An Auckland Weekly News artist's depiction of the the S S Ventnor going down off the Hokianga Heads, 28 October 1902. Photo: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19021113-2-1

Far up north near the mouth of the Hokianga Harbour, Te Roroa and Te Rarawa Māori join with Chinese New Zealanders this weekend to commemorate those who died when the SS Ventnor went down off the heads in 1902 – and the remains of 499 merchants and miners being returned to their villages in China but instead lost to the seas.

What would you do if you were stranded far from home, nameless, without resource and unable to see your family?

For many, the worldwide pandemic might make this a very current fear. But these fears have affected many migrants through the centuries, including those in my community.

Chinese who came to work in Aotearoa some 150 years ago faced harsh working conditions that they knew very well might kill them. As well as physical and emotional hardship (racism against Chinese was rife in those days, as it is now), they also faced the very real threat of spiritual annihilation.

My predecessors believed that if they did not return home to their villages in Southern China, they would forever be doomed to wander as ‘hungry ghosts’ – spirits without a home nor the sustenance and companionship provided by their descendants. They also would be unable to fulfil their spiritual duty to look after the village.

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These beliefs led to the formation of cooperative societies among Chinese migrants, most notably Cheong Shing Tong, based in Stafford St in Dunedin and led by prominent Dunedin businessman Choie Sew Hoy. The goal of these groups was to look after poor and elderly Chinese and to assist them to return to China.

Many workers paid subscriptions which were a kind of insurance for the afterlife: if they died before they could return, Cheong Shing Tong would undertake to return their bones to their home villages.

Eventually subscriptions allowed the chartering of special ‘coffin ships’. The first ship, carrying 230 remains, successfully arrived in Guangdong in 1883. 

Prominent Dunedin businessman Choie Sew Hoy charted the SS Ventnor to return the bodies of the goldminers to China, but in the months before its departure he too died. His were the 499th set of remains consigned to the ship. Photo: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 

In 1901, resources allowed the chartering of a second ship. Newspapers of the day goggled breathlessly at the scenes when teams of Chinese on the West Coast, Southland and Wellington dug up graves, the locations of which had been carefully recorded as they were filled.

By the accounts of Western journalists, it was a precise and careful operation. Soil was sifted so no bone was left behind and the remains carefully cleaned and wrapped in cloth and laid in small kauri boxes.

Choie Sew Hoy himself died during this gathering process and his body, in a fine rimu coffin, made the total of 499 remains.

“My poor father has died twice!”
– Sew Hoy’s son

On Sunday 26th October 1902, the SS Ventnor left Wellington in bright sunlight. The ship also carried an English crew, some Westport coal, and elderly Chinese as ‘coffin attendants’. But disaster struck shortly after noon on Monday when the Ventnor hit a submerged rock off Cape Egmont.

The captain made a decision to sail on instead of stopping for repairs – a decision he would soon pay for with his life. Too late, the ship tried to make it into the Hokianga port, sinking just outside the harbour. The Chinese community immediately chartered another ship to try to salvage the remains – but to no avail.

The Ventnor was entombed in dark and turbulent water, too deep for the technology of the day to reach. Sew Hoy’s son, overcome with grief, was said to have exclaimed ‘my poor father has died twice!’

Two lifeboats from the sunken SS Ventnor came ashore at Ōmāpere, above, and an empty one later washed up at Ahipara. Photo: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections

But here the tragedy takes a turn. Over the years, as the ship fell apart, the tiny coffins were released and some made it to the shoreline around the Hokianga harbour, where members of Te Roroa and Te Rarawa iwi found them. Recognising the remains as someone’s treasured family, the bones were carefully buried in special places, with the locations and oral histories passed down through generations, and iwi members visiting to tend the graves until their real families arrived to claim them.

As people often do, the Chinese community in 1902 were too distraught to speak of their trauma. Over the generations, the memory of the Ventnor disaster was lost.

It took more than a century, but in 2007 Wong Liu Shueng, a descendant of New Zealand’s early Chinese community, heard of the remains from locals while doing research for a film-making course. 

Thus began one of the most remarkable stories of single-minded determination to make things right. Wong gathered up the Chinese community and from 2008 onwards, along with other community leaders, organised a series of pilgrimages so that local Chinese could thank Northland iwi for their selfless care of our ancestors.

I’ll be honest, many in our community didn’t initially know much about tikanga Māori and were nervous of even coming onto a marae.  But with patience and encouragement, we have learnt. 

We have had many visits since, in small and large groups. We have exchanged details of whakapapa, waiāta sung in Cantonese and te reo Māori, and gifts – pounamu from the same rivers that our ancestors might have waded through in their quest for gold. In turn iwi have hosted us on their marae and taken part in our offerings of roast pork and incense and loud firecrackers to keep our ancestors fed and happy – a ceremony known as bai san.

A crowd gathers for the dedication of the Red Gate at Mitimiti on the north Hokianga, in 2016.
A crowd gathers for the dedication of the Red Gate at Mitimiti on the north Hokianga, in 2016. Photo: Supplied

In 2016 a magnificent red gate was erected over the urupa at Mitimiti by Te Rarawa iwi, in order that our ancestors might feel more welcome. And so it is that we realise that our ancestors have found a resting place, and with many of their descendants now here, even a place they might call home.

In all that time, we have only known one name definitely connected with the sinking of the Ventnor: Choie Sew Hoy. But several years ago, the rest of the 498 names were found in old records. They were anglicised names, phonetically recorded, and with no further details of home village nor age. Still, they are the names. 

Ching Ming, which means clear and bright, is traditionally the time in April where Chinese families visit the graves of their ancestors, weed and scrub them clean, burn incense and lay out a feast for their loved ones. (The food is eaten afterwards by living family members – we don’t like waste). 

Renee Liang at the 'unknown Chinese grave' at Mitimiti urupa, on the north Hokianga.
Renee Liang at the ‘unknown Chinese grave’ at Mitimiti urupa, on the north Hokianga. Photo: Supplied

This weekend, hundreds of us head to the Far North to dedicate a special memorial which for the first time will have the names of all 499 remains lost on the Ventnor. 

The memorial, designed by New Zealand Chinese descendant Richard Tam and hosted at the Manea Footprints of Kupe centre in Opononi, is designed to be walked on. Seven steps ascending a journey through time, memory and longing, ending in a sweep of iron panels like the strong spine of a dragon – or perhaps a taniwha.

On those panels we will finally be able to see those names, touch them even. Over the years it’s possible that many will find a real connection to the names and finally the circle will be complete: the descendants will at last find their ancestors.

The 2017 opera The Bone Feeder tells the story of the loss of the SS Ventnor and all onboard.

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