West Coast: My Green Light

“… he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone — he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward — and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock.”

– F. Scott Fitzgerald. “The Great Gatsby.” iBooks.   

In the second half of 2014, I went over the Southern Alps and met the West Coast for the first time. Sitting in the ‘Roaring Forties’, the West Coast of New Zealand always wet and windy; I was well prepared for that weather, but I was not expecting my meeting with the unsettling Tasman Sea. Shocked by the waves relentlessly hitting the shore, I set up my camera, trying to record the immense power of nature.

After coming back from the South Island, I opened my footage and photos, trying to recall my experience. However, the absence of some certain feelings made me disappointed. I began to think that even the greatest photographers are still far away from recording the sublime that the earth has created for us - it is beyond the capability of cameras. We, as landscape photographers, still “create” photos rather than “document’ the real world.  

That made me feel very depressed and my life changed significantly since then. In later researching I came across Lingwood’s comment on Roni Horn’s artworks about Iceland; he noted that the works are not only about the world outside but also inside, “in you” (Lingwood). I think Horn’s works, especially the To Place (1990- ) series, exhibit various possibilities to weave other layers into the landscape. 

I began to seek a way to weave my experience into the stories of early settlers, who arrived on the West Coast since the gold rush in the 1860s, and the West Coast has become my “green light” - I have been stretching out my arms, trembling like Mr Gatsby, trying to reach it. I might have imagined thousands of times that how people came to this place - after their months-long journeys on the tumbling sea in a small cabin, on the muddy and difficult tracks in the mountain passes and finally - the West Coast! What a determination! 

Although I know people came to the Coast for different reasons, and they were not perfect, I often look at their life in a romanticised way as a student who lives alone in another country: Nevertheless, they are all explorers and made the West Coast that we know today, and their “can-do” attitude is still held high by New Zealanders.

But I could not help thinking, when I was visiting the cemeteries on the Coast, seeing people from all over the world - would someone miss the sunny Nelson or his cosy hometown in Dorset, when he was walking into the rainy and lonesome valleys? 

I am very curious.

Chinese on the West Coast

Among those early settlers, there was a group that, like the gold flakes in riverbeds, will only shine after some panning.

In 1866, Ah Sing, a 30-year-old Chinese man, took up three acres at Donnelly Creek near Ross (Bradshaw 17). He was the first Chinese in the West Coast, and his arrival marked the beginning of an era. Following him and a few other pioneers, in mid-1867 groups of Chinese miners began arriving, numbering between 20 and 50; most of them came from central Otago or Victoria, Australia (17-19).

Despite some hostility between the newly arrived Chinese miners and local (mostly European) groups, the number of Chinese had been constantly rising since 1872. By 1873 they successfully established themselves at No Town (23) and the Chinese population on the West Coast later reached 1,200 by 1874 (193-194). Europeans started to complain about the Chinese presence in the region, and local newspapers alarmed people of a Chinese ‘invasion’. However, Bradshaw points out that the Chinese population was around 1,500 in 1875, merely 4 per cent of the total West Coast population. Even though Chinese were, at least in 1874, the most populous minorities on the West Coast (followed by Germans, 2.5%), it was some distance away from an ‘invasion’ if compared with Anglo-Saxons who took up 85% of the population in the region (26). They are a highly visible group in the communities mainly because of their different culture and appearance. Bradshaw also mentioned that in the second half of 19th century “New Zealand was starting to develop a national identity”, and seeing itself as “a better Britain in the South Pacific”, thus coloured races became unwelcomed (196).  Another reason is that in 1874, 18 per cent of the miners in the region were Chinese (26). The ratio was lower than that in Otago (the number was 40% at the same time), but miners in the West Coast have more influence on the media and politics as 60 per cent of working men on the West Coast were miners that year (193). Anti-Chinese movements finally led to the infamous Chinese Immigrants Act, which introduced the Chinese Poll-Tax.

Policies seeing Chinese as undesirable people soon put an end to the era. In the last decade of the 19th century, the Chinese population in the West Coast halved to about 820 and over half of them were over 60 years of age (237). After the Jan family left Reefton in 1978, there was no other Chinese living on the West Coast except Arthur Fong (248), who passed away in 1999.

On the West Coast, everyone had to live with the harsh environment. Although in their appearance, by the way they worked or the language they spoke they were different, my aim is not to try to separate the Chinese from other settlers, nor am I saying that Chinese miners were somewhat superior to the others. My motivation is that the Chinese in the West Coast region have been hiding behind the curtain of history; I wish I could “lift” it slightly. As resources dwindled, many communities in the West Coast have diminished (McQuarrie); many of the historical sites are lacking necessary maintenance since former residents in the community have left, or have been completely demolished due to recent re-work on the once closed goldfields. The early settlers’ history was at risk of being forgotten. Considering that Chinese have not been working on the coast for a century, it is even harder to locate any traces left today - hence even Chinese are often not aware of what the Chinese on the Greenstone Coast have contributed to its development.

During the past year, I have been visiting places that relate to the Chinese in the region. Those efforts led to Going West, the project now displayed here. 

Going West

When I was looking at the photo of Reefton Zigzag Track. I realised that this was what I have been looking for and I started expanding the series. I have been attracted not only by their historical value but also aesthetic value (as Ernst Haas said, “beauty pains”). For travellers ‘the road’ means many things – going forward you could explore the unknown, going back you might return to home. It is a link between your dream, your hope and your comfort. The roads guide you, but everything is still a dream until you have reached your destination and witnessed everything by yourself. Hence I see them as a metaphor of life in this region 150 years ago, or in short, “uncertainty”.  And personally, they are a metaphor for my struggle in past three years.

I intentionally avoid adding captions when I exhibited 5 images for the first time from the Going West series, in order to not make viewers establish a strong connection between the photo and some certain place. The photographs look “documentary” but they went further than merely documenting and carried my emotions. I hope the viewers could discover the West Coast by themselves, in a way similar to how I examined my identity in the landscape.

The West Coast is ‘a region still in the media for its battle with how the use of its resources can support its communities’ (McQuarrie). I am glad that I could have a chance to help the preservation of the West Coast history.

Works Cited

Bradshaw, Julia. Golden Prospects: Chinese on the West Coast of New Zealand. Paroa: Shantytown, 2009. Print.

Lingwood, James. Quoted by Julie L. Belcove. “Roni Horn.” W Nov. 2009: 150. Academic OneFile. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

McQuarrie, Caroline. The No Town Project. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.