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.

Find out more about the historical event

Modern times

  • 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.

21 thoughts on “History

    1. kirstenwong Post author

      Hi Alexandra, Good thought. It’s my understanding that the coffins were simply listed as cargo in the shipping records and presumably with the insurance company. So no luck there. The original records were kept but were lost in a fire in a storage shed. Would love to be proved incorrect about there being no other records, so other thoughts are welcome! Kirsten

  1. Alexandra Gilbert

    Hi Kirsten, I have become interested in this story because Helen Wong contacted the archivist in Christchurch for a list of the five who were disinterred from Christchurch cemeteries and the Archivist wondered if The Friends of Linwood Cemetery had any information. Now I have read up on what happened – such a sad thing, really tragic for the families – I would so like to help but I am sorry that so far I have found nothing.
    Since the earthquakes, local historians network much better (thank god for e-mail) and I will alert some of my super sleuth friends to the quest. You never know… We do find that there is a time when people’s ancestors ask to be found. It can be quite amazing at time… Please also let me know if you do find their names. They deserve to be honored.

    1. kirstenwong Post author

      I will! Actually, I need to go through my files because there are lists of names I got from the Wellington City Archives of those disinterred at around that time. Unfortunately there’s just no way of knowing who of those disinterred was actually on the boat. Tricky stuff . . .

  2. kmccready

    Thanks for a great site! Do you have a link to the maritime enquiry which followed. Was the reef charted? How come he hit it? etc

    1. kirstenwong Post author

      Hi Kevin, Um, no I don’t think the maritime enquiry information is online. I haven’t read it myself, but people have written about the results. It’s in the public domain. I’ll see if I can find out. Kirsten

    2. Lynette Shum

      Thank goodness for Papers Past, where we can read online of reports of the enquiry that followed. It was covered by newspapers all around the country, such was the level of interest.

  3. oliver langan

    Very interesting article.especially now that the wreck is purported to have be located.Will there be recoverable remains,we wait and see,

  4. kirstenwong Post author

    Yes, be interesting to see what happens. I think there will need to be quite a bit more discussion with communities and families involved before anything happens. This is, essentially, a grave so it’s not something you’d want to disturb without a great deal of care and respect.

  5. Lynette Shum

    I agree. As you can read above, over the past several years, a group of people including descendant family members, clansmen and other representatives for the lost men have been working with the local iwi, consulting, organising commemorations and memorials, and above all, building relationships. We would like to continue with our process and further what we have achieved, together. We are relieved the site of the Ventnor is an archaeological site and protected.

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  8. Richard Howard

    A story now beautifully portrayed in a opera by Gareth Fart and Renee Laing, called The Bone Feeders. Opened tonight at Auckland Waterfront Theatre. March 24 2017

  9. Mack Hill

    Well the place where they. Are is where I’m from is call mitimiti because I go visit my grandparents on top of the hill on our cemetery if you want to know anything go up north and asks the local iwi because my family have told me when I was up there for the holidays because you won’t find it in the maritime or any other place all I’m saying is just go up and visit but be careful of our roads up there like I have said enough just go up and visit

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