Background history

What was the Ventnor?  The SS Ventnor was a 3,961 ton cargo ship, built in 1901 in Glasgow.

What’s the story? In 1902 the Ventnor was chartered by the Cheong Sing Tong (a Chinese New Zealand community group) to transport the remains of around 499 men who had died in New Zealand back to their home villages in China for reburial. (The actual numbers vary according to different accounts.) Before it even left New Zealand the ship struck a rock and sank off the Hokianga coast. An immediate search was undertaken by the Chinese organisers, but all seemed lost. In the weeks and months following the sinking,  remains washed ashore along the whole coastline. These were carefully gathered by the people of the Hokianga and reburied. Two known burial sites are in the Waipoua forest area and at Mitimiti (the ancestral burial grounds of Te Roroa and Te Rarawa). Both sites have memorial plaques in honour of the dead and thanking the iwi Te Roroa and Te Rarawa for their care through the generations. Local history also identifies Rawene cemetery as a further burial site.

What was the Cheong Sing Tong? The Cheong Sing Tong was an association founded in 1882 by Chinese men from the Poon Yu county of Guangdong Province. Its purpose was to send the remains of fellow Poon Yu villagers who had died in New Zealand back to their families in China for reburial. Funds were raised by subscription from around 2,500 members. Most were goldminers from Otago, Southland and the West Coast. The leader was the wealthy Otago businessman Choie Sew Hoy. When Choie Sew Hoy died in 1901 leadership was taken over by his son Choie Kum Poy.

Why was it only a Poon Yu association?  Most of the Chinese goldminers in New Zealand were from Poon Yu, although there were some miners from the Seyip, Jung Seng and Dong Guan districts.

Were there any non-Poon Yu men on the Ventnor? A Jung Seng man named Chan Fook On arranged for the remains of ten Jung Seng men to be taken on the Ventnor.

Why was it important to send back remains to China? Culturally it is essential for Chinese people to have their graves tended by their family to ensure a good afterlife for the deceased, and prosperity for the descendants of the deceased. This can only be done if the person is buried where their family are, usually in their home village.  To be buried where family cannot perform these cultural observances means the deceased will not be able to rest in peace. They will become what is known as ‘hungry ghosts.’

How did the boat sink? On 27 October 1902, a day after leaving Wellington, the Ventnor struck a reef off the coast of Taranaki near New Plymouth. The captain decided to make for Auckland but the ship was too damaged and sank at 9.00pm on 28 October off the Hokianga Heads. The crew took to the four lifeboats. Only three reached the shore at Omapere. The other boat was lost. Officially 13 men died, including nine (some accounts say six) elderly Chinese ‘attendants’ who had been given free passage home by the Cheong Sing Tong in exchange for looking after the coffins.

What happened following the sinking? The Cheong Sing Tong hired the steamer Energy from Auckland to try and locate the wreck and recover as many of the coffins as possible. Choie Kum Poy was especially keen to locate the ship as the remains of his father Choie Sew Hoy were on the Ventnor. Unfortunately the search was not successful. The Cheong Sing Tong had put each set of remains in carefully labelled lead-lined coffins which were stored beneath decks. It was assumed they went down with the ship. A later addition to the shipment were the remains of 10 men from Jung Seng county. These were made of wood and stored on deck. These were supposed to have floated free and come ashore south of the Hokianga Heads (close to Te Roroa’s Waipoua Forest area).

What happened to the recovered remains? Some of the remains were collected by iwi, Te Roroa and Te Rarawa, and buried in their ancestral burial grounds. Other remains that washed ashore were gathered together with the intention of being sent to Auckland. The shipment stalled and the remains ended up at the Rawene police station. From there, local history has it that they were buried around Rawene cemetery.

What happened after that?  The incident marked the end of large-scale repatriation of the remains of men to China. Post-1902 the Cheong Sing Tong changed its policy and embalmed bodies were sent home immediately after death. Among other things, this avoided the public controversies over disinterment  that had plagued earlier shipments.  The shock of the Ventnor sinking caused the Cheong Sing Tong to eventually disband (exacerbated by disputes over what to do with the substantial insurance money). Although there is no record of when this happened, there are newspaper reports of remains being sent home by the Cheong Sing Tong in 1904, and according to Charles Sedgewick, it was still operating in 1928 with funds of £3,000 (“The politics of survival: A social history of the Chinese in New Zealand”, 1982).  In response to changing times, members of the Cheong Shing Tong regrouped in 1916, and the Poon Yu Association was formed with the broader function of supporting the community in New Zealand.

What happened to the remains of the Ventnor?  In 2014 the Ventnor wreck was made a protected archaeological site. From May of that year, the modification, destruction or removal of parts of the ship or any other artefacts became illegal.

Does anyone know the names of those lost?  Unfortunately the Chinese community’s records have not survived so we do not know the Chinese names of those lost. However, a recent discovery at Archives New Zealand uncovered the official New Zealand records of the shipment which listed the English transliterations of all the names (including the name of one woman).

What of the ‘spirits’ of the men on the Ventnor?  According to traditional Chinese belief these men will not have found peace since the sinking of the Ventnor. As Choie Kum Poy exclaimed at the time ‘poor my father, he has died twice’. It is hoped that the memorial plaques at the Waipoua Forest Visitors’ Centre and at Mitimiti cemetery, alongside the planned memorial at Rawene cemetery, will offer some closure to all concerned.

What is the historic significance of this event? In many ways the Ventnor incident symbolises the estrangement and isolation of Chinese in New Zealand at that time, and the terrible sacrifices that the early gold seekers had to make to support their families in China.  For them, the distant China was more of a reality than the New Zealand they lived in (which they termed “the land of ghosts”). The irony was that the men of the Ventnor became ghosts in the land of the ghosts, continuing to exist in a spiritual limbo that echoed the marginalisation they experienced when alive.

From another perspective the post script of their story must be one of New Zealand’s most moving pieces of history.  The care taken by Maori to bury the remains and then keep that knowledge alive for the Chinese descendants is extraordinary and a testament to the power of our shared human values.

Was the 1902 exhumation the only one?  No, the Cheong Sing Tong organised a shipment in 1883 with the remains of 230 men from Otago and the West Coast. The second shipment in 1902 included the remains of 265 men loaded at Dunedin, 173 at Greymouth, 26 at other ports and 45 in Wellington (numbers vary according to different accounts).  Around 500 remains were disinterred from 40 cemeteries.

When were the other exhumations done? Disinterments commenced in late 1901 and continued till September 1902. Loading took place during October 1902 and the Ventnor departed Wellington for Hong Kong on 26 October 1902.