SS Ventnor memorial, Ōpononi

Line of connected bronze panels with black plaque with text at the end of the row

On 10 April 2021, the SS Ventnor memorial was unveiled in front of the Manea Footprints of Kupe Centre in Ōpononi. The striking concrete and steel structure, was commissioned by the New Zealand Chinese Association. Designed by Richard Tam and Robert Tse of TT Architects, the memorial commemorates the shipwreck of the SS Ventnor, which sank off the Hokianga coast on 27 October 1902 with the loss of 13 passengers and crew.

The ship was also carrying the bones of 499 Chinese gold miners which were being taken back to China for burial. Over the next few months some of the remains washed ashore, and members of the local Te Roroa and Te Rarawa iwi interrred them in their own burial grounds. 

For many years, the tragic story of the SS Ventnor was not widely remembered outside the local area. However, in 2007 Rawene resident Wong Liu Shueng began making a film about the incident, and made contact with Te Roroa and Te Rarawa. Subsequently the Ventnor Project Group (a committee of the NZ Chinese Association) and two descendant groups, the Tung Jung Association and the Poon Fah Association began exploring ways of memorializing the incident.

The wreck itself was discovered in 2012 and was designated as an archaeological site.

On 4 April 2013, a commemorative plaque was unveiled at Te Roroa Visitors' Centre in the Waipoua Forest. This was set on a large stone in a newly planted grove of kauri trees. The text was given in in English, Māori and Chinese (the English version read: "With gratitude from the New Zealand descendants of the Poon Fah and Jung Sen districts to the iwi of the area for respecting and caring for the remains of the Chinese washed ashore following the sinking of the SS Ventnor, 28 October 1902. 'May their souls rest in peace in your rohe.' Plaque erected by Poon Fah Association and New Zealand Chinese Association, Otago and Southland Branch Inc.")  

The following day, a second commemorative plaque was unveiled at Maunga Hione urupā in Mitimiti. The plaque was set in a red Chinese-style memorial gate, a gift to the Chinese descendants from the hapū Te Tao Maui and Te Hokokeha of Mātihetihe marae.

On 2 May 2015 a donor's board was unveiled at the Waipoua site and the following day  a refurbished plaque was installed on a small cairn in front of the Red Gate at Mitimiti. 

The Rawene public cemetery, where some of the remains from the SS Ventnor may have been buried, was initially chosen as the site for a more substantial memorial. However, soon after excavation began, heavy rain caused damage from slumping to adjoining graves. With the agreement of Te Hua o te Kawariki Trust and funds from the New Zealand Government's Provincial Growth Fund, the site of the proposed memorial was shifted to Ōpononi.

The memorial lists the names of the 13 men who drowned in the wreck of the Ventnor: the captain, eight crewmen, and five elderly Chinese men who were accompanying the remains. It also lists the names of the miners whose bones were being transported.

The memorial's text includes the dedication: "In honour of our ancestors. May their spirits find peace" (in English, Māori and Chinese).

Sources: 'Wreck of the S.S. Ventnor'Colonist,17/11/1902, p. 1;  'Peace at last for Northland's "hungry ghosts'"Northern Advocate, 14/4/2013; Linus Chin, 'The Ventnor Ming Chin event'Otago-Southland Chinese Association Newsletter; May 2013, pp. 15-16; Geoff Chapple, 'Ghost ship of the Hokianga', NZ Geographic, no.166, September/October 2020, pp. 93-107; 'Northland memorial cements ties between Chinese, Maori almost 120 years after Ventnor tragedy'Northern Advocate, 12/4/2021; 'Photos: Opononi's Ventnor memorial honours 488 Chinese goldminers lost at sea', Northern  Advocate, 12/4/2021; Bill Edwards, 'SS Ventnor: two cultures join in remembrance', Heritage Quarterly, Winter 2021, p. 17.

At the time the above text was written, the Waipoua Forest visitors' centre was closed, but a photograph of the plaque that was installed there can be found in the article by Linus Chin cited above. Photographs of the memorials at both Waipoua and Mitimiti can be found in another article by Linus Chin, 'Report about the SS Ventnor trip', New Zealand Chinese Association: Otago & Southland Branch (Inc), April 2018. There is another impressive photograph of the Red Gate in Austin Tseng's article, 'On the ancestor's trail', Hainamana: Asian New Zealand Art and Culture, 2018.

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