Chinese gold miners and a reverend in Otago.

Firecrackers and Feasts – Chinese New Year in 19th Century Central Otago

10 Feb 2017
Through sound recordings, Sarah Johnston looks at the lives of New Zealand's early Chinese community.

By Sarah Johnston

It’s the Year of the Rooster in the Chinese calendar and lunar New Year festivities are being held around the country as the Chinese community celebrates. Thousands of non-Chinese Kiwis join in with these events, going to lantern festivals, watching fireworks and enjoying Chinese food throughout the month of February.

We might tend to think multicultural events such as Chinese New Year are a recent development and part of the more cosmopolitan society we now enjoy in Aotearoa. However, recordings in the sound collection of Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision show us that as far back as the gold-rush era of the 1870s and 1880s, Chinese communities were inviting their European neighbours to celebrate the New Year with them.

These are the oral history recordings made with elderly Central Otago residents in the late 1940s by the New Zealand Broadcasting Service Mobile Unit. You can hear me talking to RNZ’s Jesse Mulligan about these recordings or read more and listen to them below.

The Mobile Unit recording truck visited communities all over Central in 1948 and carried out interviews in places such as Arrowtown, St Bathans, Naseby, Cromwell and Lawrence. It recorded memories from people who were aged in their 80s, so their recollections go back as far as the 1860s – and they had many stories of the goldminers who flocked to the area – especially the Chinese miners.

Two Arrowtown women, Helen Ritchie and Ellen Dennison, remember the large meals the miners provided to mark events such as Chinese New Year. Mrs Ritchie was born in 1863 in Invercargill and grew up on the Shotover and Nevis Rivers, where her father was a shepherd.

Helen Ritchie and Ellen Dennison speaking on Mobile Unit – Arrowtown History (1948, ref. 5727). You can listen to the full interview here.

The Chinese miners were subject to racism and prejudice from some in the Central Otago communities – particularly European miners who saw them as competition for the gold. Some of the oral history interviews talk about incidents in which Chinese men had their pig-tails cut off or were physically abused. Official anti-Chinese measures like immigration restrictions and the infamous poll tax have also been well-documented.

But listening to these recordings you can hear there was obviously affection felt towards the Chinese miners as individuals. The elderly Mobile Unit interviewees talk fondly of some of the men they got to know well, and many years later still recalled them by name and told anecdotes about their strong work ethic and resourcefulness. There was kindness shown by the miners too, towards local children. George Wishart, a blacksmith who was born in Cromwell in 1884 remembers gifts he received on Chinese New Year in the 1890s.

George Wishart speaking on Mobile Unit – Cromwell Memories (1948, ref. 5717)

(One of the items George Wishart remembers receiving is a mystery to modern ears. The word sounds like “adjiquins.” He says “We used to go in the dinner hour… and we’d get adjiquins and Chinese ginger and …several other little things they had.” If you know what “adjiquins” were, we’d love to know!)

These memories of the Chinese mining communities are of course filtered through a European lens by the elderly interviewees and also by the 1948 Mobile Unit broadcasters. The emphasis in the interviews is definitely on memories of the Chinese community as “other” – and the line of questioning focuses on what was different or unusual about the miners: their clothes, lifestyle, religion, food and “vices” such as opium smoking and gambling.

Old miner's hut in Arrowtown.

There is only one Mobile Unit interview (as far as we can tell) with a Central Otago resident who was of Chinese descent. This is partly because most of the miners did not stay in New Zealand or marry and raise families here. They came to earn money to send home, before eventually returning home themselves. There were very few Chinese women on the goldfields and the men who ended up marrying European women were mostly business owners, such as grocers or hoteliers, rather than miners.

The one interviewee of Chinese descent is William Wong Gye of Clyde. His father was Charles Wong Gye who arrived in Otago in the 1870s from Guangzhou, by way of Australia. He was married to an Australian woman and was hired to work as an interpreter and community policeman with the Chinese miners.

William Wong Gye remembered the gambling that the Chinese miners enjoyed and that his father, as a policeman, was no doubt charged with keeping under control.

William Wong Gye speaking on Mobile Unit – Gold Rush at Clyde (1948, ref. 5843)

Audio clips from Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision sound collection, all rights reserved. To enquire about re-use of these items please contact