A memorial to the sailors who died when the SS Ventnor sank off Northland's west coast - and the hundreds of Chinese gold miners whose bodies went down with the ship - could be built at Rawene cemetery.

When the ship sank off Hokianga Heads in 1902 it was carrying 13 crew and the remains of 499 exhumed miners who were supposed to be returned to their home villages for burial, in accordance with Chinese tradition. Instead their remains ended up on the bottom of the Tasman Sea or washed up along the west coast.

Bones that washed up were gathered by Maori and buried alongside their own dead. According to oral tradition many were buried in Rawene cemetery, at the corner of Parnell and De Thierry streets opposite the hospital.

Memorials to the miners and those who took care of their remains have already been erected at Mitimiti and Waipoua - a Chinese gate and a plaque, respectively - but the Rawene memorial would be on a larger scale.


Liu Sheung Wong, a Rawene resident who revived interest in the Ventnor story several years ago, said a simple plaque was planned at first but that changed with the discovery in mid-2016 of the names of all 499 miners.

Consultation about the proposed memorial began on Saturday at No 1 Parnell gallery in Rawene and runs until today. It coincides with an exhibition by King Tong Ho of photos of the six Northland sites related to the Ventnor story.

Ms Wong said the Kaikohe-Hokianga Community Board, which will decide whether the memorial can be built at the cemetery, had responded positively. The memorial would be funded by the New Zealand Chinese Association.

The memorial had been designed by Auckland and New York-based TT Architects whose founders, Richard Tam and Robert Tse, are descended from early Chinese settlers.

Mr Tam said he had taken a keen interest in the Ventnor story since stumbling upon it a few years ago. He approached Ms Wong last year about getting involved.

The memorial was a tribute to those who died in the sinking as well as the men whose bodies were on their way home for reburial, Mr Tam said. It was also a tribute to the spirit of collaboration between Maori, Chinese and Pakeha in the aftermath of the tragedy - but especially between the Chinese community and Te Rarawa, who brought the bones from Mitimiti Beach to Rawene, since the story resurfaced a few years ago.

The memorial would consist of a series of concrete steps and steel panels and be located along the cemetery fenceline. Mr Tam said the shape could evoke the form of a ship, a dragon's spine, whale bones or a Chinese fan.

If all goes to plan the memorial will be unveiled in April next year. Those involved in the memorial include the Ventnor Project Group (a committee of the NZ Chinese Association) plus descendant groups Tung Jung Association and Poon Fah Association.


An archaeological investigation was unable to locate the remains but Ms Wong was confident they were in the area of Rawene cemetery.