The Early Days of Ah Foo

1: The Early Days of Ah Foo.

Not much detail is recorded of the history of this character who came to Bendigo in Central Otago to find fortune in the goldfields. With just the remains of his house now reconstructed on Misha’s Vineyard, on the Lakefront Terraces overlooking Lake Dunstan to work from, the legend of Ah Foo is a blend of facts and fiction, bringing to life a story that would apply to many of the Chinese who came to New Zealand in the 1860’s.

It is known that Ah Foo was born in 1832 in the city of Canton. As a young man Ah Foo had always been an entrepreneur but without much real success. His early forays into foreign trading in the city of Canton (now known as Guangzhau) had left the family without much to their name. The “Canton System”, a control that the government placed on all export trade from 1760 had worked well for Ah Foo for a short time due to his political contacts, however the Opium Wars had seen the demise of his political support and he was left with no government friends and his buyers knew well that he had been taking advantage of the system to line his own pockets. Ah Foo had also been a big spender and womanizer. He had his young wife provided by a family for whom he had sold silk, but his concubines and excesses cost more than he was able to afford so the family never got to benefit from his earnings.

Family Photo sent to Ah Foo 1860
Family Photo sent to Ah Foo, 1860
In early 1855 he met an English merchant who told him of immense wealth to be made from gold in the new world of Australia. Within a few days he had packed and left his wife and 3 children with his wife’s family and boarded the merchant’s ship bound for Port Philip Bay, the port for the city of Melbourne in the South East of Australia. Port Philip had been both a trading centre and an arrival point for convicts from England. The moving of convicts to Australia was slowing down by 1855 and was finally phased out completely by 1868. These convict ships were renown for the harsh conditions at sea and the loss of life through disease and starvation. However the voyages to Australia for gold miners were sometimes no better. Ah Foo had arranged a passage aboard a trading vessel but such was the rush for gold the small sailing ship was overcrowded with more than 200 Cantonese all seeking to make fortunes from the Victoria gold rush. Over 90,000 Chinese had flooded into Australia in a period of just two years in search of gold – by far the largest “minority” ethnic group. A lack of food and clean water meant during the 3 month long trip the ship was ravaged by dysentery and disease, and over 20 of the would-be gold prospectors died before reaching Australia. Ah Foo survived but was regretting his decision to leave Canton.

On arrival in Victoria, Ah Foo was initially heading to the gold diggings at Ballarat but was diverted through meeting an old friend who had been to Ballarat and told of strong resentment amongst European miners for the Chinese there. The two decided to go instead to Bendigo and were immediately employed in deep shaft mining by one of the 1300 small mining companies that were operating at the time. Leases were small and barely profitable. Ah Foo worked 7 days a week hacking into the quartz reefs at the bottom of the shafts and loading buckets. He had never before done manual labour and found it very hard to keep up with the relentless demands of the mine head sending down bucket after bucket to be filled with gold bearing quartz. After a year at the lowest rank of the team Ah Foo moved to a position of authority. The mine manager – an empathetic German engineer – recognized Ah Foo had good organizational skills and he had developed a good grasp of English. Ah Foo moved to coordinate the Chinese team, allocating work schedules and jobs. He was still required to perform manual labour but this was now at the mine head, and not at the cold damp bottom of a 200 meter mine shaft.

Ah Foo was also notable for his negotiation skills. He found himself able to trade between the Chinese and European miners with a small commission going to his pocket for each trade. Chinese miners did not have much to trade but their uncanny ability to “find” worthwhile items of interest – normally “Chinese artifacts” made in small workshops behind the shanty town – provided a pool of trinkets to exchange for tobacco or small luxury items. Ah Foo himself gained a well made fob watch in return for a genuine ancient family heirloom jewel box – made the day before by a craftsman south of Bendigo township.

By 1860 Ah Foo had become a popular trader – although still employed as a mine worker – and had built a significant list of trading clients. All was not well with the gold mines in Bendigo however as many of the seams were running dry and miners were starting to look to return home – much less wealthy than they had planned. In late 1861 word was spreading of a new gold rush across the Tasman in New Zealand but Ah Foo was reluctant to pack up his trading business and leave Australia. He saw many of his friends join the flood of miners going to the “Gabriels Gully” gold fields but was determined to stay in Australia and make enough money to return triumphantly home to his family.

Canton Plague Inspectors
Canton Plague Inspectors
In mid 1862 Ah Foo met a friend of his wife’s family – a silk trader who had ventured to Australia to seek markets with the growing European population in Australia. Ah Foo was given the devastating news that his wife, just 27 years old, and two of his children had died of a disease that had claimed many lives in the city of Canton through the winter months. Ah Foo lost the will to go back to Canton and face his father-in-law, who had never approved of Ah Foo’s venture and would surely blame him for abandoning his family. The trader said Ah Foo’s surviving daughter, now 8 years old, was living with an Aunt in the country and was well cared for.

In the following months Ah Foo struggled to find the enthusiasm that had driven him to Australia and to continue his trading. Many of the European clients that had sought the Chinese artifacts had by now started to return to Europe or to look to other goldfields. In the last weeks of the winter in 1862 Ah Foo heard of a deposit of 1,000 ounces of gold that had been deposited by Horatio Hartley & Christopher Reilly in Dunedin – gold taken from the Cromwell Gorge in Central Otago, New Zealand. He decided to follow the rush to Otago in New Zealand. He had a reasonable stash of money and knew he had enough contacts in the new gold workings of Otago to find work. He packed his possessions in a travel trunk secured from his earlier trading from an Austrian mine supervisor and joined Jack, a “Pentonvillian”, an ex-convict who had been transported from England in 1849 in the last of the convict ships to land in Port Philip Bay. Jack had been held for 3 months at Pentonville Probationary Prison in England prior to being told he was to be transported to a penal colony in Australia. It is not known what Jack’s crime was, however he was just 19 when he was transported and after serving his time had decided to work in the gold mines as a free man instead of returning to England where he faced isolation because of his past.

Jack proved to be a good traveling companion for Ah Foo and they became good friends on the three day trip from Bendigo to Port Philip. While waiting for a ship to take them across the Tasman Jack began writing some of the stories that Ah Foo told of his life in Canton and the reasons for leaving China. It was Jack’s notes that formed some of the foundation for re-creating the life and legend of Ah Foo.