Chinese workers’ letters bring history to life

SHARE

Letters written by Chinese workers have revealed what life was like in the old gold­mining town of Naseby.
Three historians — Associate Prof Sheng Fei, Prof Shi Xie and Associate Prof Weiming Ke — all of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China were able to uncover records at the Maniototo Early Settlers Museum in Naseby during a visit last month.
The trip was organised by Associate Prof James Beattie, of Victoria University.
There was a misconception Chinese miners were illiterate, ‘‘but actually when you look at the records you have these miners in Central Otago entering poetry competitions in the Chinese language’’.
The historians were able to translate a letter by a Chinese miner who described seeing Mt Tarawera erupt in 1886.
‘‘You get the sense of these unnamed miners as real people, living and breathing,’’ Prof Beattie said.
The trip to Naseby was a chance for the historians to get a sense of what an old gold-mining town looked like.
‘‘Naseby had its first Chinese arrive in 1867 — so very soon after the first wave of immigration here.’’
The museum had ‘‘great displays’’ showing what life was like on the goldfields.
The trip included a visit to the Naseby Cemetery and the water race, which was ‘‘70% built’’ by Chinese labour, Prof Beattie said.
The visiting historians were ‘‘fascinated that Chinese objects were preserved’’, even though there was no longer a Chinese community in the area.
Among the records they were able to look at were account books from the Bank of New Zealand.
‘‘From these sources you can tell where the person came from, whether they were literate or not — if they could sign their name in Chinese.’’
Objects and photographs provided a ‘‘sense of the lifestyle they were living’’.
Detailed records of Chinese overseas still existed in Guangzhou, which was the point of origin for ‘‘almost all of the 19th­century Chinese’’.
Insights gained from this trip would help inform a book on Chinese migration and environmental change he was writing with Prof Sheng Fei.
They had known each other for about 15 years and had written papers together, with Prof Sheng Fei being able to contribute records from China.
Being able to work alongside Prof Sheng Fei enabled both Chinese and English accounts of their research to be published.
‘‘We will write some papers in Chinese and we will write some papers in English, so that both people in China and people in New Zealand are able to know more about these stories.’’