New Zealand's Chinese community is outraged at a "lack of respect" shown to the wreck of a ship which sank off Northland more than 100 years ago with 499 Chinese people on board.

The Race Relations Commissioner is also accusing the team who traced the 112-year-old wreck off the coast of Hokianga Harbour as trying "to turn a shipwreck into a money-making venture".

The row follows the announcement last week of the discovery of the SS Ventnor, which struck a reef and sank two days after leaving Wellington on a repatriation mission to China in 1902. The remains of 499 Chinese citizens, who had worked and died in New Zealand, were to be returned to their homeland in accordance with Chinese tradition.

Documentary maker John Albert led a team which traced the sunken vessel to around 20km west of Hokianga Harbour at a depth of 150m. They brought up a number of items from the ship, which were displayed last week, in order to confirm it was the SS Ventnor.

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However, a growing uneasiness in the Chinese community was revealed in a statement from the New Zealand Chinese Association which said it was "outraged" that the ship had been disturbed.

Kirsten Wong from the association said there was "genuine dismay felt across the NZ Chinese early settler community for the lack of respect being shown towards their ancestral remains and the disregard for the communities - Chinese and Maori - whose story it is".

The Chinese community would prefer it left untouched and treated as a graveyard.

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy supported the call, saying "this is much more than a mere shipwreck" and slammed those she said were trying to turn it into a money-making venture and tourist attraction.

"The voices of Chinese New Zealanders, many of whom are descended from men whose remains are still with the wreck of the SS Ventnor, are missing amid very public plans to turn their final resting place into a tourism venture," she said.

The story of the Ventnor and what happened to some of the remains which washed up on shore was "a touchstone of race relations, dignity and mana", she said. Bodies which washed inland were recovered by local Te Roroa and Te Rarawa Maori who buried them in their ancestral burial grounds and cared for their graves.

Dame Susan said the Pike River mine should never be turned into a tourist attraction and neither should the SS Ventnor. NZME.