In 1865, following the departure of thousands of European miners for goldfields in Marlborough and the West Coast, the Otago Provincial Council invited Chinese miners working on the Victorian goldfields in Australia, to rework the Otago goldfields.
Most of the Chinese miners originated from Kwangtung Province in South China – an area which had social turmoil caused by the opium wars, over-population, poverty, banditry, clan fighting, natural disasters and epidemics. There were many incentives to emigrate, and gold provided the stimulus.
There have been three phases of Chinese settlement in New Zealand. The first period covers 1865 to 1900, when the Chinese regarded themselves as temporary visitors seeking gold. They tended to have little interaction with Europeans.
The second phase covers the period from 1900 to 1952 when they were regarded as aliens in the land, and were occupied principally on market gardens, fruit shops or laundries. The last phase from 1952 relates to their present assimilation and increasing absorption into the general New Zealand community.
The first Chinese arrived in Cromwell via Dunedin in 1866, some four years after the founding of the township. They initially set up camp near Gibraltar Rock in the Cromwell Gorge, but by 1870 some Chinese storekeepers had established themselves at the upper end of Cromwell’s main street, Melmore Terrace on the banks of the Kawarau River. This gradually formed the nucleus of Cromwell’s ‘Chinatown’. The business sector included general stores, grog shops, gaming rooms, and at least one brothel. A substantial Chinese market garden was established across the road. The largely wooden stores and businesses were deserted by the turn of the century and were demolished in 1930.
Before the remains of Chinatown were destroyed to make way for Lake Dunstan behind the Clyde Dam, the site was the best preserved example of a New Zealand Chinese urban settlement.
Cemetery records indicate the last Chinese burial in Cromwell was in 1924 – probably representing the end of the Cromwell Chinese era.
Cromwell’s Chinatown was excavated in 1980 by a team of archaeologists from the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. The site was programmed for destruction as part of the lakeshore works associated with the formation of Lake Dunstan.