About the Lawrence Chinese Camp
The Lawrence Chinese Camp is located approximately 1.2 km west of the Lawrence township in Clutha District. The camp was established during the Otago gold rush of the 1860s when the Otago Provincial Council invited Chinese miners from the goldfields of Australia to try their luck in the Otago goldfields. The first wave of Chinese miners were from Australia but many of those people were already experienced miners having worked previously in the goldfields of California although their original places of origin were villages in Canton (Guangzhou). The next groups of miners came to Lawrence directly from China.
Soon after the Chinese had become established in Lawrence, the Lawrence Town Council passed a by-law restricting Chinese business operations within the town boundaries. To compensate, they offered the Chinese a piece of land adjacent to the Lawrence-Beaumont Highway where they set up the camp. At the time the land was swampy so they first had to drain it before laying out their roads, basic infrastructure and setting up businesses. The land soon became known as ‘Canton’ or ‘Hong Kong’ but today it is known as the Lawrence Chinese Camp.
The Chinese built houses, shops, butcheries, boarding houses, a slaughterhouse, gambling dens, a Joss House, and an hotel. These were laid out on either side of a well-formed road with good drainage systems on each side. Wells were dug and the camp rapidly became a fully functioning village and important commercial centre within the District. Around 1882- 1883 the land was surveyed, subdivided into sections and sold to the camp residents who now owned freehold titles that could be bought and sold.
Many of the camp residents owned houses and ran successful businesses. These included men such as Sam Yek Mong, also known as Chau Mong, who ran a general store, Chow Tie ran a butchery and slaughterhouse, and Sam Chew Lain ran a boarding house and the Chinese Empire Hotel. As well as servicing local patrons, the hotel was a popular stopover for travellers heading towards Queenstown.
At its peak in the late 1880s the camp was home to 120 residents and 30-40 families. These families were of mixed race, resulting from many marriages between Chinese men and European women.
After the gold ran out many families left the camp, and around the early 1900s Lawrence’s economic boom came to an end. Some Chinese men went home to China, some found work on farms or left the district in search of work. Some families moved to Dunedin, Invercargill, Christchurch, Blenheim and even further north to Wellington and Palmerston North in search of work in market gardening, labouring or government jobs.
By 1928 there were only 14 Chinese men living in the camp and by 1949 it was empty. Buildings started to fall down and some were removed from the camp. For example, the Joss House was sold to an Otago University lecturer, Miss Isabell Turnbull, who moved it to Maryport St in Lawrence to use as a holiday home. In late 2015 the Joss House was secured by the Lawrence Chinese Camp Charitable Trust and relocated back to its original site in the camp.
In recent years there have been several archaeological investigations of the site. The first excavation in 2005 was directed by Richard Walter, of Southern Pacific Archaeological Research (SPAR) at the University of Otago University. Another four excavations were carried out by SPAR with the last taking place in 2010. These excavations uncovered a wealth of information about the daily life of the Camp residents; the food that they ate, their artefacts, past times and patterns of activity. All the material from these excavations is currently in storage at the University Otago but will one day be returned to Lawrence for public display.
There have been some significant projects completed and others are planned for the Lawrence Chinese Camp. Foremost among future plans are the restoration of the relocated Joss House, the hotel and the stables. A visitor centre and car park are also planned.
Funding is required for these proposed projects to proceed. The benefits from the restoration of this historic settlement will be many – particularly for the township of Lawrence and the Clutha region.
The Lawrence Chinese Camp carries a Category 1 listing for the Joss House and Historic listing for the Camp site. Category 1 listing is defined as ‘’places of special or outstanding historical or cultural heritage significance or value’’ . Heritage NZ is proposing to upgrade the entire Camp site to Category 1 listing as of June 2018. Refer to Heritage NZ website for further information - www.heritage.org.nz
The Lawrence Chinese Camp Trustees welcome the support of the local and wider community in helping make the restoration happen.