Chinese Graves Opening Ceremony Report – Southern Cemetery

Sunday 7 April, 2013
By Gordon Wong

This was a day to remember. A sunny day for a nice multicultural gathering of 80 or so at the Southern Cemetery in Dunedin to celebrate the restoration of more than 100 graves of Chinese men (and possibly some Europeans) who had died in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Prior to the opening speeches, Ann Loo and her extended family, including grand children Hannah and Isaac placed a flower, food parcel and burning incense sticks in front of each headstone.

Appropriately the event was held close to Ching Ming Day (4 April this year – Ching Ming, 15 days from the spring equinox in the Northern Hemisphere is known by many other names including “Grave Sweeping Day” and “Ancestors Day”.)  In the past, Chinese had gathered annually here.  However, the last large Chinese gathering at this cemetery on Ching Ming Day was 60 years ago.

Stewart Harvey, Chairman of the Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust started proceedings by recognising work done by a number of people including Ngaire Ockwell who had transcribed 114 of the headstones in 1985.  Fortunately, she had also copied the Chinese characters that made this project possible.

Leslie Wong, who has worked on a number of Chinese grave restoration projects around Otago paid tribute to Bill Wong and other contributors who begun work in 2006. Bill had reconstructed missing information and personally wrote Chinese characters to be engraved on the headstones, while Leslie researched English names. Sadly, Bill passed away in 2011. Leslie also spoke about the background of the men buried at the cemetery, who had more than likely come from poverty in China to seek their fortune in the gold fields and opportunities that arose as a consequence of gold mining.  The majority would’ve intended to earn enough to send money home to their families and eventually return home themselves.

Peter Chin spoke on behalf of the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust who had provided a number of grants to this project over a number of years.

Linus Chin spoke about his attendance at Hokianga where a memorial has been placed to commemorate the remains of Chinese bones that had been lost at sea after the sinking of the SS Ventnor in 1902.  Many of the bones were from this (Southern) cemetery, the result of the second of two mass exhumations; the first had been in 1883 when remains were successfully shipped back to villages in China.

Brian Williscroft spoke for the Presbyterian Church and their involvement with the Chinese arrivals from a century ago.

Bao Bai the English translator representing the Chinese Consulate was very generous in his praise for Dunedin being NZ’s most inclusive city. He paid tribute to the work done here to recognise Chinese people.

His Worship the Mayor Dave Cull culminated his gracious speech with “may these men no longer be demeaned”.

On a final note, what about the people who attended the opening? Why were such a diverse band of people here – young and old, Chinese and European? Was it duty? No doubt there was an element of duty. But it was much more than that. It may sound a touch pretentious but I believe there was an element of a personal search for the reason why we’re here. In truth, the men in these graves are not known to us. Granted, a large proportion of us have parents or grandparents who emigrated from Kwangtung, therefore some of them may be distantly related.  But whether or not they were related really didn’t matter.  What mattered is these men were part of the beginning, contributed to creating a place where Chinese travelled to, a reason for our forebears to come here. Sure, they may not have chosen to stay, but stay they did.  In his speech, Leslie Wong had said that “they are the lucky ones” because they now have a place that honours them, whereas many of the men whose remains went back to China may have been forgotten.

It was a day for Chinese and friends of Chinese to feel at peace, thanks to Uncle Bill, Leslie, Stewart Harvey and the many hard working supporters of and contributors to this project.

(Above - from left): Stewart Harvey – Chairman of the Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust and Leslie Wong;
Leslie Wong and Brian Williscroft;  Bao Bai – representative of the Chinese Consulate;
Linus Chin – Representing OSCA and the Ventnor Project
(Above - from left): Peter Chin representing the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust;
Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull;
Leslie Wong inverviewed after completion of the opening.