Paying respects to the souls on the Ventnor

By Kirsten Wong 
In 1902 a great tragedy happened in the Chinese New Zealand world. The ship Ventnor, carrying the bones of 499 Chinese men who had died in New Zealand, sank off the Hokianga Heads. 

The bones were destined for China, and were being returned home to the care of their families and ancestral villages.  Most of them were old Poon Yu goldminers from the Otago / Greymouth area, although there were a few exceptions.  One was Choie Sew Hoy, who was the original organiser of the shipment, but who died before the ship set sail.  There were also 10 Jung Seng men loaded on board at Wellington.

The Chinese of the time were shocked and grief stricken.  The loss of the bones meant that the men would forever wander as hungry ghosts in the spirit world - a terrible fate.  Many attributed the sinking to a dispute among the spirits, whose fighting had caused the ship to sink.  Whatever the cause, none of the 499 made it back home.

The memory of this great tragedy has been passed down through the generations. There were rumours that some of the bones had been washed ashore and were buried by local Māori, but until recently it’s only been a rumour.

Bones come to light
In early 2007, the rumour became fact. Wong Liu Shueng from Auckland, while making a short film about the Ventnor, met people who knew where some of the bones were buried.  These were bones that had been washed ashore along the Hokianga coast, and which had been collected and buried by Te Roroa, the local iwi.

Liu Shueng’s first thought was that the grave needed to be visited and the traditional rites of bai sang performed for the spirits.

By coincidence Nigel Murphy and I, were going up to the Hokianga from Wellington for a wedding. The three of us met with Alex Nathan, Te Roroa representative, who was extremely gracious and who confirmed the story of the bones and the burial.

He also noted his concern that the site remains secure to prevent desecration, since it was also the sacred burial ground of his own people.  He suggested we come up with a proposal that he could take to his iwi board.

Deciding the appropriate next steps
When Liu Shueng, Nigel and I first talked about this, our immediate thought was that we couldn’t make any decisions on our own about what should happen.  This was something that involved the descendants of the men who were on that boat.

Unfortunately, we don’t know who was on the boat – apart from Choie Sew Hoy. But we do know that it was he who organised the Dunedin shipment and that it was Chan Fook On of Sun Gai village in Jung Seng, that organised the Wellington part of the shipment.

We agreed that the most appropriate people to make the decisions would be the descendants of Choie Sew Hoy, the New Zealand descendants of those from Sun Gai village – representing Chan Fook On, and the national Poon Yu and Tung Jung associations representing the ancestral counties.

The understanding was that although these representatives would make the final decisions, the rest of the old settler Chinese community would also want to comment and that these views would be taken into account as well.

We wrote to the four representatives in February seeking initial feedback.

The feedback
We've had quite a few informal responses from the community - mostly positive and encouraging.

At that informal level there seems to be growing agreement that putting up a memorial is the most practical / feasible option.

At the formal level, we have received responses from the Poon Fah and Tung Jung.  The Poon Fah will be guided by the group. The Tung Jung has declined to be part of the project, noting that “the only possible action is to arrange for the bones and remains to be disinterred and returned to China”.
In summary:
  • there is general positive interest
  • there is growing informal agreement that putting up a memorial is the most practical option (it could also be a place for future generations to bai sang)
  • apart from the Tung Jung, no-one has formally stated what they want
  • some, including the Tung Jung, feel strongly that the bones should be disinterred and returned to China (although this may be physically impossible because we can't identify the bones, and therefore what villages we should return them to)
  • a few have expressed concern over cultural and practical difficulties, which we acknowledge...
The range of suggestions we put forward in the original letter was:
  1. Do nothing
  2. Do something to thank Te Roroa for looking after our dead
  3. Bai sang at the site
  4. Bai sang at the area where the ship went down
  5. Bai sang somewhere else in the general area, perhaps establish a memorial where people can go
  6. The bones are disinterred and repatriated – or put with other New Zealand family if they can be found. (This means we would have to identify the bones, which may not be possible.)
We are still in the process of collecting feedback so if you have any thoughts or ideas, please contact Peter or Janice Sew Hoy.
The short film that Liu Shueng has since completed will be shown at the Going Bananas conference in Auckland in August. This may also be an occasion to canvas the community’s opinion.
Northland discovery closes chapter in New Zealand's gold mining history
Broadcast on TV3, 7 July 2009
Ventnor Story on Jason Moon's Asian Report
The following are links to a radio programme.
TV and Radio Links
告慰凡特納號(The Ventnor)的亡靈們
這些遺骸是準備運往中國、運往他們的故土埋葬,讓他們的靈魂回到家人的身邊。他們中除少部分人以外,絕大多數的人來自中國的番禺(Poon Yu),都在奧塔哥和格雷茅斯地區淘金。其中一位名字叫徐肇開Choie Sew Hoy,是他最先組織安排船運遺骸事宜的,可惜,他還沒看到第一艘船的起航,就已經去世了。其他還有十具 東增Jung Seng男性遺骸是在惠靈頓裝上船的。
可是在2007年年初,傳聞得到了證實。從奧克蘭來的Wong Liu Shueng,由於要製作一部有關凡特納號船的短片,他採訪了一些知道何處埋葬遺骸的知情人,得知那些遺骸在Hokianga海邊被海水沖上岸,被當地的Te Roroa部落人揀起並安葬起來了。
得知這個消息後,Liu Shueng首先想到是應該看一下這些墓地,並用中國傳統的拜山bai sang方式超度這些亡靈。
湊巧的是,我和Nigel Murphy正好要從惠靈頓到Hokianga去參加一個婚禮。這樣我們三個人一起去了Hokianga,拜見了Te Roroa 部落人的代表Alex Nathan,他相當熱情,並證實了華人遺骸和安葬事宜。
當我、Liu Shueng和Nigel 討論這個事情的時候,我們覺得還必須尊從船上的這些人的後代的意見,一同來決定該如何做。
但遺憾的是,除了徐肇開Choie Sew Hoy外,我們對船上還有其他什麼人的遺骸的資料一無所知。但有一點我們是知道的,那就是徐肇開Choie Sew Hoy負責組織在但尼丁的裝船事情以及在東增新街村Jung Seng Sun Gai village的陳福安Chan Fook On安排了在惠靈頓的裝船事宜。
我們認為最合適做決定的人應該是徐肇開Choie Sew Hoy的後代、那些來自新街村Sun Gai village村的住在新西蘭的後代(他們代表陳福安Chan Fook On)和全國的番花Poon Fah 和 東增Tung Jung協會。
從非正式的層面來說,我們也收到了來自番花Poon Fah 和 東增Tung Jung的答復。番花Poon Fah表示接受大多數人的提議。但東增Tung Jung拒絕參與,他們表示:“唯一可做的就是安排將這些遺骨和遺物挖掘出來然後運回中國”
• 華人中總體上對此事的反應是積極
• 從非正式的回饋來看,越來越多的人同意為這些過世的人舉辦一個紀念儀式,這應該是一個最實際的、切實可行的方法。(拜山bai sang可以留給後人去做)
• 除了 東增Tung Jung之外,還沒任何人明確地表明他們要怎樣做
• 有些人,包括東增Tung Jung, 強烈堅持挖掘出那些遺骨並將這些遺骨運回中國(這點恐怕很難辦到,因為已經分辨不出那是誰的遺骨,因而也不知道運到哪個村莊)
• 有些人也表達了他們的擔憂,比如我們知道的在文化上的差異和實際操作上的難度。
  1. 不做任何事情,維持原狀
  2. 做一些事情來感謝Te Roroa部落人多年來對死者遺骸的照料
  3. 在安葬地做拜山Bai sang
  4. 在沉船處做拜山Bai sang
  5. 在其他地方做拜山Bai sang,或許再建立一個紀念碑,以供人們參觀
  6. 把遺骨挖掘出來然後運回中國,或者跟在新西蘭去世的他们家族的其他人安葬在一起。(這意味著我們要分辨出是誰的遺骨,這似乎是一件很困難的事情)
目前我們仍舊在收集各方面的意見和建議,如您有任何想法和建議,請聯繫;Peter 或者 Janice Sew Hoy
Liu Shueng製作完成的短片將於八月份在奧克蘭舉行的the Going Bananas conference 會議上放映,這或許是一個機會讓此事在公眾中有個定奪。