Saturday, April 13, 2013

Laid to rest - 111 years later

It's been 111 years since the Chinese-chartered freight ship SS Ventnor sank off the Hokianga coast, spilling over 499 coffin "boxes" and two full-sized coffins into the sea. Now the so-called "hungry ghosts" from its wreck have finally been laid to rest. About 100 Chinese people from around New Zealand and Australia gathered in the Waipoua Forest and Mitimiti to ensure their ancestors - mostly goldminers from the 1800s - received the "good afterlife" at an unveiling, blessing and dedication to the Te Roroa and Te Rarawa iwi who found their calico-encased bones along their shoreline and buried them in their own urupa (burial grounds). April 4 and 6 were chosen to coincide with the Ching Ming Festival when the Chinese honour their dead and visit their graves. Chinese flocked to New Zealand's South Island in the 1800s seeking their fortune in gold but most ended up living, and then dying, in poverty, buried thousands of miles from their families and homeland. Chinese families need to tend the graves of their loved ones yearly to ensure them a good afterlife as well as prosperity for their descendants. This was traditionally done in their home villages. The dead will not be able to rest in peace and become known as "hungry ghosts" if relatives can't perform the appropriate cultural observances such as offering incense and food. The Cheong Sing Tong Association was set up in 1882 by Chinese men from the Poon Yu and Fah Yuen counties of Guangdong province. One of its aims was to send the remains of men from those two counties back to their villages in China for reburial. The founding leader of the association was wealthy Otago businessman Choie Sew Hoy. The first shipment in 1883 saw the remains of 230 men from Otago and West Coast successfully returned to China but the second wasn't so lucky. On board were the remains of 265 men loaded at Dunedin, 173 at Greymouth, 26 at other ports and 10 in Wellington. The bodies were disinterred from 40 formal and "informal" cemeteries. Also on board were the remains of Choie Sew Hoy in one of the full-sized coffins. On October 27, a day after the ship left Wellington, the Ventnor struck a reef off the coast of Taranaki, eventually foundering off the Hokianga coast on the evening of October 28, 1902. Only three of the four lifeboats launched made it to shore, with 13 crew losing their lives, including the captain and second mate. A steamer was launched to try and find the wreck and at least some of the remains, but apart from the ones that drifted ashore and were buried by iwi, the others - and the wreck - were never located. The coming together of both cultures in the tiny Northland community of Waipoua can finally lay the Ventnor ghosts to rest and pave a way forward for the Chinese to remember their own. The heavens - and umbrellas - opened as the powhiri began. Te Roroa's kaumatua Fraser Toi says conditions were fitting. "These are the tears of our ancestors raining down on us now," he says. "The fog is filled with aroha, love and spirituality and everything happening around us now is for your ancestors. Ad Feedback "They're probably saying ‘it's about time you fellas came'." Mr Toi says the event will go down in the annals of history, about a very special people who came to this country to work and make a living and who lived in poverty and were buried here. "And when they died, just like us, they wanted to take them home." Chinese Consul General Niu Qingbao says the balance of relations has grown between China and New Zealand in the last few years. "This relationship is China's best of any western country and this good relationship came from people just like yourself," he told the crowd. "The Chinese and Maori have been doing a lot to promote mutual understanding and I firmly believe China and New Zealand can prosper hand in hand and the Chinese and Maori communities can live in harmony, love each other and prosper very much." Linus Chin, president of the Otago Southland Chinese Association, presented a beautiful piece of greenstone from the Otago-Southland district, saying there were many levels of meaning to it. "Like our ancestors that were lost in Ventnor, it was born on the land, some ends up in the ocean and washes back on shore for people to find, to treasure and look after. "It was a great thing you did and I have great pleasure in presenting it." Auckland businessman and Choie Sew Hoy descendant Donald Sew Hoy says he has been waiting for "this moment" since his great-great grandfather arrived in Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown to seek his fortune in 1869. "Generations later we come to this country and meet our cousins." Mr Sew Hoy says he turned down an invitation to be in China with Prime Minister John Key this week so he could come to the forest. "It is more important to thank the local iwi. "This is very personal to me, which is why I am not in China today." Te Roroa Commercial Development director Alex Nathan says the project had its origins back in the 80s when there was an archaeological project in the forest. "We were recording and locating these sites and wahi tapu [places of traditional and historical significance]." Wong Liu Shueng picked up the story when she moved to Rawene and wanted to make a documentary. "It has been deeply gratifying to fulfil our cultural obligations and to see so many Chinese coming together from different village affiliations and help expose this extraordinary piece of New Zealand, Maori and Chinese history," she says. Following the Waipoua ceremony, the Chinese held a ceremony at Kawerua beach close to where some of the caskets washed ashore before they returned to the forest to plant some kauri trees and establish the Ventnor Grove. The groups continued north to Mitimiti to unveil a second plaque near Te Rarawa marae, Matihetihe, on Friday. - © Fairfax NZ News JO BELWORTHY Last updated 05:00 10/04/2013

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