Vandalised 'bomb site' now restored

Les Wong (left), a Dunedin resident active in Chinese grave restoration, and Stewart Harvey, who chairs the Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust of New Zealand, look at Chinese graves in the Dunedin Southern Cemetery. New granite gravestones bearing Chinese inscriptions can be seen beside an older gravestone. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Les Wong (left), a Dunedin resident active in Chinese grave restoration, and Stewart Harvey, who chairs the Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust of New Zealand, look at Chinese graves in the Dunedin Southern Cemetery. New granite gravestones bearing Chinese inscriptions can be seen beside an older gravestone. Photo by Peter McIntosh.

The future is looking brighter for more Chinese graves in Dunedin's Southern Cemetery after a painstaking restoration project has largely overcome previous ''wilderness years'' of vandalism and neglect.

The outcome of the restoration project, which started in 2007 and is now largely completed, will be celebrated in a public function at the cemetery at 2pm on April 7.

The project has been co-ordinated by the Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust of New Zealand, working closely with many people and organisations, including the Dunedin City Council, the Dunedin Chinese community and the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust.

Conservation trust chairman Stewart Harvey said the outcome was ''fantastic''.

''It's been a great success and it's been teamwork from day one,'' he said.

The cemetery's Chinese graves constitute the largest historic Chinese grave site in the country. Conservation volunteers initially faced what Mr Harvey terms ''a bomb site''.

Vandals had overturned some of the heavier gravestones in the 200sq m Chinese section and smashed some of the thinner headstones into many pieces.

It was ''a large jigsaw puzzle in marble pieces'', he said.

But, now, with the project largely completed, new granite grave stones, appropriately relettered, stand beside existing older stones, and damaged sarcophaguses have been restored.

Les Wong, who has been actively involved in the restoration, is also pleased with progress and says the graves constitute a ''spiritual link'' between different parts of Dunedin's history.

The restoration work also showed ''two cultures working together, European and Chinese'', both ultimately ''part of the community of Dunedin'', Mr Wong said.

When the New Zealand Society of Genealogists, led by Ngaire Ockwell, transcribed the Chinese gravestones in the 1980s, they found 114 headstones representing burials carried out between 1877 and 1920.

It is thought there may be up to 200 burials in this area, but few signs of earlier burials remain.

- john.gibb@odt.co.nz

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