A collection of some historic and some recreated settlements of 19th century Chinese in Arrowtown.

Chinese Kiwis

Much is made of Chinese immigration, but the influx is by no means a recent phenomenon. In fact, there’s likely a number of Chinese Kiwis with greater historical ties to New Zealand than many European ones.


Appo Hocton. who arrived on these shores in 1842, is widely accepted to be the first Chinese man to do so. He became a naturalised New Zealander a decade later. A book launch and exhibition was held in Nelson — Hocton’s hometown — in 2010 in celebration of his life, and in attendance was his great-granddaughter, Diana Clark, and Pansy Wong, ethnic affairs minister and New Zealand’s first Asian member of parliament. Hocton, who is thought to have around 1,600 descendants around the country, is renowned for his contribution to the development of the region, running a number of businesses, building a number of houses, and, like many back then, searching for gold. Unlike the majority of his fellow immigrant countrymen, Hocton could read and speak English, and Clark commented how her “very astute” great-grandfather was “well accepted by his English and Irish counterparts”.


But this was not usually the case.


The 1860s brought the first major wave of Chinese migrant workers to New Zealand — mostly to the goldfields of Otago — and by the close of the decade more than 2,000 had settled. The men worked largely abandoned mines whose easier-to-reach spoils had already been plundered by Europeans, most of whom had since moved on. Few of the Chinese men struck luck, becoming economically locked in the small communities they built in the South Island and, denied a pension, most died poor. The Chinese Immigrants Act of 1881 further compounded their misfortune, introducing a series of taxes effectively seeking to halt further immigration (Australia and Canada introduced similar measures). Every Chinese person was forced to hand over a £10 fee to enter the country, and before the turn of the century, it was raised tenfold — the equivalent of 10 years’ pay. By 1901, less than 20 women had joined the approximately 3,000 Chinese men living here.


Racism was rife. Derogatory stories were regularly printed in newspapers warning of “yellow peril”, and even the prime minister, Richard Seddon, commented “there is about as much distinction between a European and a Chinaman as that between a Chinaman and a monkey”.


A collection of some historic and some recreated settlements of 19th century Chinese in Arrowtown.


And so the Chinese lived on the fringes of the European societies. One of the most well-known spots is Arrowtown, where today still stands the fascinating Chinese Settlement, a partially restored, partially recreated collection of historical dwellings that made up part of the 19th century gold mining town. Around 60 Chinese would have squeezed into the dozen or so huts built from mud brick, stone, wood and corrugated iron. One Asian Arrowtown man by the name of Ah Lum became a local hero when he saved a European man from drowning in the Shotover River in the early 1900s. Lum owned the local store, which also served as a bank and well-known meeting place for the Chinese settlers. Lum died in 1927, his store now registered as an historic place. It’s unlikely any Chinese women ever made it to the village.


It was not until the late 1930s that the tax on Chinese immigrants was lifted (it was not officially repealed until 1944, and in 2002 the New Zealand government issued an official apology to the Chinese for the suffering it caused) on humanitarian grounds due to the Japanese bombing of China during the second world war. This not only allowed families to be reunited, but also brought in a new wave of Chinese migrants.


Ken Chan was one of the first such settlers to sail into Auckland in 1939. Aged just seven, his journey began with a week-long walk from his Guangdong village to Hong Kong. He went on to become Avondale College’s first Chinese pupil, and later produced the first kiwifruit liqueur through the family’s Totara vineyard near Thames. Chan spoke good English, telling the Herald he encountered few problems integrating into New Zealand society and forming “great friendships”. From a “refugee’s point of view” Chan believes he’s repaid his debt and is proud to be a Kiwi: “I’m so pleased that I was able to do something for our country.”


Words and photos: Jamie Christian Desplaces