a young man in the mid-1980s he first heard about the Ventnor from stories passed down from a revered kuia.

He was surprised how such important history was not more widely known. “The memorial now etched that significant moment into the social fabric of New Zealand,” he said.


Three generations of the Sew Hoy family at the Ventnor Memorial. (L-R : Peter Sew Hoy, Chris Tsui, Duncan Sew Hoy) photo James To

The acknowledgements of ancestral linkages were demonstrated in the traditional Taoist ritual, known as bai sarn (拜山), whereby descendants take three deep bows while offering three sticks of incense representing heaven, earth and humanity – the smoke and prayers wafting up into the clouds.

For three generations of the Sew Hoy family, this was a solemn moment to re-connect with their great-great grandfather Choie Sew Hoy, the head of the Cheong Shing Tong benevolent association that chartered the Ventnor for the transport of bones back to Guangdong for re-burial.

Duncan and Donald Sew Hoy remarked how previously all they knew about their ancestor was that his remains were lost in a ship sinking and not much more. Now that “riddle” had finally been resolved.

The significance of the Ventnor story needed a fitting tribute.


The Lion Dance traditionally brings good luck and good fortune / photo James To

While many of us have previously seen lion dance performances at Chinese New Year celebrations, they tend to be a grand affair full of colour and firecrackers to ward off evil spirits and bad luck.

This time, and perhaps never before seen in New Zealand, was a white lion that marched towards the memorial in time with the slow beat of drums.

Normally reserved for the highest-ranking rangatira, the lion was then set alight as the ultimate sign of reverence – to send a guardian to protect the 499.


The white Lion ascends to the sky, together with prayer, incense and offerings to the ancestors lost in the Ventnor sinking in 1902 / photo James To

 April 10 was an important moment for NZCA members. Liu Shueng Wong (otherwise fondly known as the ‘Ventnor Lady’, who first connected with Hokianga iwi over the shared history and initiated the memorial project) proudly declared: “Today we've made history, your history. We make it together so it can live on.

"The prospect that we have taken it off the books, and now take the story into our homes and families. It doesn't matter who you are, but you're all part of a history you can be proud of. It's the call of the ancestors we must never forget.”

 Kirsten Wong, who with Liu Shueng led much of the Ventnor project, recalled the overwhelming feelings that began with a phone call on a hot summer’s day in 2007.

“The bones have been found,” the voice at the other end said.

Ever since then, the Ventnor has been a constant in her life, and the ceremony a culmination of years of work bringing together families and communities, hapū and iwi, the culture and heritage sector, political leaders and government agencies. “The New Zealand Chinese Association may have led this work, but it was only possible because of people at every level who came together to support this work, and who deeply understood the value of kindness and respect for ancestors.”


A traditional offering of incensed to the ancestors - three sticks representing heaven, earth and humanity. /photo James To

For Esther Fung (doyenne of the Wellington Chinese Association) this was more than just relationships - the Chinese New Zealand community and Māori had found “common allies” in each other – perhaps looking to a higher strategic approach with our inter-cultural engagement.

For others it was about better understanding identity and heritage.

For the first time ever, the names of the 499 miners and 13 crew that went down with the Ventnor were all heard during a roll call.

For over 119 years, the names and remains were not only lost at sea, but also lost to the community - whose original Chinese language records were destroyed in a fire in the 1960s.

It was the job of Gordon Wu and Nigel Murphy to search through government-held records, but it was only when Archives New Zealand undertook a major re-cataloguing project that the Ventnor-related exhumation records came to light.

It was Gordon who discovered the names, providing us with some sense of who these people were, what they were doing in New Zealand, and their legacy.

It was completely serendipitous that Gordon found the name of his own great grandfather amongst that list. And if this discovery was not enough, the next day he was re-united with a first cousin who was on the home side at Matihetihe marae in Mitimiti. It was a relationship he was unaware of.  Such is the wealth and richness of Chinese-Māori connections.

This meeting between the two long-lost cousins occurred under the Red Gate that stands on the Mitimiti urupā Maunga Hione, overlooking the Hokianga Harbour.


Sharing stories of connection between Maori and Chinese at the red gate in Mitimiti / photo James To

The gate was a gift from Nick Grace and the people of Te Rarawa to mark our intertwining history. Along the sandy coastline, we were brought together with the land, sea and sky – a soulfully nourishing moment to learn from our past, contemplate our present, and to celebrate our shared future.

So for me and my family, that is what manaakitanga looks like. As whānau we are all in this together, working with each other to realise common aspirations in light of a common narrative.

All of this is perhaps best demonstrated and embodied by a hongi – a brief moment where time stands still as we draw on a shared breath to acknowledge each other and our whakapapa.

My obligation now is not just reciprocating the kindness extended to me in some way. Manaakitanga is not transactional, or about giving or taking – this is all about heart and sincerity where we don’t keep tabs.

The story of the SS Ventnor has clearly shown that there is plenty to go around.

 - Asia Media Centre