What to Do with a 112-Year-Old Chinese Corpse Shipwreck Discovered off New Zealand?
by Owen James Burke
The SS Ventnor sinks off New Zealand, 1902. Photo: Auckland Library, artist unknown.
The discovery of a 112-year-old shipwreck containing the remains of 499 Chinese gold miners in the waters off New Zealand in 2012 was publicly announced last month. While some descendants of the miners want to repatriate the bodies to China, others believe they’d be best left undisturbed, and officials face a debacle.
Chinese gold miners at Muddy Creek near Waikaia, New Zealand in front of a cob cottage, c. 1900. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library Collections
By the late 1860s there were 2,000 Chinese living in New Zealand, mostly, it is believed, to escape poverty and unemployment in Guangzhou province by finding their fortunes in gold along the country’s west coast. However, quality of life was in many cases no better in New Zealand, and many died under the very same conditions they’d left China to escape.
Knowing very well the possibility of death in New Zealand, many men opted to take out an insurance policy with a successful merchant named Choie Sew Hoy, who operated a sort of charity that provided the deceased a lift home on a coal ship called the SS Ventnor.
Sew Hoy would wait until there were enough clients to make the crossing. Older remains were exhumed and scrubbed clean by a Chinese man “who calmly smoked a cigarette the while, and scrubbed away all the adhering matter with a scrubbing brush,” The North Otago Times reported in 1902. These remains were dried and placed in wooden coffins, while more recent, intact bodies went into zinc caskets which were immediately sealed.
In 1883, Sew Hoy organized the first repatriation of 230 bodies. By 1902, he was preparing the Ventnor yet again, this time with 499 caskets headed back to China, but just before she set sail, Sew Hoy himself passed, and joined the others aboard the ship.
Pulling out of New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington bound for Hong Kong, the vessel struck rocks off Hokainga, New Zealand, and settled beneath 150 meters of water. The captain and 12 crew members escaped with their lives, while others were not so fortunate. Remains washed ashore for some time, and indigenous Maori collected the bones until relatives and loved ones could come to recover them.
The exact whereabouts of the ship were undetermined for over a century, until it was discovered by a team lead by amateur New Zealand filmmaker John Albert, who had been drawn to the story and one day, looking out from Hokainga Harbor, felt a compelling chill, as if a spirit had entered him.
Fish swim around the mast of the SS Ventnor off the coast of New Zealand’s north island, April 14, 2014. Photo via Macau Daily Times
Now, Albert faces scrutiny, despite his best intentions. After notifying the Chinese government of the discovery, they weren’t convinced, and wanted proof. Albert and his team returned with a few items from the wreck: a porthole, a lamp and a bell, among other things. Many of the descendants of the miners were infuriated by his disruption of the gravesite, and matters are now even further from being settled.
“It’s a gravesite. It’s a spiritual site,” said Peter Sew Hoy, the great-great grandson of Choie Sew Hoy said. “From a moral point of view, it would have been nice to have been contacted.”
So far, that the search for the wreck has cost about $300,000 NZD ($236,000 USD), reports Albert, who believes the remains should be returned to China, as were the miners’ wishes, but the matter really comes down to the Maori and Chinese family members to decide.
Even Peter Sew Hoy himself, who spoke out fervently, is still undecided as to what should happen:
“The thing is, my family needs to be happy, and other Chinese groups also need to be happy,” he said. “We can’t agree to anything at this stage. We need to talk.”