The Story of The
New Zealand Chinese Mission
1867 to 1952
The title image portrays Tang Yin Ling of
Horseflat, Macraes, Central Otago, returning home after collecting his
supplies. Photograph by Rev Alexander Don, c.1900-01.
The Beginning :
From the middle of the 19th century, civil and foreign instigated wars as well as a consequent economic downturn, particularly in the southern Provinces, led countless thousands of Chinese nationals to leave their homeland in search of more profitable work and relative safety overseas. The discovery of gold in Otago, New Zealand in the 1860's brought a veritable rush of Chinese immigrants here. The men came alone leaving behind wives and children. Not one of these men intended to remain in New Zealand, they did not view themselves as colonists. Their hearts were always 'at home' where they planned to return when fortune smiled upon them, in life if not also in death. The Chinese went to considerable lengths to bury their dead in the land of their birth.
Chinese communities sprang up quickly on the
various goldfields firstly in Otago and later spreading to other South
Island fields. They tended to group together in their own communities,
characterized by their almost windowless huts made of stones or turf, generally
with thatch or sacks for roofs. The Chinese were industrious and hard working,
and to the European extremely superstitious. The attitude of their European
neighbours was generally one of prejudism and mistrust.
The culture of the Chinese with their own customs and language, unique style of clothing and the obligatory long kues (pony tails) was in stark contrast to their own.
The Planning :
As early as 1867, the Presbyterian Synod of
Otago and Southland (which represented the Presbyterian Church in these
two southern provinces of New Zealand), urged that a Christian Mission
to the local Chinese be initiated. A Chinese evangelist, Paul Ah Chin was
appointed in 1871, and between 1872 and 1873, 11 Chinese were baptised.
Their lack of English meant that their participation in the Communion service
could only be occur when the service was translated word for word as it
Despite considerable planning and heavy expenditure by the Synod, problems which included the resignation of Mr Chin and the inability of his successor to master the Cantonese dialect led the Synod to finally appoint the Rev Alexander Don as Missionary to the NZ Chinese in 1879. At this time the Chinese population stood at around 900.
The Early Work :
Rev Alexander Don came from Ballarat in Victoria,
having originally offered for service in the New Hebrides. First he was
sent by the Synod to Canton for 18 months language study. The culture of
ancient land made a lasting impression on Rev Don being in stark contrast
to the colonial life he had left behind. The Rev Don later noted that one
could adequately learn to speak the Cantonese language in two to three
years, but the written language was a lifelong study. For this reason he
brought back a language teacher to assist him.
Rev Don commenced work in 1881 among the Chinese at Round Hill in Southland with a settlement of 150 huts covering 5 acres. A Church and Mission house were opened in 1883, £80 being subscribed by the local Chinese. Virtually nothing remains today of this once large community.
In 1886, a Chinese Catechist was appointed to Round Hill, and Rev Don was transferred to Lawrence where there were 400 Chinese working on the Goldfields.
The Annual Tours :
Later that year he began his well publicized but gruelling "Annual Tour" around the Chinese communities in Otago and Southland, travelling as much as 2000 miles, over half done on foot. He called on large and small settlements, always returning again in subsequent years, even if for only one or two men and even if it meant going well out of his way. He offered the hand of Christian fellowship and preached to them of the Christian Gospel in Cantonese. The Chinese called him "Jesus Don" and he was welcomed not only as a friend to those who knew him, but also as a provider of news from home and of friends living and working in other areas.
The Roll of the Chinese :
Always a methodical and painstakingly meticulous
man, Rev Don kept surprisingly detailed records of places visited, distances
travelled, people seen, numbers of religious tracts given out and numbers
of enquirers. In later years he recorded even their individual names, home
villages, numbers at each settlement, details of those who had returned
home, moved on or died. This also enabled him to conveniently refresh his
memory just prior to each subsequent visit, a source of continual amazement
to the Chinese that he even remembered their names! This unique record
remains the most important documentary evidence of the early Chinese in
this part of New Zealand. His published journals refer to the Chinese names,
all given a literal English translation, thus we read such wonderful names
as "Splendid Dignity", "Blossoming Wisdom", "Illustrious Energy" and "Noble
His style of Evangelism was to hand out religious tracts and to preach using coloured posters illustrating Scripture stories with relevant Cantonese text in large characters - an early form of the modern day audio visual presentation! In later years a cumbersome box camera was carried and these unique images taken by the Rev Don are again a valuable and unique record.
Despite his close knowledge and interest in the Chinese, Rev Don's attitude towards the Chinese did vary considerably throughout the years. But this was often not very different from the unfortunate prejudiced attitudes held by many of our European forbears at that time. Whether he felt frustrated at the lack of any great numbers of Christian converts or whether he was disturbed by their strong desire to retain their traditional ways we do not know. Despite his caring attitude and assistance to the Chinese community in these early years, it must be said that he counted very few Chinese as his personal friends. It was only in his later years that we can perceive a change in his attitude and they finally won his full respect. His third and final visit to China in 1923 and his great pleasure at seeing some of his now elderly Chinese goldmining friends (and they of him) bears witness to this.
The Poll Tax :
As time passed, Chinese settlements slowly dwindled as the gold was worked out. The number of immigrants fell drastically about 1900 when the Government increased the infamous Poll Tax for Chinese immigrants to £100 in order to stem the tide of immigrants from the "Celestial Land". Many Chinese had returned home or moved elsewhere, often entering new spheres of work.
The trust built up with the Chinese along with the occasional success in gaining new Christian converts led the Synod of Otago in Southland in 1896 to send Rev Don back to Canton to investigate the opening of our own Chinese Mission in South China. Rev Don had noted that as four out of every five NZ Chinese came from villages near Canton, this would give a wonderful introduction to their families back in China. Photos were taken of prospective Missionaries to China next to the Chinese goldminers to act as an introduction to their families back in China. Even gold sovereigns were entrusted to the Missionaries to take back to their families in China. Their trust had by and large been gained although the prospects for conversion to Christianity not always fulfilled Rev Don's high hopes.
Expansion & Contraction :
A Chinese Church was opened in Dunedin in 1897
which had a small but flourishing Chinese community. Early Chinese Evangelists
included Timothy Fay Loie, Mr F L Law and Mr William Chan, the latter
being the first convert of the Chinese Church in Dunedin, who was sent
for Theological training to Canton for four years.
In 1913 however, due to dwindling numbers and the lowest attendance in the Dunedin Chinese Church since its opening, Rev Don was transferred to the North Island where he could reach the scattered but growing North Island Chinese population. The work around Dunedin was carried on by volunteer helpers and remained at a low ebb until 1926 when Mr FL Law arrived.
A Mission to the Chinese had begun in Greymouth for the scattered settlements of Chinese gold miner's in 1905, but by about 1910 these settlements had all but dispersed.
Consolidation of The Work
Once Rev Don took up duties as the Foreign
Missions Committee Secretary in 1914, Chinese Mission work in New Zealand
became centred on Dunedin and Auckland with regular visiting of outlying
Chinese settlements by the appointed Chinese Ministers or Evangelists.
A large Chinese community grew up in the Auckland area and a Mission Hall
for the Auckland Chinese was purchased in 1924.
The Chinese Preacher Rev YS Chau was provided with a car in 1927, the necessary funds being raised by public subscription. Although Rev Chau reported that interest was growing, the number of communicant members did not exceed more than 25 until after World War II.
An interesting event was the appointment of Rev W Mawson, a previous Missionary to the Canton Villages Mission, to the Auckland Chinese Mission from 1923 until 1928. In 1939 the Rev AL Miller was appointed to the Dunedin Chinese Church until his death in 1944. The Rev Dr George McNeur, our pioneer Missionary to China, and Mrs Miller (widow of the Rev AL Miller) also assisted the Dunedin congregation for some time from the 1940's until 1951. The Missionaries' knowledge of local Chinese customs and the Cantonese language gained them much respect. They also assisted the Chinese by acting as interpreters and providing guidance and support when dealing with European officialdom.
Added to this was their support for Chinese residency in New Zealand. Chinese nationals had never had the right of NZ citizenship, and in fact during the 1930's, it was impossible for NZ Chinese who had lived here many years to bring their wives and children out to join them in New Zealand. With the Japanese occupation of large areas of China from 1937, public sympathy for the plight of the NZ Chinese increased markedly during this time.
The Post War Years :
China was in a state of economic depression
after the war with Japan and civil war raged between the Communist and
Nationalist Koumintang forces. The Missionaries made strong representations
to the National NZ Church and the Government to engender public support
over the dire need for residency of NZ Chinese nationals, some of whom
had lived in New Zealand most of their lives. This was finally achieved,
much to the relief of countless Chinese who wished to call NZ their home.
Upon Rev Dr McNeur's retirement in 1951, the local Chinese community raised over £600 to donate to the National Church in memory of his good work and as a token of the high esteem in which they held him. The Otago and Southland Chinese Association even circularized it's members encouraging them to attend Church. While not all Chinese had been converted to Christianity, high mutual respect was accorded each other.
It was always the intention to create a self supporting Church catering specifically for Chinese speaking Christians and to this end two Chinese Ministers were appointed; Rev YT Fong to Dunedin in 1951 and Rev WK Chan to Auckland in 1952, both serving successfully for many years. From these early beginnings, the Chinese Church in NZ continues today as a valuable member of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand.
Donald Cochrane, PCANZ Archives, March 2001
Resources used in writing this history :
- PCANZ Missions manuscript material
- "A Century of Growth" by Rev JS Murray (1969)
- "Presbyterian Church of New Zealand - Missions to the Chinese 1904", by Rev A Don