Sunday, April 14, 2013

Unusual sea tragedy recalled

An exhibition in Kohukohu is dedicated to one of Northland's worst - and most unusual - maritime tragedies. In 1902, the steamship SS Ventnor sank off Northland's west coast, claiming the lives of all but a few of its crew. Reports of the death toll vary, but at least 13 perished. The ship was on its way from Wellington to Hong Kong when it struck a reef off Cape Egmont. The captain decided to head to Auckland via North Cape for repairs, but got no further than Hokianga Heads before the ship went down. The cargo included 5000 tonnes of coal and 499 coffins carrying the remains of Chinese goldminers who had died in New Zealand but were to have been taken home for burial in their family villages. It was a great tragedy for the miners' relatives, because traditional Chinese belief is that a soul will not rest unless the grave is tended by family members. Many of the coffins washed up along the west coast, where they were found by the people of Te Roroa and Te Rarawa. Not knowing where the caskets came from, but realising their significance, Maori buried the miners along the coast and in their own cemeteries. The story had been all but forgotten until 2007, when Rawene woman Liu Sheung Wong made a documentary about the tragedy and met Te Roroa elders, who told her their ancestors had found the coffins and given them proper burials. Contacts were forged between the descendants of the Chinese miners and the Maori who had buried them, culminating on Friday with dedication ceremonies for memorial plaques at Waipoua and Mitimiti. It was also the miners' descendants' first chance in more than 100 years to perform the rituals of Ching Ming, a Chinese custom in which people visit the graves of their ancestors around April 5 each year. About 50 descendants also attended the opening of an exhibition at Blackspace Gallery in Kohukohu on Friday evening, in which 19 mostly Maori artists explore themes of loss, memory and connections. The Kohukohu community staged a powhiri for their Chinese guests, who lit joss sticks and made offerings of food at an altar set up next to the gallery. The exhibition, which is sponsored by the Chinese Historical Ventnor Group, is open from 10am-3pm, Tuesday to Sunday, until April 19. Blackspace Gallery is a few doors up from Village Arts in Kohukohu, North Hokianga. See Saturday's Advocate for more on the Ventnor and Friday's historic visit by the miners' descendants. SPIRITUAL VISIT: Connie Kum (right) lights a bundle of joss sticks to honour the souls of the SS Ventnor, with Liu Shueng Wong of Rawene (left) and Kai Shek Luey of Auckland. Peter de Graaf Peter de Graaf 9th Apr 2013 1:00 PM

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