The Ventnor Ching Ming Event

4 April 2013 - Te Roroa, Waipou Forest; Te Rawara, Miti Miti
By Linus Chin

In 1902 the ship SS Ventnor set out for China with the bones of 499 Chinese men who had died in New Zealand. The majority of these remains came from Chinese who were from Otago, Westport, and Wellington and they were mainly of Poon Yu descent.  The Cheong Sing Tong was formed to raise money from local Chinese communities to charter the SS Ventnor so the remains could be returned to their villages.

The SS Ventnor left Wellington on its voyage to China but hit a rock off the Taranaki coast and limped its way northwards eventually sinking off the Hokianga Heads. This was the cause of great distress to the Chinese community, since the men's spirits would not be at ease, being far from family and in a watery grave, where there would be no-one to tend to their needs in the afterlife.

On hearing the news of the sinking the Cheong Sing Tong hired a ship to try and locate the wreck and possibly recover as many of the coffins as possible.  This was not successful.  It wasn’t until much later that it was rumoured that some of the bones had washed up and were buried by local iwi who lived along the coastline.

In 2007, while making a short film about the SS Ventnor, Wong Liu Shueng made contact with Te Roroa, a local iwi in the southern Hokianga area.  They confirmed that their ancestors had found bones from the wreck and that they had been buried in various locations along the coast.  A number of these locations are still known.
Wong Liu Shueng and a group of volunteers began to contact those with direct links to the men lost on the SS Ventnor resulting in a group visit to two iwi, Te Roroa at Waipou Forest, and Te Rarawa at Miti Miti, and to the known burial sites. Poon Fah and Otago & Southland Chinese associations were represented, along with the Sew Hoy Family, who are the only known descendants of anyone on board the SS Ventnor, and facilitators Wong Liu Shueng and Kirsten Wong. These people eventually formed the Ventnor Group.

As a result of the visit it was proposed to erect a memorial and plaques to those lost, and conduct the traditional Chinese rites that honour the dead and appease their spirits. After years of talks, Te Roroa and Te Rawara graciously agreed to place commemorative plaques on their ancestral land and allow people a physical location to pay their respects. This accommodation is one of the most generous gestures I have personally witnessed.

The original programme of events proposed full powhiri or meeting at each marae and a customary presentation of a koha or gift, that is a nominal fee to cover expenses for food and incidental items related to the events held at each marae.  As representatives of a large community of New Zealand Chinese, I felt the events required a gift of more significance to match the gift that the iwi were giving us, but was not sure what form that gift might take.

A chance meeting with a Ngai Tahu representative that accompanied the Otago Museum Maori Exhibition to Shanghai and our conversation about pounamu or greenstone, and its cultural significance to Maori suggested that pounamu as a koha in exchange for the placement of the plaques was entirely suitable. After this conversation I contacted a friend with links to the local Ngai Tahu Board and arranged a meeting with its representatives where I explained the Ventnor project and my wish to source some pounamu for use as a koha to mark the occasion. Thanks to Ngai Tahu’s support of my proposal, the Otago & Southland Chinese association (OSCA) obtained 2 stones weighing about 4kg each.

On Thursday 4th April 2013 around 100 people travelled to Northland and met at the Te Roroa HQ in the Waipoua Forest. The marae was set in a really picturesque part of the forest with a stream running nearby. Our group gathered at a hall provided to practice our singing, since we were expected to sing between addresses.
During this time we also received a briefing on some of the protocol when entering the marae, such as men enter first and in the order of those making an address, women in the second group and women required skirts or dresses or a scarf wrapped around trousers, pants or jeans to act like a skirt.

A karanga or chant welcomed us onto the marae and the powhiri or meeting was conducted outside where a gentle drizzle was falling. We sat under trees, each group facing one another in order of speaker.
The iwi addressed us first with wiata or songs between each address and then we replied with our addresses including our own wiata. Interestingly the kaumata said that the rain was the ancestors crying. After the powhiri the rain stopped and the kaumata commented that now that everything had been settled, the ancestors were satisfied and stopped crying.

Meng Foon who speaks fluent Maori headed our delegation and was the first speaker followed by Consul General Niu Qingbao and then I made my address, thanking the iwi and describing the nature of our gift by way of comparing the pounamu to the first Chinese immigrants who also began their life here in Otago, a source of pounamu, and made their way throughout New Zealand. I also compared  it to the Chinese remains on the SS Ventnor who were lost at sea with some washed onto shore, since pounamu also finds its way to the sea where some of it is washed onto shore to be found and cared for.

I then placed the koha on the ground between us, not sure what to expect. It wasn’t inspected until passed along the line of elders and when each person had a look and there were a lot of surprised expressions upon seeing the pounamu. The person who carried it for the rest of the afternoon was the iwi keeper of taonga or treasure, who said that it would certainly be looked after and treasured by Te Raroa.

Following the formal part of the powhiri we were treated to an excellent buffet lunch after which we unveiled the plaque. This was set on a huge local stone set in the ground and surrounded by Kauri seedlings that various people from our group had sponsored so that in the years to come the stone will be protected by forest giants and would come to be known as the Ventnor Grove. Here Elsie Wong and Alyssa Richardson unveiled the plaque. Meng Foon read the Maori portion while Kevin Tse read the Chinese and Charlie Ding read the English.

We then received the formal farewell from the people of Te Roroa and we made our way to Kawerua Beach, and set up for Bei Jei with incense, paper money and food and we all paid our respects.
The next day we set off to visit Te Rawara at Miti Miti via bus and ferry. The marae was situated about 100m from the start of the beach and was surrounded by dunes at the beach boundary and hills to the sides. It was distinctly different terrain to that of Te Roroa and very isolated.

We were welcomed onto the marae and entered the meeting house after removing our shoes. Once again we entered the marae in order and were seated the same way with each group facing one another. The powhiri was similar to that at Te Raroa and the feelings expressed by the elders of Miti Miti were heartfelt.

In reply Meng Foon spoke first, Charlie Ding as a representative of the Poon Fah association was second, Peter Sew Hoy as a direct descendant of one who was lost on the SS Ventnor was third and I spoke last and then presented the koha to the people of Miti Miti.  Following the powhiri we were led to the entrance to the marae cemetery where we gathered before being welcomed on to the cemetery proper with another karanga. We walked up the path that wound gently up a rise and to my surprise I saw that a Chinese gate painted bright red had been erected facing the sea with the plaque fixed to it. 
This was an overwhelmingly generous act by the people of Miti Miti, who had told us that now we were “family” we were welcome to visit their cemetery to pay our respects as long as we don’t bring food onto the cemetery and wash our hands at the water station as we leave. David Yan said a prayer and two people unveiled the plaque, Duncan Sew Hoy & Wesley Sew Hoy, Meng Foon read the plaque in Maori, David Fung read the plaque in Chinese, and Kai Luey read the plaque in English.

After the unveiling we went for refreshments back at the marae. It was at this point that the koha was quietly being inspected by the elders and I noticed the same kind of expressions of surprise and pleasure I saw at Te Raroa. After this we said our goodbyes to the people of Mitimiti and went to the beach to set up for lunch and the Bei Jei after which we left on the return journey to Opononi and for me back to Dunedin.

I will take this opportunity to thank those people who have been instrumental in achieving what seemed to be an impossible task when we first examined the possibility of the Ventnor Project. Special thanks must go to Liu Sheung Wong and the Ventnor Group, the people of Te Raroa and Te Rawara, Ngai Tahu, James York, the Poon Fah Association, and the OSCA committee for supporting this project.