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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 New Zealand. The trading hub serviced the regional population of Chinese miners working the goldfields in Tuapeka district in Otago, and those travelling inland to Central Otago goldfields, until the early 1900s.

 

An Invitation to Otago

Chinese miners were invited to New Zealand in 1864. The Otago gold rush had begun in 1861 with the discovery of gold at Gabriel's Gully near Lawrence. After three years, 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 asked Chinese miners from the goldfields in Victoria, Australia to come try their luck in Otago. These miners were known to do second stage, clean-up mining.

 

The first groups of Chinese miners arrived in 1865. Though it was hoped that as many as 10,000 Chinese miners would come, the largest number in Otago at one time 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 to Otago. The next wave came to Otago directly from farming villages in Canton; predominantly from Poonyu (now Panyu) district, with smaller numbers from Toisan (now Taishan) district and a scattering from other districts. Most were kin of the earlier migrants. Aided by clan agents and merchants, they came to join the experienced miners already in Otago; living and working in kin teams to improve their chances of success in mining with collective support.

Banned From Lawrence

The township of Lawrence was the gateway into the Central Otago goldfields and one of the major routes that Chinese miners used to travel inland from Dunedin. Chinese businesses established in Lawrence.

Though officially welcomed as an economic solution to the waning economy and promised equal justice, soon after the Chinese came to Lawrence, the Lawrence Town Council passed a by-law restricting Chinese business operations within the town boundaries. The European residents of Lawrence were uncomfortable with the foreigners, concerned about business competition and frowned on the hubbub of their activity (buying provisions, dining, gambling and conviviality) in town on the Sabbath, the Chinese miners' day off.

 

It was suggested that the Chinese rent a piece of Crown land 1.2 km west of Lawrence, along the Lawrence-Beaumont Highway, to set up camp - which they agreed to. The site was swampy, so the Chinese settlers first had to drain it before laying out roads, boring wells and building. While onerous to establish, they 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, including 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. Miners lived on the goldfields where life was harsh and unsuitable for families, so wives and children remained in China. Some Poonyu women had bound feet so it would have been almost impossible for them to manage in a pioneer setting. Only the menfolk came - with the intention of returning home to China with their savings after 5 years. Money was sent home regularly through agents, if they could. 

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 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.

 

Restoration

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 in the process of being restored and there are plans for a museum of Chinese gold-mining history within the hotel, for a virtual reality recreation of the settlement and for development of the site into a major visitor destination visited both physically and digitally.

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 be returned to the Lawrence Chinese Camp for display in the up-coming museum.    


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