Lawrence Chinese Camp

116 Lawrence-Beaumont Highway (State Highway 8), Lawrence

  • Lawrence Chinese Camp, Lawrence, with the Joss House in the foreground and the Chinese Empire Hotel to the rear .
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Heather Bauchop. Date: 28/02/2017.
  • Lawrence Chinese Camp, Lawrence. Chinese Empire Hotel (c.1884). Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Phil Braithwaite. Taken By: PhilBee NZ - Phil Braithwaite. Date: 28/10/2015.
  • Lawrence Chinese Camp, Lawrence, from the adjacent cycle trail, showing interpretation panel.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Heather Bauchop. Date: 5/11/2017.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 7526 Date Entered 12th September 2003 Date of Effect 19th March 2019 Date of Last Review 21st February 2019


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Secs 20, 28, 30-53 Blk XX Tuapeka SD (RT 779160), part of the land described as Sec 82 Block XX Tuapeka East SD (RT OT6C/692), Otago Land District and the place known as Lawrence Chinese Camp thereon. The List entry includes the former Chinese Empire Hotel and stables, Poon-Fah Joss House and roads bounded by these land parcels. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the List entry report for further information.)

City/District Council

Clutha District


Otago Region

Legal description

Secs 20, 28, 30-53 Blk XX Tuapeka SD (RT 779160) and Sec 82 Block XX Tuapeka East SD (RT OT6C/692), Otago Land District


The site of the Lawrence Chinese Camp is a vital part of the history of Chinese miners in Otago. It housed around 500 Chinese miners, and their associated businesses at its peak, and was an essentially Chinese community in a largely European world. It represents the important gold mining period in the history of New Zealand and the culturally distinct Chinese experience within that. Archaeologically-speaking it is still relatively undisturbed and could provide an excellent place to discover and interpret this under-represented aspect of the Chinese past in New Zealand.

Throughout 1866 there was a small steady flow of Chinese hopefuls entering Otago in pursuit of gold. By 1867 around 1200 Chinese miners were established on the goldfields. By 1870 there were 100-300 Chinese in each of the townships of Arrowtown, Naseby, Macraes, Lawrence, Waipori, Nevis, and Bannockburn. In Lawrence the town council passed a by-law in 1867 limiting Chinese shops and dwellings to ‘Chinaman Flat’, a swampy area of land 1.2 kilometres north of the town. By making such a law Lawrence was copying by-laws passed in Victoria, although it was the only Otago town to do so. Historian James Ng describes Lawrence Chinese Camp as a ‘conglomeration of huts, stores, gambling dens, a hotel, lodging houses and a public hall or Joss House.’ By 1883 there were 60-70 residents in the camp.

The Chinese miners established their own community institutions, including what Europeans called a ‘Joss House.’ An interpretation panel at the Lawrence Chinese Camp notes that the ‘New Zealand Chinese called a joss house a ‘public hall’, because it had a front room for meetings, and at least one smaller back room which had an altar to departed spirits. The front room also served pre-terminally ill patients. This important nursing function was probably the reason why the Poon-Fah Joss House was rebuilt, since the period had many aging Chinese miners. From 2005, a series of four areal archaeological excavations provided detail about the foundations of some buildings and structures such as drains and road alignments, and revealed some artefacts for analysis. In 2007, a geophysical survey showed that there were potential structures and features not shown on earlier survey plans.

The earliest joss house at the Chinese camp had two panels with Chinese characters. One says: ‘People talking and laughing as kinsmen’, the other says: ‘People coming and going are all close friends.’ The first house was known as the Naam-Shun Joss House and was built in 1869. A second joss house was also located within the camp, but its location has not yet been verified. The current building, the Poon-Fah Joss House was built around 1899.

By the close of the 1920s, only a few elderly men resided at the camp. It was officially abandoned in 1945 and most of the remaining buildings demolished. In 1947, Poon-Fah Joss House was relocated to 12 Maryport Street in Lawrence as a holiday house for its Dunedin owners. The Poon Fah Joss House was returned to its original site in late 2016.

In 2017, the Lawrence Chinese Camp remains a significant reminder of the lives of Chinese gold miners in Otago.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The site of the Chinese Camp at Lawrence has special historical value. It represents an essential aspect of Chinese experience of goldfield's life in Otago, providing insight into this culturally important part of New Zealand history. The site is a rare survivor of this type from this period; another important Chinese camp at Cromwell was drowned by the hydro-lake, Lake Dunstan, created by the Clyde Dam – other sites of Chinese settlement in Otago have also been extensively damaged or destroyed. The return of the Joss House to its original site has made this already extant site an even more important remnant of the past.

Chinese miners' lives in goldfields Otago has taken on an iconic status mainly associated with the image of lone old men at the decline of the goldfields. The Chinese Camp site provides the opportunity to interpret aspects of Chinese life as a community.

The former hotel, associated outbuilding and the Poon Fah Joss House are the only buildings left associated with the site. The buildings and the archaeological remains provide insight into a diversity of experience, from relatively wealthy (and accepted by Europeans) hotel owner Sam Chiew Lain to the modest hut site remains in the township. The camp also provides a link with stories about Chinese miners and connections between the camp and life on the surrounding goldfields.

Archaeological Significance or Value

The site of the Lawrence Chinese Camp has outstanding archaeological significance. According to contemporary survey plans there were around 32 small buildings of various types on site, as well as the hotel. Archaeologically it appears to have never been ploughed or disturbed significantly, making this an incredibly important archaeological site. The major areas of modern disturbance in the main "camp paddock" are outside the main camp area (judged by using overlay of 1882 plan on archaeological plan). Taking into account a relatively low level of disturbance and the partial excavation of the site by archaeological methods, the archaeological information of this site can be used to tell the story of an entire community. The value of this should not be underestimated as it has enormous archaeological potential for research, interpretation and public interpretation – previous excavations dating from 2005 revealed the rich potential of the site.

Up until late-2016, when the Joss House was returned to its original site, the former Chinese Empire Hotel and associated outbuilding are the only buildings left on the site of the Camp. Both of these buildings are considered archaeological sites in their own right under the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014, but also are considered to have archaeological significance for the purpose on entry onto the New Zealand Heritage List in that they are able to provide information on their methods of construction and the peoples by whom they were built, using archaeological methods. The hotel was designed by a prominent Dunedin architect and is a rare Otago example of such a building built on this scale in a rural setting for a Chinese client. While it is not outstanding architecturally, particularly given its later modification into a residential building, its position in the Chinese Camp, and as a mixing place for the Chinese and European clients, makes it significant.

The camp's site on poor quality land on the outskirts of town makes a significant statement about European attitudes to the Chinese miners during the goldrush period. Its location has significance in the landscape of Lawrence as a whole (as a community exiled from the township).

Cultural Significance or Value

The Chinese Camp has significance as a largely Chinese community within the European surrounds of Lawrence. It was a place where Chinese culture predominated, providing support for the wider Chinese goldfields population in the vicinity. It is a place where Europeans largely entered on Chinese terms and the history and images associated with it provide an interesting insight into the relationships and attitudes between the two communities.

Interpretation and research into the stories associated with the site would provide important insight into this aspect of the social and cultural past, as well as an opportunity to help people to understand the intersection between cultures in New Zealand's past and present. The return of the Poon-Fah Joss House in 2016 adds to the cultural value of the camp.

Social Significance

The Lawrence Chinese Camp has social significance to both the Lawrence community and more widely, to the Chinese community. The active community involvement is seen through the events held at the Camp and by through funding, such as that provided by the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust for projects at the camp. The camp is owned by the Lawrence Chinese Camp Charitable Trust, chaired by the well-regarded historian Dr Ng, who have demonstrated their own esteem for the site by bringing the Joss House back, restoring it and adding interpretation panels.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history

The Lawrence Chinese Camp is of special historical value and is an important part of New Zealand history as the most intact site of its kind that reflects the experience of Chinese miners in Otago. The camp represents an important opportunity to work towards understanding the dynamics of the goldfields, and the mix of the European and Chinese efforts that went into creating these places and the effects that this had on the community of Chinese immigrants, both at the time and during their subsequent history.

c) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of New Zealand history

Lawrence Chinese Camp has the special potential to provide further knowledge of New Zealand history through archaeological methods. The majority of the site is intact, with previous archaeological excavations commencing in 2005 and a geophysical survey in 2007 showing a wealth of information and potential analysis that could be undertaken at this site. This is especially true when compared with other Chinese settlement sites in New Zealand, which have been extensively damaged, excavated or inappropriately modified.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place

The Lawrence Chinese Camp is the subject of considerable esteem from the existing Chinese community in New Zealand. The purchase of the Lawrence Chinese Camp site and the relocation of the Poon Fah Joss House back to its original location was supported by the Lawrence Chinese Camp Charitable Trust, The Chinese Poll Tax Trust, the Community Trust of Otago and the Clutha District Council, and watched with interest by the local community. The support shows the strong community association and public esteem in which the place is held.

(f) The potential of the place for public education

The Lawrence Chinese Camp has considerable potential to educate the public about the lives of Chinese goldminers in nineteenth century Otago. The history of the Lawrence Chinese Camp is already interpreted through various panels which provide historical and photographic information.

(h) The symbolic or commemorative value of the place

The Lawrence Chinese Camp – including the surviving buildings (The Poon-Fah Joss House and the Chinese Empire Hotel) - both symbolises and commemorates the lives and community of the Chinese miners who lived in the Lawrence Chinese Camp. Its continued use by the Chinese community, especially the involvement of prominent Chinese historian, Dr James Ng, as a place of education for all New Zealanders into the conditions suffered by their forebears is testament to this.

(j)The importance of identifying rare types of historic places

Lawrence Chinese Camp is a rare surviving example of a Chinese Camp site associated with the gold rush and gold mining period in Otago’s history. The presence of the Poon-Fah Joss House adds to the rarity value of the camp; current research has identified this building to be New Zealand’s only surviving Joss House.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural area

The Lawrence Chinese Camp is part of the wider archaeological landscape of Lawrence and surrounds, including the nearby Lawrence Chinese Graves Historic Area, Lawrence Cemetery. This landscape makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the lives of Chinese miners in nineteenth century Otago.

Summary of Significance

The site of the Lawrence Chinese Camp has special significance as a key location in the history of Chinese miners in Otago. At its peak, the camp was home to around 500 Chinese miners and their associated businesses. The camp represents the lives of an essentially Chinese community segregated from the European world. The camp represents the culturally distinct Chinese experience on the goldfields. Archaeologically-speaking it is relatively undisturbed – with only part of the camp excavated – and has potential to interpret this under-represented aspect of the Chinese past in New Zealand.


Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

This historic area was registered under the Historic Places Act 1993. The following text is from the original Historic Area Registration Proposal report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration, and during a susequent review conformed by the Heritage New Zealand Board on 21 February 2019.

History of the Area:

The Otago Gold Rushes:

The Otago gold rushes followed on the heels of the Californian rushes of the late 1840s and early 1850s and the Australian rushes of the mid to late 1850s. Many miners followed the gold finds around the Pacific, bringing the knowledge, technology and experience of previous fields. Such is true of some of both the European and Chinese miners; the Chinese arriving later and working the abandoned claims of their predecessors.

There had been reports of the presence of gold in the Otago Province throughout the 1850s, which met with official suspicion and discouragement, the establishment wanting to maintain the calm of the Province. The first substantial and unavoidable gold find in Otago in June 1861 was made by Gabriel Read, an Australian with mining experience in California. The discovery of what became known as Gabriels Gully marks the establishment of gold mining in Otago. According to John Salmon the:-

"surging influx of amateur and professional prospectors that followed led in turn to other major rushes, until the feverish individual quest for gold became transformed into the capitalist industry that for a half a century provided a large proportion, and for years a major part, of annual New Zealand exports"

The early rushes were responsible for a dramatic increase in population and a change in economic balance from the North to the South Island. Rising gold production stimulated internal commerce and provided a new market for pastoral products. The rushes occurred at a time when much of the South Island seemed likely to remain divided into vast sheep runs controlled by absentee capitalists and a squatter aristocracy. The clash of interests between miner and squatter determined the "dissolution of the great estates, and the replacement of their hierarchical societies by small landowners, many of them former miners".

The influx of miners followed new discoveries around the Province - Tuapeka, Dunstan (declared 23 September 1862), Wakatipu and the Taieri. There were no formed roads nor bridges, miners carried heavy swags or drew hand carts creating new economic opportunities for accommodation, packers and storekeepers on the fields. The rushes revealed the pattern of Californian and Victorian experience '...the pioneers had made their discoveries, and the tide of raw locals and overseas professionals had flooded the field they had established. The tide began gradually to seep through the barriers of apathy and scepticism, and then became transformed into an irresistible wave which swamped the facilities created by the early arrivals. Many of the disillusioned returned to their former vocations; others stayed on as a restless jetsam following the surge from one field to the next. The true prospectors spread out from the overcrowded fields, and their occasional successes, magnified and distorted by popular rumour, and sedulously cultivated by commercial interests, promoted further mass movements'.

During the months of July to December 1861 the population of Otago rose from less than 13,000 to more than 30,000 people, more than half of the inf1ux coming from Australia.

Run holders were compensated for their leases being declared goldfields. None of this land was at once opened for agriculture or close settlement. The Goldfields Act of 1860 made no proper provision for permanent settlement, but Secretary of the Goldfields Vincent Pyke eventually won approval to offer leases on 10 acre sections for seven years. The majority of miners however remained a "rootless population, ready to move off to better fields". The blocks were too small to be attractive and held no right of purchase. According to John Salmon even the restricted areas available in the mining towns for business sites were leasehold only under the Goldfields Act and the denial of freehold rights prevented substantial building.

In late 1862 miners flocked to the Dunstan and to new discoveries in the Carrick and Old Man Ranges - Conroy's, Butchers' and Blackman's. Others went to Nokomai, near the southern tip of Lake Wakatipu, and the Nevis River. At the headwaters of the Waikaia River a field was declared, known as Potter's. The rush to the Arrow and Shotover began in late 1863 and a field was opened at Cardrona around the same time. By the end of 1863 the peak of the Dunstan and Wakatipu rushes ended at a time of particularly harsh weather, which resulted in a large loss of life on the isolated fields. The last major Otago rush was on the Taieri in 1863-1864.

By 1869 the Otago fields were more settled. Seven goldfields were defined Tuapeka, Dunstan, Teviot (or Mt Benger), Nokomai, Wakatipu, Mt Ida and Taieri. Each had its own warden and administrative staff. In every rush there were some who stayed behind and worked their claims on the established fields, gaining a small steady return for a time.

Interaction between the demands of the miner, small farmer and pastoralist were a characteristic of the goldfields. The conflicts helped shape the land policies and the administration of the goldfields as the various interests lobbied for the policies that best suited their requirements.

The arrival of the Chinese miners on the fields in the mid 1860s, in the wake of the European rushes, also caused political and social reaction - often amounting to intolerance and persecution. The Chinese experience is examined in more detail in a following section.

As the gold returns decreased into the 1870s and 1880s other industries developed. Along with sheep raising, wheat growing was established as a staple crop from the 1870s. In the Dunstan area miners used old water races as irrigation channels to establish orchards throughout the district. The shanties of the gold rushes were replaced by more substantial buildings and the face of the towns of Central Otago developed.

The smaller returns for individual miners forced a change in gold mining technology. Ground and hydraulic sluicing took over from the cradle and pan. Ground sluicing involved cutting water races from a distant creek to bring water to a point above a claim. Water was usually accumulated in a storage dam overnight, from where it was conveyed to the work site by canvas or steel pipes. Such sluicing involved "disaggregating alluvial terrace margins by saturating the ground, then breaking it up with picks and shovels". Hydraulic sluicing required more head (water pressure). The work face of the claim was "broken down with a high impact water jet directed from a moveable nozzle". The gold was recovered by directing the water-borne mixture of soil, stones and gold down a channel. Gold was collected in sluice boxes (riffles) located in the base of a channel while other detritus was discharged downslope or into an adjacent river or stream.

As returns decreased individual miners were replaced by organised companies with capital backing. Capital intensive quartz mining took place in places such as Waipori in the 1870s, with stamper batteries replacing the cradle and shovel. Batteries were used in conjunction with sluicing and led to the building of some significant water races, using masonry and mud alongside iron piping. The extension of races and sludge channels caused new disputes with run holders. Hydraulic sluicing, although largely weather dependent, was also found to be successful in the 1870s. By the 1880s large steam dredges were working in their own ponds and in rivers. By the 1880s there remained a few individual miners, but many became hired labourers for larger mining companies. The dredging continued in various locations, such as Nokomai, well into the twentieth century, but with dwindling returns these technologies too were abandoned.

As is illustrated by the changing nature of gold mining in Otago, gold mining sites have particular characteristics succinctly summed up by Jill Hamel. They are not:-

" ... discrete patches of disturbed ground, but integrated working systems, usually created by small groups of men. These groups range from partnerships of two friends, to registered companies employing dozens of people. Linked to them is an infrastructure of storemen, packers government officials, road makers, pub keepers, and others who leave lesser traces of their activities on the landscape".

The remnants of the gold rushes are found throughout Central Otago. These include accommodations such as hotels and huts, the remnants of water races and tailings, and on a large scale the monuments left by industrial miners - machinery rusting away in valleys, the tailings heaped along the river banks, the scourings of the quartz batteries, and the tunnels and shafts below the surface. A subset of these remains relate to the Chinese in Otago.

The Chinese in Otago:

The gold seekers included around 10,000 Chinese, predominantly men. They were relatively late arrivals, but they constituted "one of the largest and certainly the most conspicuous ethnic group on the goldfields". They were perceived to be different and unwilling to adopt European ways. According to Neville Ritchie the majority came as sojourners rather than settlers. The majority of Chinese who came to New Zealand in the nineteenth century were from the clans of Poon Yue, Nanhai, Zang Sheng and Si Yap. Their aim was to earn £100 as fast as possible so they could return to China with enough money to buy a plot of land.

Chinese miners left China because of the:-

" ... over-population, poverty, changes in the social order, and economic turmoil which induced threatened small-holders and landless peasants to assist their sons and brother to emigrate. It seemed an attractive solution as it was widely thought that they would become rich and return quickly to enhance themselves, their fan1ilies and clans".

Up until the turn of the century the chief occupation of the Chinese in New Zealand was gold mining. The non-miners in gold mining towns provided services to miners - storekeepers, hotel workers and owners, gardeners, carpenters and joiners, gambling and opium house operators.

The European proposals for Chinese immigration to Otago resulted from commercial imperatives. By 1865 there was an exodus of gold miners from Otago to the newly discovered West Coast fields. The Dunedin Chamber of Commerce decided to encourage Chinese miners from Victoria to come to Otago to bolster the declining business. Miners, especially those with Australian experience, opposed the proposal arguing that the Chinese would bring no money to invest, would provide little custom and would take their ean1ings out of the country at the first opportunity.

Some small Chinese settlements, such as the Lawrence Chinese Camp, were established in the 1860s. The Lawrence Chinese Camp had dwellings arranged along a street with a cook shop, stores and a gaming house. The Chinese miners and storekeepers were supported by importers, such as Choie Sew Hoy (1836- 1838? - 1901) in Dunedin, who brought in the food, drink and other goods from China that the miners were accustomed to. The network of stores usually served the particular clan of its owners. This relative self sufficiency raised the ire of some Europeans who had expected more of an economic benefit for themselves from the presence of the Chinese.

Throughout 1866 there was a small steady flow of Chinese entering Otago from Australia and by 1867 around 1200 were established on the goldfields. By 1871 the majority of new arrivals came direct from Canton. Chinese miners were familiar with alluvial mining and also the principles of hydraulic engineering used for irrigation in China. Some also had mining experience in other goldfields. In the early rushes alluvial gold was easily won, any miner could work a small claim with basic equipment.

In general the Chinese took up ground vacated by diggers who had joined the West Coast rushes. As the West Coast rushes petered out and European miners returned to Otago the competition over ground and resources lead to an increase in violence and hostility towards the Chinese. They remained largely in their own settlements and maintained their own cultural habits. In some centres they outnumbered European miners at various times.

By 1870 there were 100-300 Chinese in each of the townships of Arrowtown, Naseby, Macraes, Lawrence, Waipori, Nevis, and Bannockburn. By 1871 there were 2641 Chinese in Otago, virtually all of whom were involved in gold mining, or provided services to the Chinese mining population. By the 1880s there were at least 40 supply stores servicing the Chinese in the goldfields, plus gambling and Opium smoking facilities. Chinese stores also provided cooked meals, alcohol 5 meeting places, news exchange, interpreting and letter writing.

Anti-Chinese feeling was such that the Chinese tended to move together and live in separate camps. A Select Committee reported to the Parliament that the Chinese miners were generally law-abiding, industrious, frugal, clean and of no special risk to the community. They also mined ground that Europeans would not touch because of comparatively poor returns. Opposition continued into the 1880s fuelled by European workers who opposed the employment of Chinese as labourers. The economic slump galvanised political opposition and in 1881 a poll tax was introduced along with other racist legislation.

The social processes described above have led to Chinese archaeological sites that are readily identifiable by Chinese ceramics. Centres of Chinese population were often grouped into camps and townships, although there are lone hut sites. Chinese miners were not generally associated with capital intensive elevating and dredging. The notable exception is that of Choie Sew Hoy and his associates, who provide a significant contrast due to his Company's large scale hydraulic sluicing operations in Nokomai into the 1930s. Understanding of the Chinese sites is aided by the historical records left by Otago's Presbyterian missionary to the Chinese, Alexander Don. Don visited isolated Chinese mining camps over a sustained period and recorded his mission visits in diary form as well as in photographs. These records provide a unique source of information about Chinese life on the gold fields.

Neville Ritchie provides a detailed analysis of the archaeology of Chinese gold miners in Otago, along with descriptions of excavations of about 19 hut sites and rock shelters and two settlements at Arrowtown and Cromwell. Many of these sites were flooded by hydro-electric development but the Arrowtown settlement has been partially restored and is part of the Otago Goldfields Park complex of sites. Ritchie attempted to discern whether there were distinctive features about Chinese huts and tailings and concluded that Chinese men working far from home did not express their ethnicity through their hut designs, nor could he associate Chinese with any archaeologically distinctive technology such as wing dams or tailing patterns. These were governed by terrain and available capital rather than ethnicity. The Chinese were noted, however, for retaining their culture as a minority group in a foreign community.

Ritchie concluded that Chinese miners "exhibited a remarkable adaptability and versatility with regard to 'house' construction". His excavations indicated a range of construction techniques and materials "largely drawn from the local environment". Many Chinese, especially those working in gorges lived fulltime or temporarily in natural caves. The Chinese seldom worked side by side with Europeans but often took up claims in neighbouring gullies on areas which had been abandoned by Europeans, which were considered to have low gold values.

Social Organisation:

The first places the Chinese congregated in Otago were the Arrowtown District, Moa Flat and Nevis. 'The places where the Chinese at particular times were the majority were often “poor man's diggings" in mostly remote and difficult country such as Nokomai, Dart Valley and Round Hill (in Southland). Two quite significant gold bearing areas, Waikaia and Round Hill, were considerably developed by the Chinese. In the Waikaia district the Chinese were the majority from 1873-1886, maintaining a significant presence after this time. Chinese miners worked methodically through a claim before passing on. Their movements were often independent of the Europeans.

The Chinese used existing goldfields settlements as supply bases, especially Lawrence, which was their chief gateway to the goldfields, and Alexandra, which was the supply base to the more inland fields. During the gold days Lawrence was a much bigger town than Alexandra and of more importance to the Chinese. There were Chinese camps at most of the goldfields townships providing a service base for Chinese miners. Miners went to the camps as a supply base but also when they were ill, or when claims froze over. They sold their gold to Chinese brokers or to the banks in the main part of town.

Because of dialect differences and the hard life members of one county group tended to keep separate from members of a different county group. Businesses and friendships did however take place across county lines. Serving the different groups were networks of Chinese storekeepers and, on a larger scale, merchants (wholesalers/importers). Each of these businesses catered especially, but not exclusively, to one county group. The Chinese patronised European businesses as well, but only Chinese businesses provided a particular cultural focus.

Storekeepers and merchants were socially important within the Chinese community and were usually better versed in Chinese and English so they frequently acted as spokesmen. These local leaders usually worked well with European authorities over matters of law, regulations and community affairs and were indispensible.

Another important aspect of Chinese life was the benevolent societies. These societies were based on county origins and, where Chinese were present in larger numbers, on clans. These were, according to James Ng, the only common type of public organisation the Chinese gold seekers and their immediate successors ever formed in the nineteenth century. They functioned as mutual aid associations, stronger than the local groups and provided help with immigration procedures, job placement, health needs, conciliation disputes and the like. An important function was the exhumation of the dead and the sending of their bones back to ancestral villages in China.

In New Zealand the only known Chinese benevolent society in the nineteenth century was the Poon Fah Association of the Panyu and Hua migrants, which was founded by 1869 and was also called the Cheong Shing Tong. Its headquarters appear to have been first at Lawrence and then at Choie Sew Hoy's merchant premises in Dunedin. It seems to have gained its funds by intermittent appeals, donations and commissions rather than by regular subscription. Local evidence suggests that the Poon Fah Association acted as a back up to more immediate local help. Their mutual support explains why the Chinese gold seekers and their successors were regarded as self-sufficient. The Chinese groupings seem to have been stronger than the equivalent groupings of the European miners. The weight of Chinese tradition emphasized the fellow-feeling of the rich and powerful with the poor and weak.

The Chinese in Lawrence:

Lawrence was the main service town for the Tuapeka goldfields district which comprised four main goldfields Gabriels Gully, Waitahuna, Waipori and Munros - with several secondary fields. Lawrence became the chief gateway for Chinese travelling to Central Otago, especially after the road was improved in 1872 and the railway reached Lawrence in 1877. By 1871 there were 1083 Chinese out of a total population of 4374 at Tuapeka, with numbers decreasing after that as the goldfield returns declined. From 1893 the number of European miners remained fairly stable, but the Chinese population fell, giving figures of 450 European and 200 Chinese miners in 1900.

In Lawrence the town passed a by-law in 1867 limiting Chinese shops and dwellings to Chinaman Flat, described by James Ng as "an acre of wet ground approximately 1.2 kilometres north of the town proper, by the main road", also known as 'Canton' or 'Hong Kong.' By making such a law Lawrence was copying by-laws passed in Victoria, although it was the only Otago town to do so. Elsewhere in Otago the Chinese opened shops within townships to serve both Chinese and European but they also clustered Chinese camps on the outskirts. Macraes Flat, for example, had two Chinese camps.

The heart of Chinese settlement at Tuapeka was the Lawrence Chinese Camp formed around 1869, bordered by the Tuapeka stream and a strip of mining reserve at the back and the main road in front. It was the first Chinese camp to be established in Otago. James Ng describes it as a "conglomeration of huts, stores, gambling dens, a hotel, lodging houses and a public hall or Joss House". The Camp was outside the jurisdiction of the Lawrence township council. No single authority seemed to be legally responsible for the Camp until the Tuapeka County Council agreed to subsidise a drain for the site in 1883. The site was surveyed in 1882 and sections were made available for purchase. Prior to that the Chinese had subscribed to the formation of streets in the Camp and had dug their own wells and latrines. By 1883 there were 60-70 residents.

The Chinese residents boiled water from their wells before drinking, which reduced the Camp's disease rate. There was only one recorded disease outbreak in the Lawrence Camp, two cases of diphtheria in 1883. James Ng notes that this record was remarkable given that hundreds (probably thousands) of people, Europeans and Chinese, visited the Camp each year. Typhoid outbreaks as a result of poor sanitation occurred in Cromwell, Lawrence itself, Arrowtown and Dunedin but not in the Chinese camps of Lawrence and other Central Otago townships.

Europeans visited the Camp for the Chinese festivals and frequented both the Chinese Empire Hotel in the Camp and the Chinese stores whose prices were lower than European businesses. The Camp also served passing trade particularly from the Tuapeka and Evans Flats. There were several stores, possibly three cookshops, more than one gambling den and a hairdresser. As well as the hotel being rebuilt in 1884, other buildings in the Camp were also rebuilt from 1884, when the Chinese were allowed to buy sections there. This resulted in a much improved quality of buildings, given that the Camp had become dilapidated and overdue for rebuilding. A barracks known to Europeans as the 'company house' was erected for newcomers and also catered for Chinese who had hit hard times. The barracks burnt down in 1897 -1898 in a fire that burnt part of the Camp as well.

Early Chinese businesses operating in the Camp included the merchant firm He Tie, in which Wong On (Ong) was a senior partner (mentioned 1867). By 1871 there was an important shop keeper Qui Hing (Que Hine or Chew Ling) whose shop was named Sun Kum Hop and who catered for itinerant Panyu Cantonese, as well as his local clientele. Wong On and Qui Hing represented the Chinese when Governor-General Sir James Fergusson (1832-1907) passed through Lawrence in 1874. Sam Yeck Mong was another well known Lawrence firm, which was mentioned as pork butchers in 1871 and applied for a slaughterhouse licence in 1877. It became an important general store in the 1880s-1900s and was run by Chau Mong and Chow Tie, probably the last Panyu storekeepers in Lawrence. Sam Yeck Mong bought Sun Kum Hop and so owned two stores in the Camp.

Land immediately to the east of the camp was in Chinese ownership. Sam Yeck Mong owned the majority of the land from the 1880s through until around the turn of the century. It is possible that they may have been market gardens in these blocks, although a search of historical sources has not been able to confirm this.

When goldmining was no longer economically viable, the Chinese who remained in the Tuapeka area worked in a variety of occupations. W.R. Mayhew notes that their hardworking ability to finish contracts was highly valued by farmers who employed them to clear land. He also notes that they kept market gardens, the produce from which they sold around the district. In addition they worked on the railways and as general farm labourers.

Subsequent History of the Lawrence Chinese Camp:

By 1928 only 14 elderly men still resided at the Lawrence Chinese Camp and it was officially abandoned in 1945, and most of the remaining structures demolished. In 1947, Poon-Fah Joss House was relocated to 12 Maryport Street in Lawrence as a holiday house for its Dunedin owners.

From 2005, a series of four archaeological excavations provided detail about the foundations of some buildings and structures such as drains and road alignments, and revealed some artefacts for analysis. In 2007, a geophysical survey showed that there were potential structures and features not shown on earlier survey plans.

The Lawrence Chinese Camp Charitable Trust, chaired by the esteemed historian and academic Dr James Ng, brought the site in 1990. The Trust have been instrumental in efforts to preserve the site, seek further heritage recognition and to use the existing buildings and landscape to tell the story of the conditions faced by Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. Largely due to the Trust’s efforts, the Poon Fah Joss House was returned to its original site in late-2016. Funding has come partly from a grant from the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust, an NZ government fund set up to promote the preservation of Chinese New Zealand history and awareness of the contributions of early Chinese settlers. In 2018, the Lawrence Chinese Camp remains a significant reminder of the lives of Chinese gold miners in Otago.

Physical Description

General Location

The site of the Lawrence Chinese Camp is located on the north side of State Highway 8, adjacent to Sam Chew Lain's brick hotel building. It is situated approximately 1 kilometre north of Lawrence township itself, and near to the related List entry of Lawrence Chinese Graves Historic Area, Lawrence Cemetery (List No. 7546).

The site is bounded on the east and west sides by modern post and wire boundary fences and to the rear by the embankment for the abandoned Roxburgh Branch Railway (which reached Lawrence in 1877). The Tuapeka Creek passes through a gap in the railway embankment (which was originally bridged) to the east of the site and flows on the north side of the embankment past the camp site.

Description of Site

The most obvious features of the site are the Poon-Fah Joss House, Chinese Empire Hotel and a small brick shed to the extreme west of the site. A small brick garage is located on the west side of the hotel, which measures 5.7 metres by 3.7 metres.

To the west of the garage is another brick structure, interpreted as a shed. This small shed originally measured 10.5 metres by 5.5 metres but now measures 6.4 metres by 5.5 metres. A section has been demolished and replaced with a timber lean-to structure.

The Poon-Fah Joss House is a small timber framed single-gabled cottage with a veranda on the front elevation. The joss house is clad in weatherboards and has a corrugated iron roof. When on its Maryport Street site, the veranda had cast iron lace decorations and was partially enclosed. The cast iron lace and the enclosure have been removed to take the building back to its original joss house form.

On the front elevation two six pane sash windows flank the central French doors. On the east elevation is a single multi-paned window, while on the west elevation are two double hung sash windows. The French doors are flanked by replica panels with the poetic couplets ‘People walking and laughing are kinsmen’ and ‘People coming and going are all close friends.’

The NZHPT citation noted that when the Joss House was moved to Maryport Street and modified for use as a crib, partition walls were added to divide the living area from the bathroom, and to create the bedroom and kitchen. These partition walls have largely been removed. The interior has part of a partition wall, but the space is largely open. There are plans to restore the interior of the building.

The brick hotel building and the small shed stand close to the road edge. The hotel has been used as a residence and has been modified inside, although the basic structure remains reasonable original. It consists of a basic rectangular single storey structure, measuring 10.2 metres by 12.5 metres. To the rear of the building is a small oddly-shaped concrete shed. When the contemporary plan of the Chinese Camp (SO 8034) is overlain on the archaeological plan, it can be seen that this building fits almost exactly into the obtuse-angled north-west corner of Sam Chew Lain’s Section 28. It is therefore contemporary with the occupation of the Chinese Camp and not a more recent addition.

Apart from the standing structures, the most obvious other features consist of two filled wells and the raised bed of the old road through the camp site. The wells are brick lined, with cement plaster around the capping bricks. They are round, with an inside diameter of about 0.7m. Both are hard-filled to within a few inches of ground level.

The road bed runs east-west through the paddock behind the hotel building. It is visible as a hard bed 3 to 4 metres wide, standing just proud of the ground (a drain feature may be visible along the northern side). The link to the main road on the eastern end is visible as rising ground towards the present fence line. The link to the main road at the western end passed through what is now a gravelled yard area beside the hotel building. As described above, the small concrete shed behind the hotel is shaped to fit the corner of its legal section, which runs beside the road reserve.

The balance of the paddock is covered with what can best be described as hummocky ground. Some of this is the result of modern disturbance and the north-west corner of the paddock has until recently been a pig paddock, which has left a definite rectangular mark (fortunately not on the site of the camp). Some features are likely to be building platforms and gardens.

Since the Lawrence Chinese Camp Charitable Trust took over the site, a Chinese pig roasting oven has been built in the rear corner of the paddock, close to the stop bank. The oven is used at public events at the site.

Comparative Analysis

Lawrence Chinese Camp has special significance as the first and largest Chinese settlement in Otago, and represents this important and underrepresented part of Otago’s history.

Lawrence Chinese Camp was one of several Chinese Camps established in Otago on the outskirts of gold mining towns. The others were at Arrowtown, Naseby, Macraes, Waipori, Nevis/Bannockburn and Cromwell. In 1870, there were between 100-300 Chinese miners living in these settlements.

Other Chinese settlements are known to have existed but many have been destroyed or damaged; Arrowtown has been excavated and restored as a public park area; Cromwell was excavated before destruction by the Clyde power scheme; and Macraes has been covered by a road embankment. Lawrence is both intact and highly accessible. The archaeological values are either preserved in situ or as information collected by archaeological investigation.

With the exception of Arrowtown Chinese Settlement, little remains to tell the stories of Chinese miners in these townships. Arrowtown Chinese Village is entered on the List as a Category 2 historic place (Chinatown, List No. 5613), and within the village there are separately listed sites including Ah Wak’s Lavatory (List No. 2084, Category 2) and Ah Lum’s Store (List No. 4366, Category 1). Cromwell Chinese Camp was the other largest Chinese settlement, but it was flooded by Lake Dunstan when the Clyde Dam was commissioned.

Construction Dates

2016 - 2016
Joss House returned to the Lawrence Chinese Camp in December

Construction Details

Timber, brick, corrugated iron

Public NZAA Number


Completion Date

12th April 2018

Report Written By

Heather Bauchop

Information Sources

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Department of Internal Affairs, vol. 2, 1870-1900, Wellington, 1993

Land Information New Zealand (LINZ)

Land Information New Zealand

SO 8034 (1882)

Lawrence Chinese Camp

Certificates of Title.

OT79/180 Section 44 Block XX Tuapeka East Survey District:

OT79/267 Section 34 Block XX Tuapeka East Survey District:

OT79/268 Section 35 Block XX Tuapeka East Survey District:

OT79/270 Section 38 Block XX Tuapeka East Survey District:

OT79/273 Section 49 Block XX Tuapeka East Survey District:

OT79/274 Section 51 Block XX Tuapeka East Survey District:

OT79/183 Section 52 Block XX Tuapeka East Survey District:

OT79/275 Section 32 Block XX Tuapeka East Survey District:

OT79/271 Sections 42-43 Block XX Tuapeka East Survey District:

OT81/48 Section 46 Block XX Tuapeka East Survey District:

OT81/49 Section 45 Block XX Tuapeka East Survey District:

OT88/54 Section 41 Block XX Tuapeka East Survey District:

OT135/153 Section 50 Block XX Tuapeka East Survey District:

OT 141/37 Section 33 Block XX Tuapeka East Survey District:

OT220/207 Section20, 28, 47-48, Block: XX Tuapeka East Survey District:

OT6C/692 Section 82 Block XX Tuapeka East Survey District

No live titles were found for Sections 53, 39 or 40

Mayhew, 1949

W.R. Mayhew, Tuapeka: The Land and Its People: A Social History of the Borough of Lawrence and its Surrounding Districts, Otago Centennial Historical Publications, Dunedin, 1949

Ng, 1993

Ng, James, Windows on a Chinese Past, Volume 1, Otago Heritage Books, Dunedin, 1993

Ng, 1995

Ng, James, Windows on a Chinese Past, Volume 2, Otago Heritage Books, Dunedin, 1995

Ng, 1999

Ng, James, Windows on a Chinese Past, Volume 3, Otago Heritage Books, Dunedin, 1999

Ritchie, 1986

Neville Ritchie, 'Archaeology and History of the Chinese in Southern New Zealand During the Nineteenth Century: A Study of Acculturation, Adaptation, and Change', PhD, University of Otago, 1986 [Hocken Library]

Salmon, 1963

J H M Salmon, J.H.M. 'A History of Goldmining in New Zealand', Wellington, 1963

Hamel, 2001

Jill Hamel, The Archaeology of Otago, Department of Conservation, Wellington, 2001

Other Information

A fully referenced New Zealand Heritage List report is available on request from the Otago/Southland Office of Heritage New Zealand.


Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.