5: Ah Foo’s Bendigo Home
On the 12th of June 1873 John Tucker returned to The Junction (Cromwell) and met with Ah Foo. His news was not good. There would be no immediate option of granting permanent residency in New Zealand and his plan of buying land was not going to materialize. Ah Foo was not given any specific instruction on what would happen – and to some extent it is assumed that John Tucker’s sympathy for Ah Foo’s plight lead him not to pursue the matter further and result in Ah Foo being deported from New Zealand. Ah Foo returned in the bleak winters’ cold to Welshtown and settled back into a declining business as the gold mining fever had become much more subdued, and the dreams of golden futures lost their shine. The sod and stone huts on the side of the creeks bore testimony to the despair of the miners – finding it more and more difficult to find enough fragments of gold to make it worth continuing.
Nearby in the settlements of Bush Creek and Arrowtown, Ah Foo had heard of a number of Chinese women had just arrived and had provided a catalyst to establish a considerable Chinese community with a hall, shops and market gardens. Having spent just over two years up in the hills in Welshtown, Ah Foo decided he would make the long day journey through the rugged Kawarau Gorge to Arrowtown and to the hub of Bush Creek to see if he would find better sanctuary in a larger Chinese population. His fear of deportation was such that he had strategically lost contact with a number of his business associates and any people he considered may turn him in should the authorities decide to arrest him and send him to be deported. The trip in mid August was not far by most standards, but the gorge road was very rough, and the winter conditions made travel very slow and arduous. It was dark when he arrived in Arrowtown. He dared not go to the hotel so he slept on the side of the road, wrapped in his warm coat and a travel blanket.
The location of Arrowtown at the base of a steep gorge made the winter cold even more bitter. Ah Foo had a sleepless night and found himself feeling quite ill as he made his way the next morning to the end of the town and the settlement of Bush Creek. His understanding of a large Chinese community was clearly wrong. While there were a number of Chinese women – not seen before in New Zealand – there was only a small community of Chinese – less than 50 people – in Bush Creek. The stores, while stocking some food items he had not seen since his arrival in New Zealand, were not brimming with delicacies and the gardens were quite bare in the winter chill. Becoming more ill as the day wore on, Ah Foo begged a local storekeeper to allow him to share a space in his warehouse with two other miners who had no other place to stay. The wind was becoming more bitter and the sky dark as snow clouds rolled in. By the morning Ah Foo was very ill. The storekeeper was worried that any pneumonia infection Ah Foo might have would spread to others so he arranged for him to move to a hut on the side of the river and be put under the care of a middle aged Chinese woman who provided some herbal medicine to ease the fever. Three others shared the floor of the hut with the Chinese herbalist doing her best with local bush plants to provide some care. A small fire in the corner of the hut provided some warmth amidst the snow and wind, but the smoke was choking and with the acute chest infection caused Ah Foo to have problems breathing . The fever worsened and at just 41 years of age he thought he had reached his end.
After 5 days his fever broke and Ah Foo decided to return to Welshtown. He conceded that he had no future in Bush Creek and that at least on the Eastern side of the Molyneux River he felt warmer and more secure. His ride back on an empty provisions cart was a little more bearable and the overnight stay in Cromwell was in a hotel – with Ah Foo no longer caring about being identified and sent back to China. As Ah Foo walked the last 10 mile stretch from Cromwell to Welshtown, he looked up on the side of a slope where Raupo Creek flowed into the Molyneux river. There were a few small huts on the side of the creek and two European men with small sluices working in the winter creek flow. Ah Foo followed the creek up to the first sluice. The man was quite surprised to see someone coming up to his workings. Few visitors were ever seen here and he knew well the other miners on the creek. The miner introduced himself as Samuel Watson – a long term “loner” and gold pan or small sluice miner. Sam could see that Ah Foo was not in great health and although he had not encountered many Chinese – he commented to Ah Foo that even by Chinese standards he looked haggard. Sam admitted there was not a lot to be taken from the bottom of the creek, but enough to provide a living and he hoped one day to find that one big nugget that would secure his future. He spent a couple of hours talking to Ah Foo about the creek. Many of the miners who had set up original huts had moved on – slim takings had not been part of their plans. He suggested Ah Foo followed the creek about another half mile to see some of the old huts that were empty and maybe use one to get a night out of the cold – as the day was fast coming to an end.
Ah Foo spent the next two days camped in an abandon hut on the side of Raupo Creek. He explored the creek during the cool but sunny days, and huddled next to the fireplace in the hut in the bitterly cold evenings, considering his future. There was nothing for him to go back to in China, and he had lost the urge to develop a business in The Junction (Cromwell) township. This creek – he decided – would become his home.
And so in the beginning of September 1873 Ah Foo moved onto “Bendigo” – on the side of a hill overlooking the Molyneux River and the Pisa Range on the far side. He spent the month of September making trips between his quarters in Welshtown and his new found rock hut on the side of Raupo Creek bringing his possessions and occasional supplies. The walk to Welshtown was not too difficult as track on the side of the hill traversed around the point at about the same height between the hut and the town. Few people ventured around to this western facing side of the hill – with the quartz mining concentrated on the North west facing slope. Chinamans Terrace was only a two hour walk so some supplies could easily be fetched from the Chinese traders and the small sluice reconstructed from parts left by the retreating Europeans provided a small but steady flow of gold dust for income.
Down in a gully to the north of Chinamans Terrace was a Chinese provisioner – Ah Lui. Over the previous 5 years Ah Lui had built a sizable business with market gardens and a pond of eels providing the protein and vegetables for the Chinese. Ah Lui lived in a tiny hut beside his dam which he used to store water during the rains when the tiny creek flowed, and then provided irrigation and water for the eel pond during the long dry spells. His butchery and store was in a cave in the side of the gully and his cooking pots of eel and vegetable stews were well liked by the Chinese and more adventurous Europeans. Ah Lui, like Ah Foo, had no desire to return to China, but also saw his business diminishing rapidly.
The remnants of Ah Lui’s hut, dam, pond and butchery remain today, complete with pots, cookers and hanging hooks. The NZ Department of Conservation has a marked track down a steep slope to reach the site of his famous vegetable gardens.
The two struck up a close friendship which lasted until they died.