Key role in restoring camp

Lawrence Chinese Camp Charitable Trust chairman Dr James Ng. Photo: Pam Jones.
Lawrence Chinese Camp Charitable Trust chairman Dr James Ng. Photo: Pam Jones.
Dunedin historian, doctor, writer and Lawrence Chinese Camp Charitable Trust chairman Dr James Ng has had an illustrious career in a professional and voluntary  capacity. Pam Jones asks him about an ongoing project close to his heart and his journey through dual cultures.

Q How has your work with the Lawrence Chinese Camp Charitable Trust evolved and what keeps you motivated to lead the Chinese Camp project?

Of all the Chinese camps in the Otago goldfields, the Lawrence Chinese Camp was the earliest, biggest and most important site because it was, with Lawrence, at the main gateway to the goldfields. Founded in 1867, it was a mining settlement of about 100 Chinese. It has good records, is easily accessible, was nearly all unploughed land and was up for sale together with adjacent land. It is an excellent, affordable site to explore and restore. So in 2004, the camp was bought privately with help from the Department of Conservation, and a Lawrence Chinese Camp Trust was formed. The first work undertaken was four successive archaeological digs, led by the Archaeology Department of the University of Otago. Their findings are unique and a book recording them is nearly completed for publication.

Q What involvement have you had with the Joss House, which is being publicly unveiled at an open day at the Chinese Camp this weekend?

Three buildings of the camp have remained — the brick Chinese Empire Hotel, its stables and the Poon Fah Joss House. The latter was built in 1869 as a wooden, essentially one-room small building. Yet it had important three-fold functions, as a venue for meetings, a hospice for dying men, and a place with an altar to departed souls. Thus while other weatherboard buildings of the camp crumbled away, the Joss House was maintained to the last. It was purchased and saved in 1948 by a university lady with links to the Canton Villages Mission. She shifted the building into Lawrence as a bach, and it passed through three other owners who took good care of it. Finally it was bought by the trust and the Clutha District Council, and was recently moved back to its old camp site with help from the Chinese Poll Tax Trust and Otago Community Trust. The Chinese Camp trust will restore it as well as possible.

Q What other projects are planned at the Chinese Camp, and what do you hope the camp will become for the Lawrence, Chinese and wider community?

After the Joss House is restored, the camp trust will renovate the Chinese Empire Hotel room by room, and after that, the stables. This will set up a cluster of original buildings which can serve as a nucleus for further replacements and restorations in the camp, which had 25 sections and premises. There is plenty of land for development. Meanwhile, a wide, safe entry for parking, together with flying dragon flags and bilingual explanatory panels, will make the three existing buildings a significant stopover, the more so as a tourist node in a revival of a proposed Chinese Heritage Mining Trail.

Q Is it possible to reconcile the way Chinese miners were treated when they worked in New Zealand? What kind of contribution did they make to our communities and how should they be honoured?

The Chinese goldseekers were Cantonese who principally worked in the second stage of Otago goldmining, that is, after the gold rush and before the third stage, which involved river gold in gold dredging and deeper, more dispersed gold in sluicing with elevating. Their stage began in 1865 to rework the shallow gold deposits by small claim mining, and these deposits were largely exhausted by the early 1880s. During that time, the Chinese formed up to 40% of Otago’s miners, with a peak number of 4000, and were generally seen as beneficial to the province, both as miners and as non-mining labour. This tolerant phase was followed by a long prejudiced period, when the Chinese were regarded as competitors for the remaining shallow gold in Otago, and as they left the exhausted goldfields for other occupations they were slated as alien competitors.

The national anti-Chinese attitudes remained at a high level into the 1920s before slowly declining. However, the tide turned much earlier in inland Otago, in the 1890s. By then the Chinese numbers were fading and ageing, and public sympathy and good memories re-emerged towards them. A book is sponsored by the Chinese Camp trust which describes the Otago trend towards Chinese and some of their achievements, notably by Choie Sew Hoy in third stage gold dredging and sluicing. It is nearly completed.

Q Can you describe your own arrival in New Zealand. What did you hope to find here and where did you and your family settle?

My grandfather was one of the last Chinese to be naturalised before naturalisation was stopped for them in 1908. So through my grandfather, with his naturalisation passed on to my father, I was able to come with my mother in 1941 with the last of the Chinese war refugees. We went to Gore, where my father had a laundry and the Ngs had a long history in market gardening and laundry work.  Before the coming of the refugees, there were few Chinese families in New Zealand and post-war, the former were allowed to stay and encouraged to settle.

Q How did your education shape your life and what specialties did you study and follow in your professional career?

I was 5 years old, and was fortunate to proceed through primary and secondary schools and medical school. So I had two elemental factors which moulded my life — my home, which was Chinese, and my schooling, which was as a New Zealander. In both worlds, many people befriended and guided me. The acme of my social integration and assimilation was in general practice, in which, despite my deficiencies, patients trusted and befriended me.

Q How did your role as Chinese historian come about? What do you enjoy so much about honouring the past and what projects have you been involved with?

In 1959, my classmate Jack Fraser and I did a joint medical thesis on blood pressures of Chinese in New Zealand. We found that these were about halfway between blood pressures of Cantonese in China and Europeans in New Zealand. Why was this so? Surely social integration and assimilation played a role. My task was to trace out New Zealand Chinese history in explanation, and so began my life-long interest in this. There were few sources of referral then and I suppose it became a challenge to expand the topic.

Q Tell us about your previous published book, Windows on a Chinese Past?

For Windows on a Chinese Past, my publisher George Griffiths was amazing. He never once mentioned costs and encouraged me to include as much detail as possible in order to illuminate what he saw as an obscure subject. Windows apparently has somewhat fulfilled his hope for it, to provide a base level of description and data for succeeding books.

Q What other interests do you have?

I belong to a fast disappearing New Zealand Chinese generation that had experienced what it was like for our ethnicity before our extensive assimilation into the wider society. We are the only ones left who can tell how our parents’ generation lived and how we younger ones lived in the 1940s through into the 1960s. So I have written a manuscript on those years and hope I can satisfactorily finish it. Meanwhile, Knox Archives has kindly put aside a room to receive my collection of documents and library and my wife’s tapes of interviews and photographs.

Q You were  awarded an MBE in 1989 and made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1996. What does the recognition mean?

More than is usually the case, the honours I have received are due in very great part to the people in the Pakeha, Maori and Chinese communities who have helped me.

● The public unveiling of the Joss House will be held at 1.30pm at an open day at the Lawrence Chinese Camp today. 

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