Dunstan Gold 150 Celebrations

By Leslie Wong
From May 2012 newsletter.
Alexandra and the surrounding districts have been celebrating the discovery of gold 150 years ago, 1862 to 2012.  There are a variety of events involving the heritage of the communities, the places, the people and activities past and present during the year.

Of note was Chinese fortnight giving a sample of Chinese life, culture and food.  However, Chinese gold miners from Kwantung Province had been here since about 1866 and worked quietly over the goldfields seeking their fortune.  Sadly not many struck it rich and most were not able to speak English and lived in their own segregated camps.  They were given a hard time by the early settlers.  Worse still, few could even read or write Chinese and relied on the group leaders to manage their affairs.  Finding gold was very hard and many had to dig the ground and river beds by hand and wash the spoils hoping to find a few specks of the elusive gold.

By comparison, the Europeans were more mechanised and had powerful water jets, long sluice boxes and mechanical stampers to crush the rocks, achieving much greater rewards.  The Chinese, when a locality did not yield any gold, simply moved on or reworked the claims left behind by their previous owners.  Those that had better luck, stayed longer and built rock huts or altered caves for shelter.  As one would expect with any gathering of Chinese residents on the goldfields there was the local Chinese merchant.  He became the main food supplier, money lender and banker.  Some of the lucky ones did save one hundred pounds (₤100) after paying all their debts and returned to China relatively wealthy.  That was their original aim.

As time went on, gold had all but run out or became too difficult to get.  Those who could no longer continue became labourers and worked for the Europeans on the gold fields, whilst others became market gardeners, orchardists, hawkers and shopkeepers.

The chance of returning to China had all but faded.  Many were in debt, loafed around the cook-shops or smoked opium.  For all their hardship not all Chinese fitted in with their kinfolk possibly due to unacceptable behaviour, lack of will to work, or unable to pay past debts.  With no resources and no hope, they died here.  Some of the more fortunate ones had their gravesites preserved and restored almost a century later as a reminder of the Chinese presence that helped to shape the history of the towns of Otago a lifetime away from their homelands.  But for all that, a few Chinese had been so securely established in that early society, they decided to spend the rest of their life here.  To them, family life was all but a dream and in reality, non-existent.
Chinese Fortnight celebrations began on the evening of 31st March with the keynote speech delivered by Jim Ng followed by the showing of the movie “Illustrious Energy”.  The evening concluded with the sampling of Chinese wine, dumplings, roast pork, tea and nibbles.

On the following day there was a bus tour to Ophir for a visit to the house of the famous missionary Alexander Don who befriended and recorded over 3,500 Chinese from 1883 to 1913 on the gold fields.  Don served as the vital link between the Chinese and their families in China carrying money, gold and mail in his journeys.  Lunch was at Bonspiel Station, Moa Creek, the site of some of the early Chinese attempts to find gold.  Across the paddock from Bonspiel lies the restored Moa Creek cemetery that has now found a new life due to Jeff Sawers and his dedicated team.  There are five known Chinese burials dating from 1903 to 1934.  Jim Ng gave a moving dedication to the Chinese buried there and both Jim and Leslie unveiled the memorial plates at the entrance.  At present there are two Chinese headstones that have found their way back to the original graves and Leslie spoke of their retrieval and where they had been stored all these years and the reasons for the way they are facing.  There is the intent to remake some missing headstones depending on what information can be recovered.

The final weekend on the 15th April of Chinese fortnight was another bus trip and a long walk this time to Northburn diggings where Chinese labour was used to stack the vast labyrinth of walled stones to capture the gold washed down from the hillsides.  A very informative commentary was given by Bob Kilgour.  After lunch came the final chapter, a tour to the Chinese graves at Cromwell cemetery.  Leslie Wong deputised young James Sawers as an honourary gold miner to hand out leaflets, customary funeral envelopes containing a handkerchief, two coins an two lollies plus an additional surprise.  Each envelope also had a small specimen of real gold as a keepsake.

A full demonstration of a typical Chinese goldfield burial was re-enacted encompassing the traditions that were applicable for its time.  That was followed by a walk around the sixteen restored headstones, pausing at the more interesting ones to tell something about their history.  As the occasion came to a close, young James was presented with the customary Chinese red packet (lai shee) in gratitude for his participation.  On that happy note, Chinese fortnight closed with many memories and the sharing of cultures, not with “sweetly-decorated” words but by hospitable and welcoming actions.
No celebration of this magnitude can run smoothly without the help of many supporters.  Thanks to the Alexandra Central Stories Museum and staff, Helena Heydelaar, Jeff Sawer and family, Otago Goldfields Heritage Trust, Ida Valley Cemetery Trust, Sue Falconer “Bonspiel”, Dunedin Monumental Masons, District mayors and councillors and many who quietly worked in the background.

Chinese headstones Moa Creek cemetery

Bob Kilgour at Northburn diggings

Keynote speech by Dr James Ng

Screening of “Illustrious Energy” movie

Unveiling memorial plates

Re-enactment old Chinese burial

Giving of the red packet (lai Shee)

Bonspiel Station

Stacked stones at Northburn diggings