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History of the Camp

The Settlement

The Lawrence Chinese Camp was established in 1867 during the Otago gold rush era. It was the first and the largest Chinese goldmining settlement in Otago. The trading hub serviced the regional population of Chinese working the goldfields in Tuapeka district, and those travelling inland, until the early 1900s.


An Invitation to Otago

The Otago gold rush began in 1861 with the discovery of gold at Gabriel's Gully near Lawrence. By 1864, the surface gold was getting harder to find and thousands of European gold-seekers left Otago for the West Coast goldfields, or returned home overseas.  In a bid to boost the region's declining gold tax revenue, the Otago Provincial Council invited Chinese miners from the goldfields of Australia to try their luck in Otago, New Zealand. These miners were known to do second stage, clean-up mining. It was hoped that as many as 10 000 Chinese miners would come to Otago. However, as the gold fields were relatively small compared to those in Victoria and California, the largest number in Otago was 4125 in 1871. Of these, 1083 worked in Tuapeka which had the most prolific goldfields in Otago.


The Chinese Miners

Originally from Canton (now Guangdong) province in China, many of the first wave of miners had previously worked in the goldfields of California before going to Victoria and then coming Otago. The next groups of miners came to Otago directly from farming villages in Canton. Most were kin of the earlier migrants. They were predominantly from Poonyu (now Panyu) district, with some from Toisan (now Taishan). They came in kin groups for support aided by clan merchants and agents, living and working together in teams, which aided their success.

Banned From Lawrence

Though officially welcomed as an economic solution to the waning economy and promised equal justice, soon after the Chinese established in Lawrence, the Lawrence Town Council passed a by-law restricting Chinese business operations within the town boundaries. European residents were uncomfortable with the foreigners, concerned about business competition and frowned on the hubbub of Chinese activity on the Sabbath, the Chinese miners' day off in town (shopping for provisions, eating out, gambling and general conviviality). It was suggested that the Chinese rent a piece of Crown land 1.2 km west of Lawrence, adjacent to the Lawrence-Beaumont Highway, to set up camp - which they agreed to. The land was swampy, so they first had to drain it before laying out roads, boring wells and building. While onerous to establish, the Chinese were probably not unhappy that they had their own settlement where they could go about their business.

A Chinese Village

The camp rapidly became a fully functioning village and important commercial centre in the district. By the late 1800s, there were around 35 buildings in the settlement: houses, shops, butcheries, boarding houses, a slaughterhouse, gambling dens, opium dens, two meeting halls and a hotel. Shops and houses lined a central street which was a well-formed road with good drains on both sides. It had market gardens and a piggery. The settlement was called ‘Canton’ or ‘Hong Kong’ by Europeans and became quite a tourist destination.


The camp's land was surveyed in 1882, subdivided into sections and sold to the camp residents who then owned freehold titles. It is the only Chinese settlement in New Zealand to have been surveyed.

The Businesses

Many of the camp residents owned businesses. There were interpreters, agents, merchants, a Chinese doctor, a blacksmith, tradesmen and even a jeweller. Well-known residents include Sam Yek Mong, also known as Chau Mong, who ran a general store; Chow Tie who ran a butchery and slaughterhouse; and Sam Chew Lain who ran a boarding house for Chinese clientele and the Empire Hotel and bar - a popular stopover for European travellers heading inland. Produce and wares were sold to both Chinese and Europeans.


The Residents

At its peak in the late 1880s the camp was home to up to 123 residents and 11 or so families. These families were of mixed race, resulting from marriages between Chinese men and European women. There were no full Chinese women in Tuapeka in the 1800s as mining life was too harsh for families and many of the Poonyu women had bound feet and were unable to walk far. Most men, if they could, went home to their families in China after 5 years or so with savings of around £100.

Abandoning Camp

By the turn of the century, the surface gold was exhausted. A fire destroyed many of the camp's buildings in 1898, including the timber hotel and one of the meeting halls. Many left the camp. Some men went home to China. Some went on to market gardening. Others found work on farms or left the district in search of urban work.  Families moved away from Lawrence to cities and towns in both the North and the South Island.

​In 1903 the hotel was sold to Europeans. By 1928 there were only 14 Chinese men living in the camp and by 1946 it was empty. Buildings became derelict. The Poon Fah joss house* was sold to Miss Isabell Turnbull who moved it to Maryport St in Lawrence and used it as a holiday home.


*A meeting hall was called a' joss house' by Europeans because it housed an alter at which joss sticks were burned to ancestors and to Taoist deities.



Dr James Ng, a historian of New Zealand Chinese history, bought the land on which the settlement was sited in 2004. He established the Lawrence Chinese Camp Charitable Trust to administer, preserve and develop the historic site and buildings. The Lawrence Chinese Camp is now a Category 1 New Zealand Historic Place: ’a place of special or outstanding historical or cultural heritage significance or value’. 

Three of the settlement's original buildings remain: part of the Empire Hotel, part of the stables and the Poon Fah joss house. The Trust bought the Poon Fah joss house in 2015 and relocated it to its original site in the camp. The historic buildings are being restored and there are plans for development of the site.

Archeological Digs

There have been four archaeological investigations of the site between 2005 and 2010. Conducted by the Southern Pacific Archaeological Research (SPAR) of the University of Otago, the excavations uncovered a wealth of information about the daily life of the Camp residents. The artefacts from these excavations are currently in storage at the University of Otago but will one day be returned to the Lawrence Chinese Camp for public display.    

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