New Zealand // Central Otago //

Arrowtown’s hidden Chinese history

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The initial wave of miners who came to Arrowtown in the early 1860s were fortune-seekers intent on a fast buck. When gold was discovered on the West Coast, most of them hot-footed it to Greymouth or Hokitika, leaving a much-depleted community that lacked the economic wherewithal to support the businesses which had mushroomed around the miners.

The solution was to import Chinese labour; the first Chinese arrived in Otago in 1866, their number reaching 5000 by 1870. The community settled along Bush Creek, its segregation from the main settlement symptomatic of the inherent racism of the time – something that also manifested itself in working practices that forced the Chinese to pick over abandoned mining claims and work the tailings of European miners. Even Chinese employed on municipal projects such as the Presbyterian church got only half the wages paid to Europeans doing the same job.

A ray of light is cast amid the prevailing bigotry by contemporary newspaper reports, which suggest that many citizens found the Chinese business conduct “upright and straightforward” and their demeanour “orderly and sober” – perhaps surprisingly in what was an almost entirely male community. Most came with dreams of earning their fortune and returning home, so, initially at least, few came with their families; a process of chain migration later brought wives, children and then members of the extended family. Few realized their dreams, but around ninety percent did return home, many in a box, sent to an early grave by overwork and poor living conditions. Many more were driven out in the early 1880s when recession brought racial jealousies to a head, resulting in the enactment of a punitive poll tax on foreign residents. There was little workable gold by this time and those Chinese who stayed mostly became market gardeners or merchants and drifted away, mainly to Auckland, though the Arrowtown community remained viable into the 1920s. Once the Chinese had left or died, the Bush Creek settlement was abandoned and largely destroyed by repeated flooding.

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