Guangdong Documentary TV Film Crew in Dunedin

By Leslie Wong

25 September to 28 September 2014

Historical background
To many of our early Cantonese gold miners, the old Chinese settler community, war refugees and fellow villagers, Guangdong (Canton now known as Guangzhou) is the provincial capital of our heritage.  It was due to the needs and courage of our people to look for a better opportunity for their families that they came to New Zealand to try their luck in gold mining and business opportunities.  After overcoming many hardships and sacrifices, those early efforts and contributions to the wealth of New Zealand laid the foundations of our modern community.

The initial Documentary
Rev Alexander Don
It began when an American scholar George McKibbens who worked as a host of “Lingnan Voices”, a historical radio show on Guangdong radio and TV was interested in Guangzhou history and cultural preservation. He found some very early photos of missionaries from New Zealand and their establishment of the Canton Villages Mission.  These century-old images are largely unknown by those he spoke to and eventually they were traced to Knox College in Dunedin.  George learned that they were photographs taken by the Presbyterian Missionaries as evidence of their work and also used for fund raising.  Amongst them were rare images of the early Pearl River full of boats, flooding in Guangzhou, their mission schools, a 100 bed hospital, an orphanage and girls’ school in the Upper Poon Yue area called Kong Chuen.  In the collection were also photos of the famous Rev. Alexander Don with Chinese gold miners in Central Otago.

An exhibition of the photographs was opened in the Guangzhou Library supported by the New Zealand Embassy, drew vast numbers of viewers but none could shed any light on the history of the images.  But on the last day, an elderly gentleman Mr. Zhou came and told them they had it wrong!  He advised them that he knew of the locations in the photographs.  In his words, he said that the Cantonese names and locations were translated directly into English but translating the English to Mandarin changed everything to a foreign meaning and the new researchers were looking in the wrong place.  The exhibition though successful, closed with many unanswered questions.

The New Zealand Connection
Something was missing and that knowledge could only be found by coming to New Zealand, Dunedin and the gold fields.  The internet in China is heavily censored and finding information was impossible. Fortunately, the Presbyterian Archivist, Mychael Tymons put them in contact with somebody who spoke Cantonese, well versed in Chinese gold mining history, the Canton Villages Mission and Rev. Alexander Don.  After a frantic string of emails, travel plans for the film crew were made for a 4 day intensive sojourn.  None of them was prepared for the amount of history waiting to be told and the beautiful scenes of Otago.

On the 25th September after a tiring 16 hour travel from Guangzhou, the crew of 2 cameramen and a director arrived about mid-day.  After lunch they immediately began the many hours of filming, linking Dunedin, the cemeteries, Rev. Alexander Don and the Knox College archives.  This was followed by an exhibition hosted by the Dunedin City Council at Wall Street Mall the next day. Their longest day was Saturday 27th.  A full-on day into Central Otago with a brief stop at Lawrence to have a genuine Kiwi icecream – delicious! Onwards, following the gold trail, looking at the various gorges and rivers where Chinese once toiled and eventually stopping at Cromwell where the two rivers joined to compare their century-old image they had and to film what has changed today.  Not far away are the Northburn diggings where Chinese had laboriously stacked huge walls of rock patterns to catch the gold that was washed down from the upper hills.  The theme was to trace part of the extensive journey that Rev. Alexander Don had walked on his visits to the gold miners.  Time and fading light was against us and there was only time to film short clips of the Chinese Settlement in Arrowtown.

Sunday, a journey to Riversdale, Southland to visit a tree!  Significant that Rev. Alexander Don had planted this tree from a cutting he had brought from China a century ago.  The farm and tree still has family links as Rev. Don’s 3rd generation grandson Sam Mackay is the Senior Education Manager at NZ Embassy, Beijing.

The Documentary Completed
All the film clips have been edited in Guangzhou; the many hours filmed in New Zealand had to be reduced to a few minutes and spliced into the original documentary as the time allocated for televising is limited to 31 minutes.  The target audience is in the vicinity of 1 billion viewers and will be subtitled in Chinese and English, though the spoken dialogue will be in Mandarin and English.

I have just heard that the documentary has just won “Best Director of 2014 China Southern Documentary Award.” The film crew Director Vankey Cai,  cameraman Lin Minxi (it was their first New Zealand experience) and cameraman Isaac Chen (for his Kiwi graphic arts qualifications and NZ drivers licence) are very thankful to their hosts in Dunedin; the Otago Southland Chinese Association (Linus, Leanne, Gordon) for their welcoming dinner; to Leah and Duncan, Golden Harvest restaurant for their authentic flavours; to Michael and Sally of 858 George Street Motels for their hospitality and guidance; Leslie and Maisie Wong for history and strategic planning.  In their words, “It highlighted the way the old Chinese treated us just like family”.  And, we in Dunedin are glad to have met 3 capable, polite and caring young men in their early 30s.

For Dunedin, new doors are beginning to open in China as our history is recognized as a valuable commodity.  The Guangzhou Library is hoping to sign a contract with Knox College to digitize all of the Canton photos.

How did we get here? Why are we in Otago?
By Gordon Wong

How did three young film makers from Guangzhou end up eating ice cream in Lawrence? For that to occur, a number of unlikely events had to fall into place.

The first unlikely event was when an American George McKibbens working for Radio Guangdong saw photos of Guangdong from more than 100 years ago on the Internet and eventually traced them to Mychael Tymons a Presbyterian Archivist in Dunedin. George commented at the time “What the hell are photos of old Guangdong doing in New Zealand” and “Why isn’t anyone as excited about these photos as I am?” George’s passionate quest lead to Mychael sending photos electronically for an exhibition to dignitaries in Guangzhou that was covered in a documentary made by Guangdong TV.

The next unlikely event was the photographers were Presbyterian missionaries who while visited Guangdong circa 1865 must’ve heard about Chinese miners being invited by the Otago Provincial Council to re-work gold fields after the bulk of European miners had left Otago. They travelled to Otago with photos in their luggage.

The story of the missionaries and their Chinese congregation was the subject of a second documentary but the filmmakers needed help. Attempts to find assistance did not bear fruit until Mychael Tymons found the OSCA website literally days before the filmmakers were planning to fly in. An email sent by Mychael was initially missed by editor Gordon Wong, but was passed a day or so later to Leslie Wong and the rest is history.
Minxi, Leanne, Michael, Sally, Linus, Gordon, Maisie, Leslie, Vankey, Isaac at Golden Harvest Restaurant. (Photographer: Duncan Sew Hoy)

Guangzhou floods


Old Guangzhou

Ice cream at Lawrence

Goldfields filming