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The SS Ventnor sank off the coast of New Zealand in 1902 while carrying the remains of 499 Chinese gold miners back to China via Hong Kong. The recent discovery of the bones of some in the wreck of the ship has sparked a row over whether they should be left in place or raised for burial in China. Photo: Auckland Library

Chinese gold miners’ bones in 1902 New Zealand shipwreck: should they be raised for burial or left under sea now they have been discovered?

  • In 1902 the SS Ventnor, carrying the remain of gold miners back to China, sank in the Tasman Sea. The bones of some have been found in the wreck of the ship
  • The leader of the divers who found them believes they should be brought up and buried in China, but members of New Zealand’s Chinese community don’t agree
New Zealand

Nothing could have prepared Keith Gordon for the image he witnessed on the small video display in the cabin of a vessel anchored in the Tasman Sea, about 25km southwest of Hokianga in New Zealand’s North Island.

“When I looked at the screen, I just thought, ‘bloody hell’,” says Gordon, one of New Zealand’s most experienced underwater explorers.

Some 150 metres beneath where he stood, a yellow, remotely operated underwater vehicle was searching inside the wreck of the steamship SS Ventnor and sending real-time video footage to the surface. As the vehicle descended, its lights illuminated a chilling spectacle.

“There were skulls and bones just lying there; it was a surreal moment,” says Gordon, who, with leader John Albert and colleague Dave Moran of the Project Ventnor Group, had been working for almost nine years towards this moment.

A diver inspects the wreck of the SS Ventnor. Photo: Ventnor Project.

They were observing the skeletal remains of some of the 499 (some reports say 489) Cantonese gold miners the SS Ventnor had been transporting from Wellington, New Zealand, to Hong Kong – for their traditional burial in Guangdong, southern China – when it sank on October 27, 1902, after hitting a reef.

The startling discovery, made on May 22 this year, finally confirmed the presence of the miners’ remains, but not everyone shared the team’s sense of jubilation.

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Kirsten Wong, of the New Zealand Chinese Association, says: “I think we all just found it very distasteful to film bones and human remains. What’s the difference between a grave at sea and a grave on land? Would you dig up your grandfather and photograph his remains and offer to broadcast the footage?”

The footage of the human remains inside the wreck – a protected archaeological site – has never been broadcast, yet it still inflamed a row that has been simmering since 2012, when the shipwreck was first located by the Project Ventnor team.

Albert is a Maori and shares the Chinese cultural belief about spirits of the dead and the importance of human remains returning to their ancestral homeland. He believes the miners should be allowed to complete their journey home; not be condemned to a fate as restless, hungry ghosts in a watery grave.

The SS Ventnor sank in the Tasman Sea off the coast of New Zealand in 1902.

However, not everyone agrees. “I think we leave them there. Leave them at peace. I know that is my view and it is the vast majority view,” says Wong. She says the Chinese community in New Zealand has been consulted extensively over the miners’ fate.

The row began in November 2014 when Albert’s team held a press event to coincide with the state visit to New Zealand of Chinese President Xi Jinping. The team announced that they had found the wreck of SS Ventnor and confirmed its identity. Five conserved objects removed from the wreck, including the engine telegraphs, were presented to validate their claims.

“Then things got political, ” is how Gordon describes the political and diplomatic contentions that arose over the shipwreck.

Wong says there was an “outpouring from the community”, with Chinese in New Zealand saying they knew nothing of the shipwreck’s discovery and were outraged that their ancestors had become the subject of what they regarded as a media circus.

A headline from the Hong Kong Daily Press News tells of the sinking of the SS Ventnor in 1902.

As emotions boiled over, Albert and his team were accused of desecrating an underwater grave. The dispute has since engulfed Chinese community associations in New Zealand, the national government, heritage experts, and officials in China who hosted receptions for Albert during three separate visits between 2012 and 2014.

While the row continues, the miners’ remains have still not completed their journey and, as the Chinese proverb puts it: “The leaves have not returned to the roots of the tree.”

The Chinese men were mostly from Poon Yu (now Panyu district) and Fah Yuen (now part of Huadu district, some 35km (20 miles) north of the centre of Guangzhou (formerly Canton) in Guangdong, and worked in New Zealand’s gold mines. They yearned for home, so joined the Cheong Sing Tong, an association founded in 1882 by Choie Sew Hoy, a wealthy businessman in the Otago region of the country’s South Island.

The association had about 2,500 members and helped repatriate Chinese remains in accordance with custom. After Sew Hoy died in 1901, his body, sealed in an ornate hardwood coffin, became part of the cargo of human remains placed aboard the SS Ventnor bound for Hong Kong.

Sew Hoy’s descendants have also become embroiled in the SS Ventnor dispute.

Peter Sew Hoy (left), a descendant of Choie Sew Hoy, and Charlie Ding, president of the Poon Fah Association, make offerings for the dead on a beach in New Zealand where the remains of Chinese gold miners from the SS Ventnor washed up. Photo: King Tong Ho

Those who perished were some of the hundreds of thousands of men from Canton who, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, formed part of an extensive Chinese diaspora working in mines and on roads, farms and railways in the United States, South America, Australia and New Zealand, often in terrible conditions.

They usually returned to China by ship, often in cramped and unsanitary conditions, via the port of Hong Kong. If they survived the outbound trip there was a chance to complete their contract and start a business, and maybe return home with some savings. Those not so fortunate retuned home in a coffin, or not at all.

“I would regard them as early pioneers – overseas Chinese who helped open up China to the world,” says Tam Kwong-lim, founder director, board member and consultant to the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.

The propeller and rudder of the SS Ventnor. Photo: Ventnor Project.

Tam says the SS Ventnor represents part of Hong Kong’s maritime history, and the museum is considering including Chinese indentured labour as a feature of a major new exhibition about the history of shipping in Hong Kong, scheduled for 2022.

The miners’ final journey home would have been made via the Tung Wah Coffin Home in Sandy Bay, on the southeastern coast of Hong Kong Island. Although the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals says it has no documentary proof concerning the remains on the SS Ventnor, it estimates that more than 100,000 sets of Chinese remains were transported via the coffin home, before being collected by relatives for burial in mainland China among their ancestors.

For me, the shipwreck is the important part of the story and reveals why Hong Kong was such an important port, a transit place and gateway for the Chinese diaspora moving in and out of China
Steven Gallagher, a law professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong

In the months after the shipwreck was reported in the press, some of the skeletal remains washed up on beaches near Hokianga Head in North Island. It is Maori country, and when the local tribes found the skeletal remains they treated them with reverence and undertook sacred burial services.

Wong sees the relationship and cultural bonds evident between the Maori and the Chinese as more relevant than divers and shipwrecks, and those values will be reflected at an SS Ventnor memorial expected to be unveiled at Opononi in New Zealand’s Far North district in April 2021 to coincide with the Ching Ming (grave sweeping) Festival.

“Other people see it as a shipwreck story. We see it as a spiritual story and about shared New Zealand values,” Wong says.

The new SS Ventnor memorial is expected to open in April, 2021 at Opononi in New Zealand’s Far North district.

Steven Gallagher, a law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and an expert in cultural heritage, often uses the story of SS Ventnor in his lectures to demonstrate how underwater cultural heritage represents links between places.

“For me, the shipwreck is the important part of the story and reveals why Hong Kong was such an important port, a transit place and gateway for the Chinese diaspora moving in and out of China,” he says.

Gallagher says that while some countries have taken measures to protect war graves, there is no such legal structure for an underwater grave or any legal precedent for what should happen to them.

“It’s difficult to protect the dead because they are not anyone’s property. It’s always been a legal issue,” he says.

An underwater remote operated vehicle called a Boxfish ROV is deployed to locate the remains of the Chinese gold miners on SS Ventnor.

Gallagher fears the dispute could end up as a legal battle in the New Zealand High Court if descendants in China request that their ancestors are brought home.

Enthusiasm from Chinese officials appears to have cooled, however, and Albert was advised it was because of the controversy the issue had created in New Zealand. Gallagher suspects the story does not fit with Beijing’s preferred historical narrative of China’s Maritime Silk Road.

Despite the controversy, setbacks and a pandemic, Albert remains determined to visit Panyu district, establish links with descendants and offer them the chance to bring their ancestors home.

The wreck of the SS Ventnor is inspected by a diver. Photo: Ventnor Project.

It will not be easy. The only list of names is an Anglicised version, and extensive development in the region means it is now unrecognisable from the cluster of rural villages the miners left.

Albert is a spiritual man and, while he knows it sounds “loopy”, he sincerely believes he was chosen by the spirits to allow the 499 miners to continue the voyage they commenced 118 years ago.

“We want them to complete their journey and be laid to rest next to their ancestors,” he says.