After The Goldrush – a story of a Chinese gold miner and his family

By Alina Suchanski 

Reading time: 13 minutes

Chinese migrants working New Zealand’s goldfields at the end of the 19th century contributed considerably to the development of their adopted country; but as well as precious metals they found resentment. One of them was Wong Mee Chang.

Otago and Southland are dotted with historic places located in former goldrush hotspots. Towns such as Arrowtown, Queenstown and Riverton/Aparima all boomed on the back of the goldrush, and smaller settlements such as Cardrona near Wanaka, Bannockburn near Cromwell, Waikaka near Gore, Round Hill near Riverton, Gabriels Gully near Lawrence, and Macraes near Palmerston still remember when gold seekers, many of them Chinese, flocked to their area in search of a fortune. Some found it, others lost their health or even their life working hard in harrowing conditions, living in tents or simple shacks away from their families, looking for the elusive gold.

By Alina Suchanski 

Reading time: 13 minutes

Chinese migrants working New Zealand’s goldfields at the end of the 19th century contributed considerably to the development of their adopted country; but as well as precious metals they found resentment. One of them was Wong Mee Chang.

Otago and Southland are dotted with historic places located in former goldrush hotspots. Towns such as Arrowtown, Queenstown and Riverton/Aparima all boomed on the back of the goldrush, and smaller settlements such as Cardrona near Wanaka, Bannockburn near Cromwell, Waikaka near Gore, Round Hill near Riverton, Gabriels Gully near Lawrence, and Macraes near Palmerston still remember when gold seekers, many of them Chinese, flocked to their area in search of a fortune. Some found it, others lost their health or even their life working hard in harrowing conditions, living in tents or simple shacks away from their families, looking for the elusive gold.

The Chinese gold rush in New Zealand occurred between 1865 and 1900.

The first group of miners came from the Victoria goldfields in Australia in 1865. They were invited by the authorities and the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce as a readily available source of labour to rework the Otago goldfields after European miners left for the richer West Coast goldfields. By 1869, Chinese gold seekers were coming directly from China as well (Huang, Fountain, Perkins, 2009) and soon there were about 2,000 Chinese in New Zealand (Ann Beaglehole, n.d.). Their numbers reached a peak of 4,200 in 1871.

The Chinese miners kept mainly to themselves, living in small ‘Chinatowns’. Many experienced hardships in New Zealand and their living conditions were generally poor. Most spoke very little English and had difficulties communicating with Europeans, who disliked them because of their distinct physical appearance and culture. They were excluded from New Zealand society and were banned from living in towns or being buried in local graveyards.

During the 1870s, several Chinese communities were established in Otago and Southland. The largest was in Lawrence with about 120 residents, Chinese doctors, shops, hotels, temples, as well as opium and gambling houses.

As their numbers increased, pressure mounted to exclude further arrivals. The Chinese were seen as an inferior race, often labelled the ‘Yellow Peril’, and were perceived as an economic and social threat to the European community. Two main parliamentary acts were passed to stop Chinese immigration in 1881 and 1896. Both acts imposed a poll tax on the entry of new Chinese immigrants which remained in force until 1944 (Huang, Fountain, Perkins, 2009).

Wong Mee Chang was amongst the thousands of Chinese gold miners who took up New Zealand’s invitation to come to Otago from Australia. His granddaughter, Noeline Turnbull (nee Meechang), recorded his story.

Mee Chang was born near the southern China city of Canton in 1839, where his family worked as farmers and rural artisans. He was married to Li, and had two sons with her (NZ Chinese, 2011).

After his wife died in 1860 at the young age of 30, Mee Chang left for America. From America, he travelled to Australia before joining the many assisted Chinese gold miners seeking their fortune in Otago.

Wong Mee Chang arrived at Port Chalmers, Dunedin in 1869 aboard a vessel leaving from Melbourne, Australia. His intention was “to make a fortune from gold mining as quickly as possible and to return to his beloved China, wealthy and able to provide for his relatives, as many were living in deprivation and were relying on his money from the gold for their livelihood,” Noeline writes.

He had a good command of English and could read and write the language well. On arrival, he walked to the goldfields of Gabriels Gully, Lawrence.

According to Noeline, “the miners were hardworking, honest and frugal, but frequently experienced extreme resentment, hostility and often violence from the European settlers, who were also mining for gold. The Chinese miners only worked the ground abandoned by the white settlers. They knew very well that if they attempted to work the rich, virgin land, they would be met with violence.”

“Grandfather Mee Chang worked very hard and with careful saving moved to Invercargill where he was keen to enter the business world. He leased shops and made money selling jewellery, buying gold and running a general store. The shops thrived.”

At Lawrence, he met Mary Prudence Hodge from Cornwall. They were married in January 1879 in St John’s Anglican Church, Invercargill. All went well. The shops continued to flourish.

Sadly, Mee Chang succumbed to a gambling addiction and, in a very short time, lost all his shops and his home.

With the little money he had left, the family moved to Round Hill, where he was able to borrow money and make a fresh start.

The village of Canton, Round Hill near Riverton

A town was established at Round Hill called Canton, at its peak reaching 500 residents. Nothing remains of the town today, although a public museum at Riverton/Aparima houses a few items, and a couple of walking trails in the hills behind Round Hill follow water races and tramways; some stone walls can be seen, too (Mindat.org, n.d.).

Bob Michang (Uncle Bob), early 1900s
Photo: Private collection Mary Appleby

Wong bought a store and a restaurant. During the next few years, there was a degree of stability, and four of their children were born there: Minnie Salome 1880, Robert (Bob) 1881, Richard 1882, and Isabella 1884. The children’s surname was changed to Meechang.

However, Wong’s gambling obsession persisted. Once again he and Prudence lost everything; the shop, the restaurant, and their home.

They moved to Tapanui, near Gore, where their youngest son, Noble (Noeline’s father), was born in 1885. With the last remaining money, they leased a boarding house. “But Grandfather and Grandmother suffered terrible prejudice and violence from the white settlers in Tapanui and their boarding house, which also housed their living quarters, was burned to the ground. They were lucky to escape with their lives.”

After this tragedy, the family walked the twenty miles of rough track to the Chinese community of five to seven hundred miners in Waikaka, where they settled.

“Grandfather built a sod hut. He worked very hard panning and tunnelling for gold and building water races, but once again gambling became an obsession. Frequently, Grandmother and the children were starving as a result of his gambling. This, combined with the prejudice, ignorance, and ostracism by the white settlers, finally did break her spirit. She was committed to Seacliff Mental Asylum in 1906,” says Noeline.

By the time Mee Chang was 70, he decided to return to his beloved China and allow his soul to rest in peace. He died in 1910 in Canton, China.

Minnie Meechang at her wedding to Tom Favel

The next two generations of his family stayed in Waikaka. His oldest daughter, Minnie, fittingly named, as she was just 4’9”, married Thomas Ewen Valentine Favel, who happened to be 6’3”. They had 13 children, three of whom died at a young age. They lived in a two-bedroom house with no running water, where they raised their ten surviving children.

Mee Chang’s youngest son, Noble, married Henrietta May Little in a ceremony described by the Otago Witness as “a pretty wedding held at Sunnyside Branch Creek in Cardrona on 12 May 1922”.  The paper proceeded to describe what the bride and the bridesmaids were wearing, and the “sumptuous luncheon” enjoyed by the guests (Papers Past).

Wong Mee Chang’s granddaughters, Noeline (Noble’s daughter) and Nancey (Minnie’s daughter) were born in Waikaka, and his great-grandchildren – siblings James, Mary, George, and Esme grew up there. Today they are in their 70s and 80s, but they remember their uncle Bob (Wong’s son Robert Meechang) well.

“Uncle Bob was actually Mum’s uncle, but we all knew him as Uncle Bob. He was a lovely man, very kind,” Mary Appleby, one of Wong Mee Chang’s great-granddaughters says.

He was a shearers’ cook and was engaged to be married but didn’t have enough money for the wedding and decided to go to Australia. However, Chinese were not officially allowed into Australia back then, so he went to Perth via the ‘back door’ – on a fishing boat. He worked as a shearers’ cook for four years, saving for his wedding, but when he returned to New Zealand, he found that his sweetheart had married his brother. Broken-hearted, he never spoke to his brother or his new wife again.

He lived in Gore for many years, and never married. He had a gold claim in the Skippers Valley near Queenstown where spent a lot of time.

“We used to visit him regularly with our mum in his house in Gore. He had a preserving jar full of gold. We were fascinated with it, as kids,” Mary remembers. “When he died, the jar disappeared.”

Even though he lived in Gore, Robert Meechang was buried in Waikaka. “He wanted to be buried in Waikaka because his mother was not allowed to be buried there, as she was married to a Chinaman,” Mrs Appleby recalls.

She also remembers her mother, Nancey Favel (Wong’s granddaughter), a third generation New Zealand Chinese, telling stories of racial discrimination she had experienced.

“She wasn’t allowed to go to school in Waikaka because its principal didn’t like the Chinese. Her parents enrolled her in the North Chatton school to which she rode on horseback with her brother. When she contracted rheumatic fever, she couldn’t go to hospital because of her ethnicity,” says Mrs Appleby.

Nancey, who was married to a Scottish immigrant, George Alexander Garden, was embarrassed about her Chinese ancestry. “She never talked about it. If anyone tried to bring it up, she’d change the subject or dismiss it as nonsense,” her son, George Garden, says.

Until recent decades, the Chinese contribution to New Zealand’s development was largely unknown and unacknowledged.

The situation changed in 2002 when former Prime Minister Helen Clark made a formal apology for discriminatory laws imposed on Chinese immigrants in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. With that apology came government funding to restore some of the New Zealand’s Chinese heritage sites.

Today, the numerous descendants of Wong Mee Chang are contributing positively to the New Zealand economy. Most are well educated and hold good jobs or own businesses, but it took four generations to finally come to terms with their Chinese ancestry, accept it and be proud of it.

Wong Mee Chang’s great grandson, George Garden, in a Chinese gold mining village, Arrowtown

Sources: 1. ‘Immigration regulation – 1881–1914: restrictions on Chinese and others’, TeAra.govt.nz 2. New Zealand’s Chinese Gold-Mining Heritage: Dragon Tails: Re-interpreting Chinese-Australian Heritage Conference Sovereign Hill, Ballarat, Victoria 3. A Chinese Goldminer’s Story, nzchinasociety.org.nz 4. Round Hill, Southland District, Southland Region, New Zealand, mindat.org 5. Golden years of ‘Canton’, Otago Daily Times 6. New Zealand Chinese, nzchinese.proboards.com 7. Papers Past, Otago Witness

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