Chinese Graves Restoration Project - Southern Cemetery, Dunedin

By Leslie Wong
(Ching Ming Day “tomb sweeping day”, the day to visit the ancestors’ graves, leave flowers or nuts)

Programme from 2pm
Welcome Stewart Harvey Chairman HCCTNZ
History Les Wong
  Linus Chin, Chairman Otago Southland Chinese Association
  Peter Chin, Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust representative
  Alan Matchett, DCC Curator Dunedin Botanic Garden
  Owen Graham, Area Manager New Zealand Historic Places Trust
 Dedication Mayor Dave Cull

Site Location here
Please note that the Southern Cemetery is on a steep site. It is recommended that you enter from the (Main) South Road entrance, drop off passengers, then exit through the Eglinton Road entrance. Park on the housing side of Eglinton Road.

Southern Cemetery Chinese Burial Ground Restoration Project
The Southern Cemetery was opened in 1858, in the settlement of six Scottish weavers known as “Little Paisley”. Separate sections were set aside for Presbyterians, Anglicans, Roman Catholics and a Jewish section.

With the Central Otago Gold Rush during the 1860s a large number of Chinese came from the Pearl River Delta region of Canton. A separate Chinese section was added.

The cemetery closed in 1980 with 23,000 burials. Much of the cemetery has been neglected and vandalised. However, the Chinese section suffered the most because the headstones were relatively thin and the inscriptions were not in English making them easy targets. Up to the early 1950s, the Chinese community visited the graves yearly on Ching Ming day, usually the first Sunday in April.

Chinese may have being buried in the Southern Cemetery from 1871, but the majority of burials took place from the 1880s and ended in the 1920s. There could be at least 200 burials in this section. During 1985 when Ngaire Ockwell and her group did a transcript, only 114 identifiable gravesites were found. Their original locations may have been misplaced, but the transcript records the spot where the headstones are found. Chinese often use their family name first and their given name last, the cemetery records could have their names transposed or incorrectly recorded and some plots indicated more than one burial. Most burials are of men, with the possibility of European women buried here also, probably by intermarriage or cohabitation. Not all burials are of gold seekers, recent research has revealed merchants, gardeners, and other occupations.

There were two mass exhumations, 1883 where bodies or bones were shipped to their villages in China. The last shipment in 1902 was lost when the S.S. Ventnor sank off the Hokianga coast. No traceable records of those exhumed can be found. Those who remained here are fortunate, their memorials have been restored a century later with an attempt to record their origins. For those whose remains have returned to their homelands, it is unlikely that they have found salvation. With the Cultural Revolution and industrialisation, any memories would have faded.

The restoration project began in 2004 with a feasibility study examining the broken headstone fragments and a plan to salvage what was standing. The task ahead seemed impossible.

In 2005 the Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust received its first grant from the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust and work began in 2006 with the City Council removing some overgrown trees. Further grants were received as it is the largest collection of Early Chinese burials in New Zealand and is of historical significance. Salvageable and broken stones have been pinned, glued, and replaced, retaining the mystical ambience of the area. Missing stones were remade. Though we had a handwritten transcript of the Chinese characters, it was not a matter of copying them to the new stones. The stroke layout was inadequate, some shortcuts were taken in the recording and there was missing information.
Chinese Burial Ground

This Chinese Sector was set aside probably in the 1870s, not on ethnic grounds but in a division of the cemetery on religious affiliation. It has modest fung shiu features.There may be as many as 200 Chinese burials in this sector but only 114 graves are identified dating from 1877-1921. All of those buried here are from the Guangdong Province in and around the Pearl River Delta. A number of graves of those from the Panyu District are missing because the Poon Fah Association carried out two mass exhumations of their dead in 1883 and 1902 to send them back to ancestral soil.

Other families sent individual bodies or their bones back. Many of the graves left here are of persons who had few kin or friends to do so. There are many who may have been former goldminers that became inmates of the Dunedin Benevolent Society’s Old Men’s Home, which took in destitute persons from the goldfields.

The headstones are small and thin and over the years suffered considerable vandalism. During this restoration, some new headstones have been created from the recovered fragments and transcripts. A few other Chinese graves are scattered throughout the Southern Cemetery.

In 2005 the Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust of New Zealand received its first grant from the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust to restore the Chinese headstones and generally tidy up the Chinese Sector. Since then the Trust has contributed $53,036 in total to enable the work to be completed in 2013.

Thanks are also due to:
Bill Wong, Les Wong, James Ng, Guy Williams, Dunedin Monumental Masons Ltd, NZ Historic Places Trust, Dunedin City Council.

2004 Site Assessment
2006 Some trees removed
2007 Project began
2012 Good progress

Site Location

Southern Cemetery Location