Ching Ming and Unveiling day at Ida Valley Cemetery

By Leslie Wong
Sunday 7 April 2014

Chinese gold seekers have been recorded in the Central Otago Ida Valley, Moa Creek district since the 1870s.  They tended to work in their own groups finding small amounts of the elusive gold under the most difficult conditions, living in primitive huts or rock shelters. In 1878, there were 420 Chinese miners among the 870 Europeans in the Mt Ida goldfield area.

In those days, John Ewing, a foremost gold miner in the district was antagonistic towards the Chinese and made special conditions that made it difficult for Chinese to get access to water rights.  However, after he stood for parliament in 1884, he acted successfully for some Chinese in a dispute with Europeans.  He was selective as to which Chinese he associated with.

In later years, Chinese became more accepted.  Throughout many years of unrest, Chinese were seen as being peaceful by the majority of the residents, and apart from mining, had also established stores and market gardens supplying vegetables and fruit to a European clientele.  Towards the end of the 1890s, finding gold with the traditional Chinese method of shovelling and washing the gravel yielded poor returns and investing in machinery was generally beyond their individual means.  Most Chinese moved on to other claims or if they had enough savings, returned to China. Those who were poor were doomed to remain here as they could not return home in shame.  There are others who did decide to spend the rest of their lives here if other opportunities made it worth their while.

Reviving the cemetery
During October 2010 the Ida Valley Cemetery had reopened after the Ida Valley Cemetery Trust was formed, headed by trustee Jeff Sawers.  This little-known cemetery is about 40 minutes drive inland from Alexandra.  Chinese headstones have vanished over the decades, but fortunately two original white marble headstones have been held in safe care at the Alexandra Museum.  Both these headstones were returned to their plots in time for the 2012 Gold 150 Celebrations.  However, the elderly members of the Alexandra community had remembered from their younger days that they had seen more Chinese memorials and wooden panels with Chinese inscriptions.  The hunt for the other burials was on.  To make things difficult, the burial book had been destroyed in a fire many years ago.  There have also been two mass exhumations, 1883 and 1902 and there are no records as to what took place here.  Our first recovered headstone is dated 1903.  With only nicknames and the odd European “usage” name, the task seemed impossible.  Two years later, after much research from a host of false leads and useful threads, the names of the three lost miners had been found.

New headstones
In keeping with the other headstones, five suitable pieces of marble had to be found.  Two were used to make copies to replace the ones surrendered by the museum and three new headstones for our lost miners.  Being of Cantonese origin, their Chinese names, villages, and dates were engraved using the old traditional characters.  We were running against a tight time schedule, to have the headstones in place ready for dedication and unveiling on the most appropriate day in the Chinese calendar, Ching Ming Day (Tomb Sweeping Day).  We chose Sunday 7th April.  There is now a growing interest from the China Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, The Chinese Embassy and researchers on our early heritage.

The unveiling
Before the guests, visitors and locals had arrived, the 3 headstones were draped and decorated with Chinese red and gold “good luck” paper.  A tray of offerings of fruit, nuts, and confectionery to the spirits was put in place at the base of each stone.  A large bouquet of flowers from the Chinese Embassy was auspiciously placed in a box signifying the 3 Chinese Gods to mark this occasion by Malcolm Wong.

Jeff Sawers (the fundraiser) described the early days of this unique cemetery from the early gold mining days where European and Chinese worked, lived and died in the harsh climate of this valley.  Not everybody struck it rich and many could not survive.  As for the Chinese, many simply moved on or if they found sufficient wealth, went back to China.  Life was mixed for those that chose to stay and only one made it to an old age, passing away in 1934 at the age of 87.  Possibly, Ching Ming celebrations here ceased shortly after this time.

Leslie Wong told of the significance and customs of Ching Ming day, a day to tidy the graves, to pay respects to those ancestors who had passed to the spirit world.  In the old days, it was customary to raise a glass of Chinese whiskey to the heavens as a gesture to please the spirits and then to pour it into the ground at each grave, saying an ever-peaceful expression in the process.  The first stone unveiled was that of LAI Yew 黎祐, a goldseeker who passed away at the age of 50 in 1904 from a fire in his hut.

James Ng unveiled the next stone, that of  Soo Yi Tseung 蘇以祥, an enterprising goldseeker and shareholder in dredging who also diversified into market gardening. From this small garden, he increased his land holding to about 10 acres and included a flourishing orchard just below this cemetery.  He was a well known identity and was also known as Ah Yee and I-ee.  The name I-ee is still remembered by the locals.  Sadly, his life ended when he fell into the fire in his hut at the age of 87.

Malcolm Wong unveiled the third stone, that of Wong Goo 黃顧, with the nickname of “Pennyweight” who did not do very well and eventually starved to death in 1904.  Malcolm also read the message from the Chinese Consul Madam Tan for the Chinese Government in appreciation of the restoration of the final resting place of these early Chinese pioneers. By chance the local gun club nearby was holding an event with loud gunfire and Malcolm thanked the organisers for “arranging a 21 gun salute for the occasion as Chinese liked lots of noise to keep the evil spirits away”.

Ida Valley cemetery now has all the 5 missing headstones restored over the past 3 years, closing the chapter of those hardy Chinese pioneers who set foot in the area over a century ago.  Nothing before 1903 could be found.  In keeping with the Ching Ming tradition, everybody mingled around the headstones telling their memories and sharing the stories that had been passed down through the generations.
After the formalities, Chinese and Europeans gathered together in the old original Moa Creek Hotel across the road to share a drink, cup of tea, refreshments and a chat in the same way as they did in those golden days eighty years ago.
Bouquet from the Embassy
Ching Ming gathering

Les, Jim, Malcolm, Jeff

Malcolm unveiling

Spiritual toast - Les and young James

Refreshments and chat