In the 19th century, New Zealand’s settlement policy aimed to create a ‘fairer Britain of the South Seas’. Chinese, or any non-white migrants, were regarded as undesirable in this nation-building enterprise.
At least one Chinese man settled in the decade after British annexation. Wong Ahpoo Hock Ting, better known as Appo Hocton (a corruption of his given name), arrived in Nelson in 1842. By 1852 he was naturalised and had established a cartage business.
But any plans for organised Chinese settlement were scuttled by 1853. Edward Gibbon Wakefield, known for his success in settling the colony with British small farmers, formulated detailed plans to bring in Chinese to provide valuable labour as servants, shepherds, stock-keepers, mechanics and manual workers. But he had to drop this idea when opponents labelled his scheme a conspiracy to overrun the colony with ‘Coolie-slaves’ who were ‘ignorant, slavish, and treacherous’. 1
Reasons for leaving China
Meanwhile, South China was beset by overpopulation, land shortages, famine, drought, banditry, and peasant revolts. A steady stream of able-bodied young men sought their fortunes overseas, first in South-East Asia and then further afield in the Pacific Rim countries. The discovery of gold in California, Canada and Australasia swelled this exodus. Rather than settling permanently in other lands, these men usually intended to make their fortunes and then return to China.
Chinese gold miners
In New Zealand, the Otago goldfields attracted the first batch of organised Chinese migrant workers. They were recruited by the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce when European miners left Otago for the newly discovered West Coast goldfields. There were particular reasons for choosing Chinese people: they were thought to be hardworking, inoffensive, and willing to rework abandoned claims, and they preferred to return eventually to their homeland. In 1866, the first 12 men arrived from Victoria, Australia. By late 1869 over 2,000 Chinese men had come to the land they would call the ‘New Gold Mountain’.
Early immigrants came from the Pearl River delta area in Guangdong province. Most (67%) were from Panyu county; the rest were from Siyi, Zengcheng, Dongguan and Zhongshan. These counties are located around the city of Canton (Guangzhou).
Although most men were married, their wives remained at home to look after the men’s parents. Chinese women seldom migrated to New Zealand and the sex ratio of the community was extremely unbalanced. For example, there were only nine women to 4,995 men in 1881 – the year that saw the highest numbers of Chinese in New Zealand prior to the Second World War.
The plight of the Chinese miners was dire. Few struck it rich, and most remained in enforced bachelorhood, poverty-stricken and stranded in a strange land.