The original event
- The SS Ventnor sank off the Hokianga Heads in October 1902. The boat had been chartered by the charitable association Cheong Sing Tong, a Chinese New Zealand community group set up to send the remains of those who had died in New Zealand back to China for reburial in their home villages (mostly in the Poon Yu county of Guangdong).
- The sinking took the lives of 13 crew and passengers, and the remains of around 500 Chinese men were thought to have been lost in wreck. Although most of those whose remains were on board came from Poon Yu, a small number came from the nearby county of Jung Seng.
- In 2007 members of the early settler Chinese community were told the history of the Ventnor sinking from the Hokianga point of view. They were told that for some time after the sinking in 1902, remains had washed ashore and locals had carefully gathered them up. Some were destined to be sent to Auckland but ended up at the Rawene Police Station and from there, according to local history, the Rawene cemetery. Other sets of remains were collected by Te Roroa and Te Rarawa, who buried them in their own ancestral burial grounds. A meeting with iwi representatives confirmed this was the case, and that knowledge of the remains and responsibility for care had been passed down from generation to generation to this present day.
- On the Chinese side, attempts were made to track down the descendants of those lost. A consultation began with the descendant organisations and families of those originally involved: the Poon Fah Association (representing the Cheong Sing Tong and the Poon Yu men), the Otago Southland branch of the NZCA (representing the Otago goldminers), the Tung Jung Association (representing the Jung Seng men), and representatives of descendants of Choie Sew Hoy (whose son Kum Poy had organised the shipment), and Chan Fook On (who organised the Wellington part of the shipment).
- A core group was formed in 2008 from these initial consultations. The initial aims were to:
- acknowledge and thank local iwi for looking after the remains for the past 100-plus years
- perform the traditional rites for those lost
- make the history more widely known and accessible to all.
Visiting the Hokianga, paying respects and building relationships
- In April 2009 a representative group travelled to the marae of Te Roroa and Te Rarawa to introduce themselves and to thank iwi for the care of their ancestors.
- In April 2013 ongoing discussions between Chinese descendants and iwi culminated in the unveiling of two plaques and a kauri grove acknowledging the historical events and the iwi’s role. Some 100 Chinese, mostly from the New Zealand Chinese Association (NZCA), attended the unveilings.
- Since 2013 there have been several other trips to the Hokianga, some private and some involving or organised by NZCA branches. The most recent has been the NZ Tung Jung Association trip in April 2016.
- We now have close relationships with iwi, the wider community around Rawene and Mitimiti, the local historical society and the Far North District Council.
Work with the Ministry of Culture and Heritage and Heritage New Zealand (formerly Historic Places Trust)
- In early 2014 rumours began to surface of divers exploring the Ventnor wreck and taking artefacts. The community alerted Heritage New Zealand and the wreck was made a protected archaeological site. From May 2014, the modification, destruction or removal of parts of the ship or any other artefacts became illegal.
- However, artefacts had been taken before the order came into force, and these artefacts were publicly displayed at a press conference in late November 2014.
- The community expressed immediate concerns about the disturbance of the wreck, which is viewed as a gravesite, and about the safety and ownership of the artefacts.
- It was at this point that the New Zealand Chinese Association (NZCA) took formal oversight of the project on behalf of the whole community and began discussions with Government agencies and Ministers.
- The process resulted in the Ministry of Culture and Heritage removing the artefacts to the care of a museum, and initiating a public process to assess ownership claims. The artefacts are being kept in the Police Museum until they find a permanent home.