The joining of Māori and Chinese cultures was recognised in Northland on Saturday at the historical SS Ventnor memorial dedication ceremony.
Held at Opononi on the edge of the Hokianga Harbour, the ceremony brought together about 200 people with different backgrounds, ethnicities and languages.
The story of the SS Ventnor is one that was almost lost in time.
In 1902 the ship was chartered by association Cheong Sing Tong to take the remains of Chinese gold miners back to their home villages, where their families could tend to their graves.
But the ship struck a rock off the coast of Taranaki and sunk off the Hokianga Heads, taking the lives of 13 down with it.
The Chinese community thought the remains were lost forever.
But when some washed ashore, the hapū of Hokianga, Te Roroa and Te Rarawa, showed the remains respect and gave them a burial.
The story only came to light in 2007 and, since then, the story has been recognised with a memorial, built on the grounds of the Manea Footprints of Kupe visitor attraction.
Saturday’s dedication included a traditional Chinese festival, Ching Ming (清明節), also known as tomb-sweeping day, when people honour their ancestors.
Incense was burnt and food offered to the ancestors.
In what Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon considered a first for New Zealand, a ceremonial white lion dance where the costume was burnt as an offering to the ancestors and recognition of the day’s prestige.
Minister for Diversity, Inclusion and Ethnic Communities, Priyanca Radhakrishnan, said the story shows there are common threads between cultures, including a respect for ancestors, and the importance of family and people.
“We’re here today to remember those who were lost but also to honour and cherish the manaakitanga extended by local iwi, who cared for the remains of the 499 men as though they were their own; and that is powerful.
“The incident, and the act of kindness and generosity that followed, has created an enduring relationship, and that is powerful.”
Former MP Shane Jones, who courted controversy to secure funding for the memorial at Manea, said he first learnt of the burial site for some of the remains in the 1980s.
The story of the remains were passed from generation to generation by Māori.
“It was quite an extraordinary revelation to me as a politician; that [this] particular part of New Zealand history was not known,” he said.
“Today is an opportunity to … ensure that this historical incident is etched with pride and profile in the history of New Zealand.”
NZ Chinese Association president Richard Leung said when the Chinese gold miners came to New Zealand in the 1880s, they did not intend to stay.
But when they died here, they were buried far away from their homeland, he said.
“From a Chinese point of view, that was a problem because if you don’t have the care of your family, you might get lost in the afterlife.”
Leung said when the Ventnor sank, it was a “huge tragedy” for the Chinese in New Zealand.
The memorial not only gives descendants a chance to recognise their ancestors, but also memorialises the relationship between Māori and Chinese.
“This is just the beginning,” he said.
“We have built relationships with iwi and all their descendents and this is for all New Zealanders.
“This is a story that could only have come from this place, Aotearoa.
“The care and guardianship that was shown, those are values that all New Zealanders strive for – it doesn’t matter if you’re Chinese or Māori, Pakeha or Pasifika, African or European.”
The ceremony was important for Peter Sew Hoy, who came up from Dunedin along with 20 family members.
He is the great-great-grandson of Choie Sew Hoy, a merchant in New Zealand who worked to return the remains of Chinese, many of whom died penniless.
After Choie Sew Hoy died in 1901, his remains were added to those returning on the SS Ventnor.
“That made the sinking even more devastating for my family – it was like he died twice,” Peter Sew Hoy said.
What was not known until recently, was that Choie Sew Hoy’s nephew was on the ship to look after the remains, and was one of the 13 crew who died when the ship went down.
MP Naisi Chen, speaking first in Mandarin, then in English, said the ceremony was a meeting point between the past and future.
“A piece of our ancestors will always be with us, and we continue that into the future. We continue their vision of living in New Zealand.”
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