The south coast of the South Island is not an area commonly associated with gold-rushes, but in the 1880s it was the scene of New Zealand’s most distinctive Chinatown.
The Round Hill goldfield and its town Canton, named after the home province of most of its miners, boasted a population as high as 500. Visitors described the town as having a narrow street and alleyways flanked by a hotel and stores, tree fern, canvas and slab huts and fantan gambling halls and opium dens.
Thanks to Les McKay, some of this largely forgotten history is being recovered. The retired railways draughtsman, Labour Party candidate and restaurateur bought Midlands Farm near Colac Bay five years ago. He has painstakingly uncovered the workings of Chinese miners, turned a woolshed into a museum, and runs guided walks each weekend.
Midlands Farm is two kilometres east of the site of Canton at Round Hill, both on the lower slopes of the Longwood Range.
Tens of thousands of years ago, when sea levels were higher, fine, waterworn gold was deposited on the beaches. When the seas receded, a thin layer of gold-bearing black sand was left—now sandwiched between the clay bedrock and forest soils.
Such deposits were first worked in the 1860s on the beaches at Orepuki and Colac Bay, but claims further inland were soon abandoned because of the difficulties of working them.
Chinese miners arrived at Round Hill about 1871, and through labour-intensive methods started to produce good returns from the Round Hill field. Their community peaked in 1882, but by 1891 a London-backed mining syndicate had bought up most of the water rights, stifling the smaller ventures of the Chinese.
European mining companies sluiced vast areas, elevating the slurry to over 30 metres in pipes, and running it over long wooden tables covered in riffles and matting. Faced with this monopoly, some of the Chinese moved east to work claims on new land, now part of Midlands Farm.
In his museum, Les has salvaged clay soy sauce bottles, boot leather and rusting tools. He has historical photographs of the large-scale sluicing operations carried out at Round Hill and copies of claim documents for the much more modest workings on his farm.
On the farm, he has cleared stone walls from the forest undergrowth, and revealed mining shafts as deep as six metres, hand-dug, with steps down which miners would have climbed to try and pick up the gold-bearing black sands.
Les says that where such seams were found, water races were built and the earth sluiced away. The Chinese were masters of the art of using water, gained from centuries of practice, “They didn’t waste effort,” says Les. “They let the water do the work for them.”
Small dams were constructed to feed races dug only centimetres into the forest soils. They were so perfectly engineered that when Les cleared away the forest litter, water flowed just as it had done a century before.
Rocks were stacked as they were uncovered, and often used to protect the men working in the sluice pits. When the black sand was reached, slurry was carefully run through long tail races in the bedrock clay. Coconut matting and riffles were laid to trap the fine sand and gold. This was then washed in tubs, amalgamated with mercury, then retorted to recover the precious metal.
The miners would have worked their claims during the week and returned to their lodgings in Canton on the weekends. Les has found seven camp sites, each with a perfectly flat and compacted base, the remains of a stone chimney, and a rubbish heap of old bottles, crockery and discarded household items. Huts were made out of ponga ferns and plastered with clay slurry.
An examination of mining documents has shown that four Chinese men usually worked a claim for two or three years. Then it was transferred to another four miners. The departing men sold their gold and took British sovereigns back to their wives and families in China. Only a few miners stayed to become longterm residents of the district.
The highlight of Les’s guided tour (above) is a demonstration of the water works. He opens a board at the side of a dam, letting the water snake its way through the race. It is diverted at a series of gates, cascades over the lip of a sluice pit, runs between rock walls and through a channel in the clay.
Canton, New Zealand, has long since disappeared under bulldozers and pasture, but here is an intact reminder of Chinese enterprise and a community all but forgotten.