Almost 120 years after they sank off the Northland coast, the discovery of the remains of gold miners is causing upset among the country's Chinese community.

The New Zealand Chinese Association believes a documentary film crew should not have filmed body parts of some of the 499 miners who sank with the SS Ventnor in 1902.

The miners' bodies had been buried in New Zealand before being disinterred to be sent home for burial, in accordance with Chinese tradition.

They were being transported back to China when the ship sank in more than 140m of water off South Hokianga Head.

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A crew led by film maker John Albert has been investigating the incident since 2012, and revealed last week they'd managed to locate some of the remains. They used a remote-controlled camera system to film inside the wreck.

"A lot of people kept asking, 'Have you found the remains?' And unfortunately for all the other times we had to say no but this time it was meant to be, I believe," Albert said.

He said they'd got enough footage to make a documentary, which they're hoping to air at a Chinese film festival at the end of the year. He was adamant they would not broadcast footage of the human remains.

"Everything we've done we've done with the strict protocols of respecting the dignity of those in the boat, from both a cultural and spiritual and humanitarian point of view," he said.

"I look upon them as early pioneers and I wanted to tell their story. The way I see it, it's no different to stories told all around the world about the history. If you go to Egypt, I mean, they've been digging up the pyramids for hundreds of years."

Ultimately, Albert said, he hoped the remains could be exhumed and returned to China.

"Everything I'd read up on until I started the project ... was that Chinese believed that they needed to go home and be buried with their families, otherwise they remain a hungry ghost."

Rescuers, crew members and lifeboats from the SS Ventnor on Ōmapere Beach in 1902. Photo / Drummond Te Wake collection
Rescuers, crew members and lifeboats from the SS Ventnor on Ōmapere Beach in 1902. Photo / Drummond Te Wake collection

But New Zealand Chinese Association president Richard Leung, whose wife is a descendant of one of the men on the Ventnor, told RNZ he was deeply opposed to this idea.

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"Where does he have the right to do that? Who has given him the right to even think that?"

Leung said it was not Albert's story to tell and he wanted the SS Ventnor and the remains of those who died left in peace.

"It's come to a point where our community are, well, not sick of [it], but it's getting that way with people trying to take our stories and tell them, showing no respect for the community," he said.

"I suppose it's like going to a cemetery and filming everything. It just doesn't sit right."

Many of the miners' remains were washed up after the sinking along Northland's west coast, where they were found by Māori of Te Roroa and Te Rarawa iwi.

Iwi recovered the bones and buried them alongside their own people in places such as Mitimiti cemetery, where the Chinese community has since erected a memorial gate.

Artist's impression of a Ventnor monument being built at the Manea Footprints of Kupe Centre in Opononi. Image / supplied
Artist's impression of a Ventnor monument being built at the Manea Footprints of Kupe Centre in Opononi. Image / supplied

Another memorial to the miners, those who lost their lives on the Ventnor and Māori who cared for their remains, is to be built at the new Manea Footprints of Kupe Centre in Opononi.

In 2014, after rumours started circulating in Hokianga that divers were removing objects from the wreck, Heritage New Zealand rushed through legal protection for the Ventnor.

Archaeological sites dating back to before 1900 are automatically protected but more recent sites are not.