If you’re in the Queenstown area this summer, then the Chinese settlement at nearby Arrowtown is a fascinating place to visit. Gold was found in the Arrow River in 1862 and it wasn’t long before people flooded into the area hoping to make their fortune.
Back in the nineteenth century, Chinese immigrants made a huge contribution to Otago’s gold mining industry. They lived in several settlements, including one near Arrowtown which has been transformed into a memorial to these hardy incomers.
The 1874 census listed 3564 Chinese in Otago; by 1881, that figure had risen to 5004. Only nine of them were female. The work was tough, picking over ground that the European settlers had already worked. Many had dreams of making their fortune and returning to China triumphant. In reality, most died in poverty having suffered persecution their whole lives. Richard Seddon, New Zealand’s longest serving prime minister, was no fan, once insulting the community with the words: ‘There is about as much distinction between a European and a Chinaman as that between a Chinaman and a monkey.’ Fortunately, those days are long gone, and the New Zealand government has since formally apologised.
Exploring the Arrowtown Chinese Settlement
Although many Chinese lived in isolation on the land they were working, some preferred to live in settlements and Arrowtown was one such place. Restored following extensive study by archaeologists in the 1980s, there’s a mix of ruined huts, restored buildings and reconstructions to build up a picture of what the place would have looked like back then. The miners would have lived in communal huts, sharing with up to six others. One of the most important structures is the restored store owned by Ah Lum, who acted as an interpreter between the Chinese community and the local English-speaking population. The store wasn’t originally owned by Ah Lum, however. A market gardener named Wong Hop Lee built it about 1883, leasing it as a store a decade later before fin ally selling it to Ah Lum in 1909. Ah Lum ran the place until he died in 1927, the iron bars on the windows revealing that he was also the community’s banker.
Another structure popular with visitors is Ah Wak’s lavatory. This outhouse served as the toilet for a house that burned down in the first decade of the twentieth century. It’s the only toilet in the whole country registered as a historic place.
After your visit to Arrowtown Chinese Settlement, there’s an opportunity to try your hand at gold panning at nearby Dudley’s Cottage. The cottage was built around 1880 by an Irish waggoner who’d come here at the time of the gold rush. There’s a tea room, plus a gift shop on site selling a range of gold panning equipment. Visitors can opt for tuition from the pros before heading down to the Arrow River with a pan to try their luck.