Cairn recognises role of early miners

A stone cairn has been built on the highest point of the Clyde Cemetery as a memorial to early European and Chinese settlers lured to the area by gold who are buried in unmarked graves.

The schist cairn was unveiled on Saturday by Cantonese historian Leslie Wong, of Dunedin. Promote Dunstan organised the project and about 40 people attended the unveiling, including descendants of early settlers.

It was the final activity in more than 60 the group organised throughout the year to mark the 150th anniversary of gold being discovered in Central Otago.

''We wanted something lasting to remember those hardy souls who came here in search of gold, and those who came here to support miners and established homes and businesses in the area,'' Promote Dunstan president Rory Butler said.

The cairn marked the gold anniversary and the contribution early settlers made to the prosperity of the area, he said. Many of those people were buried in unmarked plots in the cemetery, or where they perished on the goldfields, Mr Wong said. Some of the Chinese were later exhumed and their remains sent home, but there were few records of that. Cantonese Chinese described Central Otago as ''New Gold Mountain''.

Rosie Turnbull (nee Gye), of Clyde, said three generations of her father's family were buried in the Clyde cemetery and she was proud of her Chinese connections.

''This is a fitting occasion in recognising the part the Chinese played in Central Otago history,'' she said.

Her great-grandfather was Charles Henry Wong Gye, who arrived in New Zealand about 1862 .

He was a special constable appointed by the provincial government to police the Chinese community. One of his tasks was to investigate the validity of miners' claims, she said. The Chinese who migrated had no tradition of mining but were used to hardship. They were self-sufficient, relaxed by gambling and preferred opium to alcohol. They made little attempt to assimilate, as they intended returning home once they had made some money, Mr. Turnbull said.

At one stage, there were 2000 Chinese on the goldfields - more Chinese than Europeans, Mr Wong said. Some set up as merchants and as the gold ran out, they found other opportunities, becoming labourers. Central Otago Mayor Tony Lepper said the early miners and settlers added to the area's rich heritage. Life must have been hard for those pioneers, who ''roughed it'' camping out in all weather, he said.

''But most survived and carried on and their ancestors are here today."

On the topic of early gold mining, he said it was somewhat ironic the activity ''had left a big mess and 150 years later we're celebrating''.

Four Otago Polytechnic stonemasonry students built the cairn, using Galloway schist, stonemason lecturer Steve Holmes said. It was fitting that stone was used, as early settlers used the same material to build their shelters and homes.

lynda.van.kempen@odt.co.nz