Monday, June 6, 2011

The resurrectionists

With an air of what would appear to us today, more than a century later, as classic Victorian-Edwardian Gothic horror dripping from his words, a reporter from the Auckland Star on 29 September 1902 wrote:

Time, 5.30 a.m., on a bitterly cold morning, in Waikumete Cemetery. Half-frozen, a pressman and a photographer attached to the staff of the "Graphic" make their way from the sexton's house to the furthermost corner of the cemetery, where is situated the section for Chinese and Atheists and aliens unprovided for elsewhere. A noise of hammering comes from the section, which is a good half - mile from the Anglican and Presbyterian allotments, and on arrival work found to be in full operation.

The reception of our reporter and his photographic confrere is the reverse of friendly, and an immediate wrangle ensues amongst the gravediggers, evidently on the subject of the camera fiend's presence. A Chinese halfcaste European insists on their instant ejectment. The sexton, however, who has been handed proper credentials, proves a firm friend, and insists that he, and not any Chinaman or half-caste Chinaman, is in change of the cemetery, and that he has his instructions. Things then calm down a trifle, but the work is resumed amidst much grumbling, and many vindictive and malignant glances are cast at the camera, and muttered curses uttered at the photographer as he dodges round looking for a chance shot. Once, indeed, when the shutter clicks, a furious celestial raises his pick in menace, and mutters a threat to do for the intruders, but he thinks better of it, and at the intervention of the European coffinmaker a truce is declared until arrival of "the boss." That individual presently arrives. He scans the permit gloomily enough, and bids that the photos be taken forthwith, and the photographer and pressman depart. It being pointed out that there is no picture yet to take, and seeing that bluff has no effect, all active opposition as at once and finally dropped, and no difficulty put in the way of obtaining pictures or witnessing the proceedings save in giving mendacious information, lighting fires to obscure the graves with smoke, and endeavouring to tire out the patience of the reporters, etc.

By ten o'clock four graves, are opened, but owing to the non-arrival of some solder and zinc from Auckland it is decided to open only two coffins on this occasion. The first of these contained the corpse of one Kong Shang, who died in 1891, a young Celestial of 36. It was thought that there would be nothing but dry bones there, but the stiff white clay is evidently a preservative for when the coffin, which is full of water, is .opened, it is seen that the bones have a decided covering of what had once been flesh, and though drenched in carbolic acid a sickening odour makes itself felt at intervals. Directly an attempt is made to stir the body it all falls to pieces, the decomposed flesh falling off in almost imperceptible flakes, which had doubtless been dust had the grave been dry. Very carefully the impassive Chinaman in the grave rinses and unconcernedly places on a sieve a thigh bone, then some ribs, and a skull, followed by the rest of the bones, minute search, indescribable in print, being made for the smaller bones and joints. It is an intensely gruesome spectacle, and the horror is added to by the indifference to sight and smell or sentiment evinced by the Celestial workmen.

The venerable clerk, a fine old fellow, with the face of an ascetic and a student, carefully tallies the bones which, having been rescoured in a large white tub, are finally dried and wrapped up, each duly docketed by the methodical old gentleman, who is evidently a most conscientious and probably deeply religious man. He, too, is fastidiously clean, and does not, one notes, eat as the others do in the midst of their noisome labours.

The next body is that of a man who must have been of exceptional stature and weight for a Chinaman, and who has been dead but two years and a-half. There is much difficulty in getting this coffin to the surface, and the opening thereof, and the awful stench which completely dominated all disinfectants when the body was removed to the zinc one prepared by the European tinsmith beggars description, and may be left to the imagination. None of those whose duty called them to be present are likely to forget the experience, or to desire a renewal of the same. The soldering having been completed, it must be admitted no effluvia was discernable. The zinc coffin was then put in a rude case and packed in sawdust ready for shipment. There is no reason to think the zinc coffins will not prove effective and inoffensive under ordinary circumstances and careful usage, but a fall or any accident in loading would, one imagines, have very disastrous effects.

The work ceased at noon to-day. Mr Wm. Stanley, Government Sanitary Inspector, is present., and looks after his work in so thorough a manner that no fears need be entertained by settlers or the general public. The pictures secured 'by the "Graphic" photographer are of a unique nature and the most gruesome details having been omitted, are quite without offence. They will be published on Wednesday. The custom of the Chinese at home is to .disinter bodies after seven years, and place the main bones in a large jar alongside the grave. It is in order to forward the bones to China for relatives to do this that the present exporting of remains is undertaken. 
The remains removed from Auckland's Waikumete Cemetery that chill day ended up among the between 499-584 (numbers quoted vary) zinc coffins loaded onto the Ventnor for the journey home to China. Although scarce if any mention is made of the fact that the remains of Auckland Chinese were on board when the ship foundered and sank off the Hokianga coast in October 1902.

This ill-fated cargo was the second of two great waves of exhumation of Chinese remains from New Zealand's cemeteries up and down the country, Waikumete the main site of the spectacle amongst others in the region, the rest mainly in the South Island and Wellington. The first, over the course of late 1882 to early 1883, was organised by Choie Sew Hoy, a noted Dunedin merchant, and others in the Cheong Shing Tong Society, a benevolent organisation which aimed to raise funds to send the old, the sick from the Panyu district back home, and remains to be re-interred. As at 2002, this society still existed in Wellington, according to this article (pdf) on Southern lodges.

Sanction from the Colonial Secretary, the equivalent of today's Minister of Internal Affairs, was obtained back in 1882, and the resurrectionists were sent out to each cemetery known to contain to remains of the men of Panyu. It was said that each body earned the resurrectionists £10 for their grim work, described thus  January 1883 by the Tuapeka Times (reprinted in the Christchurch Star, 24 January):

The Chinese have now nearly finished the work of exhumation of the bodies of their Celestial brethren. The modus operandi pursued is to gather together the bones of each consumed corpse into a calico bag, thereafter enclosing the same in a cornsack and putting a label thereon, so as to show the identity of the bones, four of these bags being put into a leaden coffin and afterwards enclosed in a wooden one. Unconsumed bodies are put each into a leaden coffin and afterwards into a wooden box, the leaden coffins being all well soldered together, and the wooden ones firmly screwed down. A number of professional Chinese resurrectionists who, it is said, get £10 for every body resurrected, have been engaged, and these carry on the work of manipulating the remains in an apparently nonchalant and unconcerned manner, the sight to any stranger, especially of delicate nervous organisation, being anything but a pleasant one. The coffins which had formerly held the dead are all burned.
Other sources stated earnings of £4 to £5 per week for the resurrectionists, when the average wage for a labourer was more like £2 if they were lucky. Enough for an "enormous fortune" for the workers, to enable them to return to China themselves (alive). How much of that speculation is based on fact is unknown.

One set of remains, that of Ah Chook, had somehow ended up at the university in Dunedin (University of Otago?) What seems to me to be an astoundingly insensitive letter from a lawyer supposedly representing the local Chinese to the university was published as part of an article in the Otago Daily Times, 8 February 1883.
As may naturally be expected some difficulty has attended the prosecution of these operations, and it is to to be feared that in some cases mistakes may even have occurred. The possibility of such a contretemps is especially suggested by the case of one Ah Chook, whose remains, if report speaks truly, were utilised for certain anatomical purposes at the University here. The fact of the University being mentioned as his last resting-place, however, fortunately suggested no ideas but those of ordinary burial to the minds of the resurrectionists, and to satisfy their natural anxiety the following rather amusing letter was addressed to the authorities by a well-known solicitor whose services were retained in the matter:—

"The almond-eyed bearer of this epistle has undertaken to achieve the translation of sundry defunct kinsmen to the happy land of Pon-Yu, province of Canton. Some slumbered in the Northern and some in the Southern Cemetery, but they have all been  raised," and now lie (strongly bound in teak) awaiting their departure per sailing ship. But one of the band is missing, and his brethren cannot leave him to languish alone in the land of the barbarian. It is fondly fancied that he is "bellied" at the University, but I more than suspect that his mortal remains have been sacrificed on the altar of science. He was known in the days of his flesh as Ah Chook and laboured in his vocation as a peripatetic vendor of vegetables, humble but happy, with a pronounced taste for opium and petty larceny. But de mortuis, &c. He is now a copper-coloured shade, haunting the purlieus of the University and the adjacent sewer in a fruitless search for the disjecta, or rather the dissecta membra, of his whilom self. Pray hand over to bearer as much of the late Mr Chook as is still on the premises, and for mercy's sake maintain the pious fiction of the "bellial" at the University. p.s.—I may add that the bones are essentials, and further, that the average Chinaman is not an anatomist. Verb. sap."

Whether or no the seekers in this instance have been provided with any bones answering to their ideas of their deceased friend we are not in a position to say, but the above affords an example of some of the difficulties with which the indefatigable Celestials have had to contend.
Temporary morgues were erected to store the bodies, awaiting the final collecting together in the chartered ship to take them home, the morgues termed Golgothas by the morbidly fascinated colonial press. A morbid fascination that extended to disgust expressed in some comments, such as that by the Clutha Leader's "Mudlark" correspondent, 23 February 1883:
Being a part of their religion, we will not twit the bland stranger, for we respect devoutness even in a Chinaman. The Chinese Resurrectionist is the man who exhumes the remains, and scrapes the bones clean. That's all. Viola tout! I was invited to see one of these unclean Ghouls at work, but not being of a morbid temperament, I resolutely declined without thanks. My anatomically inclined friend would, however, persist in giving me a minute description of the revolting modus operandi of the Chinese Resurrectionist, when pursuing his lucrative but filthy and unnatural calling. I am not going to reproduce the description. Hang it! No. But that to scrape the bones clean is what he is paid for doing is a fact. I merely give you an outline; fill it in, my reader, if you can. I could, but I will not. I wonder how these repulsive Molochs live! Can they have any associates. Certainly they should not have any. They should be in perpetual quarantine, else they will breed moral and physical pestilence. I am neither superstitious nor weak stomached, but I would not like to be within telescopic range of a Chinese Resurrectionist. I have persistently argued that the Chinese should not be allowed entrance to this Colony without paying very dearly for the privilege. And my arguments are very sound ones, although I am not going to repeat them here. But this is a coup de grace. A people who can procure and employ human bone scrapers should be compelled to live where they could exercise their little religious peculiarities without giving dire offence to others. After this, I'm dead nuts on Chinamen. 
The Timaru Herald, 6 June 1883, questioned how the Government could possibly allow the cemeteries to be "ransacked for dead Chinamen", describing the project as a "commercial speculation" involving "profit from his pious kinsman" by the agent concerned, claiming that (I imagine they meant Choie Sew Hoy) stood to somehow "profit" by retaining half of an estimated £6000 raised by the Society. The Herald poured scorn on the Colonial Secretary, the so-called profiteers, the resurrectionists, and anyone else the editor felt had offended public taste for disturbing the dead.

All the fuss in 1883 was over a shipment collected together of around 200 remains from the cemeteries. The 1902 operation involved more than twice the number, from up to 40 cemeteries.

Around March 1902, the process began again. This time, it was Choie Sew Hoy's son Kum Poy Sew Hoy, leader of the Chong Shing Tong Society from his father's death in 1901, who helped organise the subscription campaign which, some sources said at the time, raised around £20,000. The relatives of the deceased back in China were expected to pay the equivalent of 30/- per set of remains. An interesting point according to the reports -- everyone re-entering China had to pay a £20 penalty. The subscriptions helped to defray that cost. (Auckland Star, 27 September 1902)

It wasn't until August that strong feelings were expressed in the newspapers -- with the Clyde correspondent to the Otago Witness (6 August) not exactly mincing words:
Desecrating Our Cemetery.
About a week back our cemetery was the scene of a gruesome and scandalous practice enacted by some Chinese body gatherers who, without protestation on the part of our Cemetery Trust, proceeded to raise the remains of their unoffending dead for the purpose of transferring the bones to the land of pagodas. Is it right that such a heathenish custom should be tolerated by our civilisation? Is it not our bounden duty to protect the resting places of those who have died amongst us, and to see to it that those graves are not desecrated in the pursuance of a heathen rite which we loathe? The custom has its insanitary side, as may be imagined. The remains arc raised to the surface, the bones, scraped of all remaining muscular tissue, are tied in separate bundles, labelled, and consigned to a box fitted for their reception. The discarded fleshy and muscular parts are thrown aside, and mingle with the earth, which is subsequently restored to its former place. Where the desecrated grave is refilled much of the decomposed flesh and muscular tissue remains upon the surface, and in the ordinary way is blown about as it becomes dust under the sweltering heat of summer. The great danger to the health of the community is evident. And we tolerate the custom that would [infect?] our homes with disease, and fill our atmosphere with living organisms of filth, the inhalation of which might bring untold misery and suffering amongst our happy and contented people. Why was not our local Board of Health consulted before this gruesome rite was allowed to be enacted? I am told the Cemetery Trust had instructions from the Colonial Treasurer to permit the desecration; but I say here that such instructions did not warrant permission being given by the Cemetery Trust, the members of which might have been equal to exercising their powers to prevent the filthy rite taking place beside the sacred resting place of their friends and little ones.
I gather that there were really strong feelings against the Chinese community in Clutha and Clyde at the time. Even though one of the most iconic images from the Chinese gold prospecting days here in New Zealand came from that region.

By August, much of the work have been done in terms of disinterring the dead and storing them in depots awaiting the arrival of the SS Ventnor from Java, contracted to carry the remains to China. The main contractor for the disinterments was identified by the Auckland Star (26 September 1902) as Mee Chang, an elderly man from Wellington, in turn employed by one Ding Chong.

Image from Wreck Site.

The SS Ventnor was virtually a brand spanking-new cargo steamer, an excellent choice for the important project.
The steamer Ventnor arrived from Java this morning,and anchored in the stream. She brings a large cargo of raw sugar, and will berth at the Chelsea Wharf tomorrow morning to discharge. She is quite a new steamer, having been built as recently as 1901 at Port Glasgow by Messrs Russel and Co. for the Ventnor Steamship Company. The vessel is an iron steamer of 3960 tons gross register, and her principal dimensions are: Length 344 ft, beam 49ft, depth (loaded) 29ft. The master is Captain H. G. Ferry, and with him are associated the following deck officers:—Chief, J. Cameron; second, Q. Lamson. The chief engineer is M. McCash. The master reports .-'The Ventnor left Java on September 10, and had fine weather to entering the Torres Straits, thence strong south-east winds and heavy seas until the New Zealand coast was, sighted at the Poor Knights yesterday, followed by thick, rainy weather down the coast to arrival as above. The Ventnor will remain in port about nine days, sailing hence for Newcastle and the East. It has been also arranged that the steamer will convey to China the disinterred Chinese bodies from the Waikumete Cemetery.
Auckland Star, 2 October 1902

On Saturday evening the steamer Ventnor will leave here for Hongkong, carrying 554 coffins containing the bodies and bones of Chinamen who have died in a foreign country which are being taken to a last sleeping-place in their Motherland to satisfy the demands of their religion and a wish natural to men of all nationalities. Most of the dead that are being taken away were members of the Chong Shin Tong Society. The agreement between the society and the agents for the charterers provides that a health certificate, as required by law, and all necessary permits to land the coffins at Hongkong, shall be obtained by the society. The coffins are not to be transhipped or disturbed after leaving Wellington under a penalty of £1000, unless such transhipment or disturbance shall be rendered necessary by perils of the sea or unavoidable accident. They must be carried on the 'tween decks of the steamer, which have been fitted for this purpose, tier upon tier, and heads to the bow. Practically the coffins are all placed in pigeon holes, space being left for the body servants, of which there are six, to walk between and perform rites pertaining to the religion of Confucius. The coffins of the dead outside of the Chong Shin Tong Society have to be stored apart from others, and there are separate compartments for the casket in which is the body of Sew Hoy, a former prominent Dunedin merchant. His son, Mr. Kum Boy Sew Hoy, will superintend the stowage of his father's coffin. He is secretary of the Chong Shin Tong Society, and has been the leading spirit in the shipment of his dead countrymen. He was educated at the Dunedin University, he is a cultured scholar, and speaks English fluently.

Capt Ferry, commander of the Ventnor,  has been employed in the transhipment of Chinese bodies from various places in the East, and his vessel is one of very few which has been permitted by the Chong Shin Tong Society to fly the Dragon flag. 
 Auckland Star, 23 October 1902

According to New Zealand Shipwrecks (2007), the Ventnor left Wellington at 9.30am on 26 October bound for Hong Kong. At 12.40 am on 27 October, the ship struck a rock off Cape Egmont, somewhere near Opunake. Despite the action of pumps, and immediate reversing off the reef, the ship continued to take on water. On the morning of the 28th, the situation became dire, and by the evening the bow was too far under water for the ship to remain manageable. She sank off the Hokianga Heads.  13 lives were lost, including that of Captain Ferry, and there were 24 survivors. The steamer, along with the coffins, carried 5357 tons of Westport coal, valued at £4500.

Nigel Sew Hoy, great great great grandson of Choie Sew Hoy, wrote in 2007 that:

"When Kum Poy Sew Hoy received the sad news, he immediately engaged people to search the area. A canvas bag of bones was found washed up on Ninety Mile Beach in the Far North. This was sent to China as the only remains. The rest (of) Ventnor's unusual cargo was not recovered.

"A court of inquiry ruled that the Captain had been negligent and incompetent and responsible for the wreck because of his poor navigation around Cape Egmont. 

"Some time later some coffins were rumored to have floated ashore and to have been buried by the local iwi."
So the story of the ill-fated second great journey of the Chinese dead from New Zealand to China in 1902 is forever linked in terms of history now with the beautiful Mitimiti Beach, here illustrated on the Kamira Whanau website.


  1. Fascinating ...macabre but it's given the story at last to the background for the story of the Vetnor sinking. Great post!

  2. wow.. and there is more to come??
    excellent research.. .. david wong hop june 7th

  3. How utterly fascinating! You know me and death related subjects :)) Awesome post Lisa!

    As an aside, i found that the name of the ship 'Ventnor' intriguing. My great grandfather's sister Belle JOHNSTON 1878-1951, [according to correspondence] - ran a large private hotel in Devonport called 'The Ventnor' at 5 King Edward Parade. It was bought by the Navy for use as a Wrenry.


  4. Cheers! The hotel, and the ship, may have been named after Ventnor on the Isle of Wight in England -- "North Wind"? "Wrenry" -- there's a word I hadn't heard or seen before, yet because of Mum telling me about WRENs and war, I knew what you meant, Sandy! :-)