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China's missing ancestors finally honored in New Zealand


11:21, May 10, 2013

WELLINGTON, May 10 (Xinhua) -- When the steamer Ventnor sank off the coast of New Zealand's North Island in 1902, a Wellington newspaper listed its lost cargo in the language of the time as " 5347 tons of coal consigned to the Admiralty at Hongkong, 499 Chinese coffins, 144 sacks and 22 bales of fungus, one bale of tow and one bale of flax."

While the coal, fungus, tow and flax have long been lost to the sea, the fate of the 499 "Chinese coffins" has sparked a restless journey that spans the generations in two countries on opposite sides of the world.

"I wouldn't call them 'coffins' -- it would be more appropriate to describe them as 'coffin bone boxes' because they contained the bones of Chinese who had been disinterred and prepared for return to China," said Wong Liu Shueng, a third-generation Chinese New Zealander who is leading the search for the final resting places of the occupants.

The story began many years before the sinking of the Ventnor with the arrival of many Chinese "sojourners" over the later decades of the 19th Century. Leaving their families, these men traveled to New Zealand to work in the gold fields or to find other ways to make their fortunes before returning home.

"So many of those men got married and had a child, then came to New Zealand, and went back and had another child and returned to New Zealand," Wong said in a phone interview.

"They started off in the gold fields. My research shows gold mining wasn't for everybody -- very few of them got really lucky; very few of them gained any money from it. Those that got enough money, they went home back to China. Those who didn't like mining got another job -- they worked on the roads or railways or they opened shops."

And while they worked, they made regular payments to the Cheong Sing Tong welfare society, confident that these payments would cover the return of their remains to their families, who would ensure they were properly buried according to Chinese custom.

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