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Lawrence Chinese Camp

LCC old buildings
Joss house at LCC photographed circa 1870s.

The Lawrence Chinese Camp is located 1.2 km west of the township of Lawrence, in Central Otago. The camp was establishe during the Otago gold rush of the 1860s after the Lawrence Town Council passed a bylaw declaring that Chinese migrants were prohibited from living and doing business in the township of Lawrence. The local Chinese were given a block of marginal swampy land and there they set up what became a thriving Chinese settlement that became known as the Lawrence Chinese Camp. By the 1870s the Lawrence Chinese Camp had numerous stores, a hotel, boarding houses, physicians, a butchery, gambling facilities and opium dens. The permanent residents of the camp were all Chinese trades people but it also had a population of temporary residents comprising the miners who came periodically to replenish supplies and spend some of their gold earnings. The camp eventually became a major attraction in the new province and during the Chinese New Year attracted many out of town visitors. The last resident of the camp, Chow Shim, died in 1945 and the site is now under pasture with the only surviving buildings being the Chinese Empire Hotel and its stables.

Arial excavation
Excavation of Sam Chew Lain’s house, Season One.

In the 1990s the land on which the Lawrence Chinese Camp was built was purchased by the Lawrence Chinese Camp Charitable Trust (LCCCT). The LCCCT aims to develop the site as a tribute to the New Zealand Chinese community. The development will include a visitor centre, museum and a reconstruction of parts of the original village.

SPAR was appointed by the LCCCT as the archaeological and heritage advisors for the Lawrence Chinese Camp project. Since 2005 we have carried out four large, areal excavations on the site – the most recent in 2010. In addition we have prepared a Conservation and Management Plan to guide future developments there.

During the first excavation we concentrated on the excavation of the private residence of Sam Chew Lain, the most prosperous resident of the camp and the owner of the Empire Hotel. We also excavated the site of the earliest of three joss houses that were erected on the site. A joss house is a site of ritual and social activities within the community. Sam Chew Lain’s house was large, and was found to contain a well preserved well at the back which was probably used by the entire community.

Excavation season 2
Drainage system along edge of main road, Season Four.

The second excavation concentrated on the excavation of a store and the ‘immigration barracks’. This latter structure was a place where men straight off the boats from China or other foreign goldfields spent some time before moving into the wider community. We located the foundations of the barracks which had been burnt down in the early 1890s. We were surprised to find the well-constructed foundations of a second joss house over the remains of the barracks. This is the joss house that was removed from the site in the 1940s and which now sits in Maryport St, in Lawrence. The LCCCT has recently purchased that house and intends to move it back to the site as part of the renovation project.

The third investigation looked at some private residences through excavation of areas at the front and back of two structures. This provided information on the nature of construction and internal layout of houses, as well as some information on the spatial organisation of cooking and work practices. We also gathered a substantial amount of midden.

LCC map
Survey plan of the Camp made in 1882.

The fourth and final excavation, which took place in February 2010, looked at the ground lying behind the main street in Lawrence – between the village and the river. Here we believed we would find evidence of a squatter community of temporary residents who resided in the camp between periods in the goldfields. We also wanted to find how the Chinese residents had drained and prepared the land prior to setting up the camp. The results showed evidence of extensive and complex drainage systems and a great deal of land modification.

In all our work we were guided by a plan made in 1882 that showed the general layout of the streets and buildings in the camp.

SPAR staff are currently preparing a major book on the history of the Lawrence Chinese Camp in collaboration with Dr James Ng, a local Chinese historian and Chairperson of the LCCCT.