Words on Wednesday: the Chinese settlement in Arrowtown

Close by the centre of Arrowtown lies a very different heritage site, the Arrowtown Chinese settlement. It is one of at least ten Chinese settlements that grew up around the gold mining towns in Otago during the late the nineteenth century. As miners began to leave the area to try their luck in the newly discovered mines to the west, the Otago Provincial Council invited Chinese miners who were in Victoria, Australia, to come and look for gold in the region. The first Chinese miners arrived in Otago in 1866, but the main era of their activity was during the 1870s and 1880s, when they began to rework gold-bearing areas that had been deserted by European miners.

The Chinese miners often met with hostility as some of the archive material in the museum made quite clear. They were wanted to do the work, but their ‘foreign ways’ met with what we would now term racist comments and reaction. The Arrowtown Chinese settlement sits on the south bank of Bush Creek by the Arrow River, only around 200 metres away from centre of the town, but the settlement and its occupants were socially quite separate from the rest of the town.

The first building you see on approaching the area is Ah Lum’s store. Originally one of two shops, this was also the final building to be occupied in the settlement. Ah Lum, and his boarder Ah He stayed there until Ah Lum’s death in 1927. You can see bits of the building below, and the view from inside looking out forms the featured image at the top of the post. Ah Lum’s store is one of the only original buildings that remains standing, and the only substantially intact Chinese store left in Otago

The setting of the settlement is quite lovely, though how these miners felt about it is unknown and I suspect that the cold winters may have come as a shock. It is interesting to note that the miners in Arrowtown all came from Guangzhou in the south of China, and so all came from the same area and spoke Cantonese. By 1885, there were about ten huts in the settlement, as well as a large social hall and at least two stores and an extensive garden area where I guess vegetables were grown. By 1888, the population in the settlement may have reached as many as sixty men.  

Archaeological excavations in 1983 uncovered remnants of a number of huts, a number of which have since been reconstructed. Some are made of mud brick, some of stone, wood, corrugated iron and even can, others had thatched roofs as can be seen below. They are all small and dark, with a few even built into the rock as in the second picture below.

As the profitability of gold mining declined, many of the men returned home to China or moved to other areas. By 1910 many of the huts were uninhabited, and were left abandoned and almost forgotten until the 1980s.

This is a fascinating place to visit if you happen to be in the area. The story of the Chinese miners is really interesting in so many ways and the settlement is an important reminder of the Chinese miners who came and lived on the Central Otago goldfields.

You can find Thistles and Kiwis on Facebook, and also on Instagram@thistleandkiwis.  As for Twitter….am totally inactive these days.  If you want to get in touch, email me on thistlesandkiwis@gmail.com

8 Comments

  1. Some of those huts are wonderfully constructed. You are right to wonder how the worker felt. A beautiful place, but not home. I am reminded of the sentiment expressed in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”: Kansas might have been drab and gray compared with Oz, but Kansas was home, and that is where Dorothy wanted to be. I expect the same was true for most of the workers who came to mine gold.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is such an interesting story, beautifully illustrated with compelling photos. Thank you for sharing your research with us and for inspiring us to find forgotten communities in our own backyards.

    Liked by 1 person

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