This is a story about a Chinese shipwreck, the Māori guardians of the bones, and the documentary maker who’ has upset two cultures with his efforts to tell the tale. 

Is a shipwreck with the bones of 499 Chinese miners a sacred gravesite or a part of history that should be brought to the surface?

The answer to that is sparking sharp tensions between some descendants of those who were on board (backed by high profile leaders in the Chinese community), and a documentary filmmaker.

Today The Detail traces the story of the SS Ventnor, which set sail for Guangdong, China in 1902, carrying the remains of miners who had died in New Zealand.

The ship struck a reef and sank just off the Hokianga Heads in Northland.

Jenny Sew Hoy Agnew is the great, great granddaughter of Choie Sew Hoy, a Chinese merchant who strongly believed in repatriating Chinese miners to their homeland.

“But in 1901, while he was in the midst of organising the SS Ventnor … he unfortunately died,” she says.

Her ancestor was placed on the ship and went down with the rest of the miners, including 13 crew; lost forever, or so most people thought.

But some of the bones washed ashore, and local iwi from Te Roroa and Te Rawara collected and buried them near their own urupā (cemetery).

Snow Tane, from the Te Roroa Trust, says his grandfather, Te Atārangi Taniora, was a part of that group.

“For those miners to come ashore and then to be looked after by the Māori community, I think … Māori and the Chinese have cemented an enduring relationship,” he says.

Wellington writer Kirsten Wong has been following the story of the SS Ventnor for the New Zealand Chinese Association since 2007.

The SS Ventnor sank in the Hokianga Heads in 1902. Image: Auckland Library

When she started hearing stories about Māori involvement with their Chinese history, she and others in the community decided to meet iwi leaders.

“We walked in there, not entirely sure what to expect and to our surprise he just said in a very matter of fact way, ‘oh yes, our ancestors buried those bones, they knew that they were the Chinese miners and we’ve been waiting for you to come back’,” she says.

There have since been several groups of Chinese descendants who’ve gone to the last resting place of their ancestors to visit the graves that have been carefully looked after by local iwi.

A memorial has been designed and will be built with the help of a $100,000 grant from the Provincial Growth Fund.

It’s a touching story of how two cultures bonded over a tragedy, but it doesn’t end there.

In 2014, there was public outrage after artefacts were taken off the ship (legally) by a group of divers led by documentary marker, John Albert.

Things eventually settled down but, just last month, tensions have begun bubbling again.

Albert announced his team had shot footage of the miners’ remains using remote controlled cameras.

Bill Edwards, the Northland area manager for Heritage New Zealand says Albert shouldn’t be filming around the wreck.

“Legally he’s allowed to film, [but] I guess it comes down to the wider question about, if there’s human remains there, effectively it’s a cemetery, and my personal feeling is that it should be left alone,” he says.

Wong and Sew Hoy Agnew agree, saying the wreck is a resting place for their ancestors.

But Albert isn’t deterred.

He’s planning to release his documentary about the SS Ventnor early next year, with an assurance no remains will be shown.

Albert says the SS Ventnor story isn’t just about Choie Sew Hoy, it’s about everyone involved, including the crew and other miners whose identities are now largely lost because records went down with the ship.

“I was told that this isn’t a John Albert story, that it’s a Chinese story. It’s actually a New Zealand story. It’s something that I felt needed to be told,” he says.

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

Jessie Chiang is the associate producer of The Detail podcast.

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