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While the Chinese gold miners to come to Aotearoa outwardly adopted western-style housing and clothing, they held on to a belief in the superiority of 'things Chinese'.

With this stronghold of Chinese culture, Chinese gold miners continued to use many Chinese-made objects here in Aotearoa, with the majority of these objects being ceramics. Some of these objects included opium pipes, inkstones and other writing equipment, but the majority of the ceramics were vessels associated with the packaging, transport, storage, preparation, cooking or consumption of food.

by Lana Lopesi

Across Moana-nui-a-kiwa we have witnessed many governments from many nations call upon the industrious labour forces from the Guangdong region of China. These labour forces filled vital yet non-glamorous roles that many nations were unable to fill with their own internal labour forces, such as long relentless hours labouring on various plantations, undoubtedly boosting many economies. Here in Aotearoa it was the gold rush of the 1860s that required this resilient labour force, with large Chinese gold mining settlements forming in southern Aotearoa in places such as Arrowtown and Cromwell.

Ceramic jar, China, c.1800s used by Chinese gold miners in New Zealand

Gift of Graham Sinclair, 1996© CCBY-NC-ND-4.0Te Papa

'Things Chinese'

While the Chinese gold miners that came to Aotearoa were quick to adopt outward Western technologies such as clothing and housing, they held on to their intrinsic beliefs and ways of doing things. These included religious preferences, philosophical attitudes, language, cuisine and food technologies and the belief in the superiority of 'things Chinese'.

With this stronghold of Chinese culture, Chinese gold miners continued to use many Chinese-made objects here in Aotearoa, with the majority of these objects being ceramics. Some of these objects included opium pipes, inkstones and other writing equipment, but the majority of the ceramics were vessels associated with the packaging, transport, storage, preparation, cooking or consumption of food.

Teapot, China, c.1800s, used by Chinese gold miners in New Zealand

Gift of Graham Sinclair, 1996© CCBY-NC-ND-4.0Te Papa

Ceramics and food

Food has played an important - if not central - part of Chinese culture. The records of Presbyterian missionary Rev. Alexander Don are full with comments on the effort that Chinese miners put into food preparation. One of these insights into Chinese culinary practices was the description of the foods laid out for a Chinese New Year feast, " … each table bore five or six bowls of accompaniments to the rice, one each of roast duck, roast fowl, roast and boiled pork and two of peas in pod, with cuttlefish and vermicelli."[1]

Traditional Chinese cooking utensils, along with foods, were imported in bulk shipments from China by Chinese merchant-entrepreneurs in Dunedin and then retailed through branch and other private stores on the goldfields. With most of the ceramics being imported from Guangzhou 广州市 and Shantou 汕头市.

The ceramics most commonly used by the gold miners were celadon wares 青瓷 and the 'four seasons' style. [2] Celadon describes a suite of porcelain tablewares with a distinctive blue-green glaze. Celadon-glazed porcelain has been made in China from as early as 800AD and was widely prized for its resemblance to jade. The celadon wares used by gold miners in Aotearoa are believed to have been manufactured principally in Shantou 汕头市.

Porcelain spoon, China, c.1900, used by Chinese gold miners in New Zealand

Gift of Graham Sinclair, 1995© CCBY-NC-ND-4.0Te Papa

Celadon wares

All celadon wares consist of a white porcelain body with the celadon over glaze. However, the glaze varies in hue, depending on its thickness and the amount of iron in it. Generally, it is thickest at the base of the vessels, and almost invariably the interior and underside are distinctively lighter; the only exception being the spoons. Celadon bowls also have a distinctive white colouration and general thinning of the glaze around the rims, probably reflecting the viscosity of the glaze. While the foot rings (including the oval base-ring of the spoons) were left unglazed to prevent the vessels from sticking together whilst stacked in the kiln. All celadon vessels tend to have a mark or seal executed in cobalt blue underglaze in the centre of the underside of the base.

libation cup, Cina, celadon glaze, c.1800, used by Chinese gold miners in New Zealand

Gift of Graham Sinclair, 1996© CCBY-NC-ND-4.0Te Papa, GH004379

Four seasons

The 'four seasons' pattern consists of painted flowers of the four seasons for example the winter plum representing winter; water lily representing summer; peony representing spring; and the chrysanthemum representing autumn which are all painted in over glaze enamel in the four quadrants.[3] The flowers are painted on the outside of bowls, tea and wine cups, and on the inside of the spoons and dishes. On all the forms, except the small wine cups, there is an additional round flower motif painted on the inside centre of each piece. On the underside of the base of most of the larger four seasons vessels, there is a red-stamped grid or the eternal knot. The glaze on this white porcelain generally has a slight greenish-blue hue and is rarely blemished.

bowl, glazed decoration, China, c.1800s used by Chinese gold miners in New Zealand

Gift of Graham Sinclair, 1996© CCBY-NC-ND 4.0Te Papa, GH004370


Header image: Photograph, Chinese gold miners and Reverend Alexander Don at the Kyeburn diggings, Otago. Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-019156-F

Crafting Aotearoa 

This article is part of a collection of 52 essays that form an online companion to the book, Crafting Aotearoa. Spanning three centuries of making and thinking in Aotearoa New Zealand and the wider Moana (Pacific), this book looks at the artistic practices that, at different times and for different reasons, have been described by the term craft. Crafting Aotearoa tells previously untold stories of craft in Aotearoa New Zealand, so that the connections, as well as the differences and tensions, can be identified and explored. This book proposes a new idea of craft – one that acknowledges Pākehā, Māori and wider Moana histories of making, as well as diverse community perspectives towards objects and their uses and meanings.

Edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai and Damian Skinner

Hardcover book published by Te Papa Press

RRP $94.00

Citation 

Lopesi, Lana. 'Chinese Gold Miner Keepsakes', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 11 11 2019.

Footnotes

[1] Rev Alexander Don, 'Our Chinese Mission', New Zealand Presbyterian, 1879.

[2] Neville A. Ritchie, ‘A Typology of Chinese Ceramics found in Central Otago’, Archaeology and History of the Chinese in Southern New Zealand During the Nineteenth Century: A Study of Acculturation, Adaption and Change (University of Otago: Dunedin), 1986. P. 207.

[3] Flowers Of The Four Seasons: The Fundamentals Of Chinese Floral Painting, Su-Sing Chow (in English and Mandarin Chinese). Art Book Publishing Co. (1983)

More information

Neville A. Ritchie, Archaeology and History of the Chinese in Southern New Zealand During the Nineteenth Century: A Study of Acculturation, Adaption and Change (University of Otago: Dunedin), 1986.

Manying Ip. Unfolding History, Evolving Identity: The Chinese in New Zealand, (Auckland University Press: Auckland), 2003.

Kerry Ann Lee. Home Made: Picturing Chinese Settlement in New Zealand, (Massey University: Wellington), 2008.

K Emma Ng. Old Asian, New Asian, (Bridget Williams Books: Wellington), 2017.

'Asia and New Zealand - Early contacts with Asia', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand