Saturday, September 01, 2007

Rebuilding China Town at Lawrence

The Press Saturday, 12 May 2007
These days, Lawrence is happy to celebrate its early Chinese residents, but it wasn't always that way in the South Otago goldrush town.
Lawrence is to get a pig oven.
That may not sound a big deal, but residents of the South Otago town are pleased. Some have donated bricks made at the local brickworks in the 1800s to build it.
Plans have been prepared, based on a pig oven at the Ashburton market garden where Dr James Ng grew up.
Ng is a Dunedin historian and author of Chinese descent. He is chairman of a charitable trust that plans to rebuild the China Town that stood at the western edge of Lawrence during the gold era.
The pig oven will replace one believed to have stood at the rear of the Chinese settlement, where the land slopes down to the Tuapeka Stream.
The settlement contained hotels, stores and cafes where Chinese miners, who lived and scavenged for gold in the Tuapeka hills, would come for meals and companionship. Chinese butchers would submerge a whole pig in the brick oven, which was like a large bread oven with a fire underneath.
Lawrence is proud of its China Town. People like the idea of it being rebuilt and becoming a tourist attraction. But feelings were not always so positive. Through the 1860s and '70s, Europeans deplored the alien settlement.
Diggers engulfed the Tuapeka area in 1861, after prospector Gabriel Read dug his shovel into earth and found grains of gold "shining like the stars of Orion in a dark sky". More finds were quickly reported farther up in Central Otago, luring many diggers away in the hope of easier pickings. The Otago goldrush was on.
Chinese miners arrived at Lawrence from 1866. Most were content to stay and rework the previous diggings. Almost immediately, racism reared its ugly head. The Chinese were banned from Lawrence and forced to set up camp outside the town limits.
Local newspaper The Tuapeka Times branded the Chinese settlement "a nest of Chinese putrefaction" and its inhabitants "a filth-begrimed, opium-besotted horde of Mongolian monstrosities".
However, by the 1880s Europeans were more accepting of the Chinese. Many even visited the settlement socially and on business. Sam Chew Lain's wise leadership of the Chinese community and positive involvement in the wider business scene did much to break down barriers. His Chinese Empire Hotel is the only building remaining, although a former joss house (social and cultural centre) that was moved into Lawrence still stands.
Lain was respected by all. His stature is reflected in a gaunt concrete mausoleum that dominates the main part of Lawrence's hillside cemetery. From its lofty position it gazes down on a shady gully at one end of the cemetery where remnants of the rude graves of Lain's countrymen can be seen.
They lived apart; they lie apart.
The Chinese section of the cemetery was lost in long grass and brambles when I lived in Lawrence, in the early '70s. Now it has been cleared, revealing about 20 stone plaques inscribed with Chinese characters. Some have collapsed, others tilt at crazy angles. Simple wooden headstones have rotted into the ground.
Chris Jacomb, of Otago University's anthropology department, is jointly leading archaeological excavations of the Chinese settlement for clues to the sites of buildings, streets, wells and drains. Three major digs and scanning with a magnetic flux machine, which Jacomb describes as "like a fancy metal detector", have uncovered a large amount of material. The findings, matched to an 1882 map and old photographs, indicate that 30 to 40 buildings once stood along well-formed streets.
The information gained will help the trust build an authentic recreation of the camp.
Plans include a tourist hotel nearby. Ng is confident the site will attract visitors, especially Chinese travellers, to what was New Zealand's largest Chinese settlement.
The last resident of the settlement died in 1945. Old-timers remember the area about then as an abandoned cluster of decaying wooden buildings. By the 1970s, all signs of it, except the brick Empire Hotel, had vanished. Sheep grazed on the grassy site.
People were aware of the former settlement beside the road that leads "up Central", but Lawrence had other problems and few could afford to bother about its history.
Lawrence's problems were evident in a main street of empty shops and banks, of deserted railway sheds, of government buildings no-one wanted, of grand homes falling into disrepair on unkempt sections.
The town had grown too big, too quickly. Dismantling of gold-sluicing systems from early last century signalled a long, slow decline.
But you can't keep a beautiful town like Lawrence down. New enterprises and an increased awareness of heritage have sparked a resurgence.
Cleaning up the cemetery was a start. Restoring Anthem House, home of God Defend New Zealand composer John Woods, was another step. Recreation of the Chinese settlement will be the biggest boost.
Mike Crean has been travelling the South Island for decades, and is the journalist behind the long running Crean's Country series published in The Press

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