Opinion

‘A spiritual connection’: Fate of the SS Ventnor links Chinese with Māori

The Red Gateway overlooking the burial site at Mitimiti, Northland. (Photo: James To)

In 1902, the SS Ventnor, a ship carrying the remains of hundreds of Chinese gold miners, sank off the coast of Hokianga. In the years after, local communities gathered bones washed onto shore for safekeeping. After three days in the Far North paying respects to ancestors and those who cared for their remains, James To reflects on the ways the historic event has connected Māori and Chinese.

There’s nothing quite like that typical Kiwi experience of kicking off your socks and shoes at the beach, and running out in your bare feet.

This is the stuff of childhood memories, family holidays, or just escaping the rigours of city life and becoming one with nature. At first, you bounce gingerly along the hot fluffy sands that has been baking in hours of summer heat; but as you approach the shore line, the transition to the squelchy, wet ground offers a most delightful sensation: soft grit squishing between your toes; your tired soles enjoying the cool, rolling sensation that comes with each step; and then finally what you’ve been waiting for – complete relief as you hit the surf.

I was soaking all of this up out in the Far North with my wife and two kids at the end of a late summer. 

Matihetihe Marae

Matihetihe Marae in Mitimiti, Northland. (Photo: James To)

But this wasn’t your average family getaway; we were with 50 others on a three-day trip. We travelled in a big bus that took us across some of the most luscious rugged scenery you’ll ever see in Godzone; enjoying a brief ferry ride across the waters of the Hokianga Harbour, and finally arriving to warm pōwhiri welcome by our Māori friends in Rawene, then by Te Rarawa on the next day at Matihetihe Marae at Mitimiti, and finally by Te Roroa at Kawerua near the Waipoua Forest.

At each pōwhiri, we were more than just a bunch of curious tourists or visiting guests. The greetings we received with a big smile, warm hug and hongi were a hearty and sincere “kia ora whānau!”. 

For once, as a Chinese-New Zealander, I didn’t feel like an outsider anymore.

And it didn’t take long to realise why. We had “returned” to possibly the most significant place in Aotearoa for Māori-Chinese relations.

Spiritually linked

SS Ventnor

The SS Ventnor was transporting the remains of some 500 gold miners back to China.

On a fateful night in 1902, a vessel named the SS Ventnor bound for Canton (now known as Guangzhou), sank off the Hokianga coast, claiming the lives of 13 crew members.

What made this tragedy more significant was the cargo on board. Apart from items such as coal, dried fruit and tobacco, the ship was chartered to transport the remains of about 500 Chinese gold miners back to their homeland for burial.

Over the years, local Māori communities have been gathering bones washed onto shore for safekeeping – and this story has served to connect Chinese with Pākehā and Māori symbolically and spiritually ever since.

Some in our group could claim direct ancestry to the bones themselves, and others shared iwi relations.

The kaumātua spoke of intermarriage between Māori and Chinese in his own extended Te Rarawa family. And overlooking the urupā (burial site) at Mitimiti was the Red Gateway – a bold red wooden arch nestled amongst the gently swaying toetoe that recalled these connections and history with strength and serenity. So yes, we really were whānau.

Far North

The story has served to connect Chinese with Pākehā and Māori symbolically and spiritually ever since. (Photo: James To)

It then occurred to me that this was not so much a visit, but more a pilgrimage in many respects.

In fact, the timing of our travel up north was specifically planned to revolve around Qing Ming, a traditional annual occasion where Chinese families head out to the cemetery to tend, clean and sweep the tombs and gravestones of their forebears.

And so back to the beach where we were looking far out into the horizon. We offered incense with three deep bows and burnt notes to honour those who had passed; we conveyed to their spirits our thoughts and prayers.

It was also our moment to pay tribute and thanks to those who have cared for our lost ones with dignity and respect. In our hands were long bamboo poles, for scrawling messages to our ancestors into the wet sand.

Paying respects the Chinese way

In traditional Chinese custom, incense and burnt notes are offered to honour ancestors. (Photo: James To)

This was where earth and sea met, a final resting place to remember and connect to a moment that occurred more than 100 years ago – and at the same time ponder our past, present and future relationship with the land and its peoples, and how we all fit into that.

So for myself, my family, and certainly those who travelled with me to Mitimiti and Kawerua – those wonderful sensations of running onto the beach now evoke not just the nostalgia of long hot summers, but a completely new set of emotions and recollections that is forever woven into our social tapestry – adding to a rich history of intercultural connectedness, and pointing a way ahead for establishing a powerful shared identity as New Zealanders.

It’s amazing what a day or two at the beach can do.

James To is National Secretary of the New Zealand Chinese Association. Views expressed in this article are personal to the author.

– Asia Media Centre


The legacy of the SS Ventnor

Gold miners in Otago

Chinese gold miners at Muddy Creek, Waikaia, alongside a cob cottage, circa 1900. (Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library)

  • The SS Ventnor sank off the Hokianga Heads in October 1902, after striking a reef off the coast of Taranaki. The steamship had been carrying the coffins of about 500 Chinese men, mostly goldminers in Otago and Southland, back to their homeland. Thirteen crew members and passengers died.
  • The boat had been chartered by a Chinese community group Cheong Sing Tong to send to remains back to China for reburial in their home villages – mostly in Poon Yu, Guangdong.
  • Otago businessman Choie Sew Hoy was the first president of the Cheong Shing Tong group. Through his arrangements, in 1883 another ship had safely carried 230 exhumed bodies to China.
  • Sew Hoy died in 1901 and his body was among those lost on the Ventnor.
  • In 2007, New Zealand-born Chinese researchers learnt that members of Northland iwi Te Rarawa and Te Roroa had grown up with stories about human remains washing up on beaches and being buried in urupā (burial places). In 2009, Chinese New Zealand Ventnor descendants were invited to Te Rarawa and Te Roroa marae (Matihetihe Marae in Mitimiti, and Matatina Marae in the Waipoua forest) to pay their respects.
  • Since then, several ceremonies have been held to honour the dead. In April 2013, plaques were erected to mark gratitude to the Māori who had cared for the remains.
  • In early 2014, a diving group, the Project Ventnor Group, began to examine the 150-metre deep wreckage., having confirmed its location the year before. They retrieved five objects from the wreck, causing the New Zealand Chinese Association and the Human Rights Commission to express concern about a "lack of respect" and consultation. 
  • In May 2014, the wreck was given legal protection. It is now covered by archaeological provisions of the Historic Places Act 1993.
  • Planning is underway for a Chinese Historic Ventnor Trail in Northland and work is underway identifying a site for a memorial.
  • The sinking of the Ventnor inspired Renee Liang’s play The Bone Feeder, later made into an opera.

Read more: