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Merchant, Miner, Mandarin Shines Light On Race Relations In Late 19th Century NZ

A timely new book provides insight into a lesser known chapter of New Zealand history, including the impact of anti-Chinese legislation, through the life and times of an extraordinary man.

Merchant, Miner, Mandarin: The life and times of the remarkable Choie Sew Hoy, published by Canterbury University Press (CUP), is a fascinating biography of one of New Zealand’s most distinguished entrepreneurs and innovators, as well as an intriguing account of late 19th-century society, industry and race relations.

The book explores the life and successes of innovative pioneer Choie Sew Hoy, from the time he arrived in New Zealand in 1869 to his death as a captain of industry in 1901. A man of two worlds, not only did he develop a range of exports from New Zealand and revolutionise gold dredging with new technology, but he also fought the racism that was frequently experienced by the Chinese community.

Co-author Jenny Sew Hoy Agnew is proud to be a direct descendant of Choie Sew Hoy.

“I felt personally inspired to share the compelling life story of my great-great-grandfather, especially as the importance of acknowledging the impact of racism is increasingly relevant, both globally and locally,” she says.

“Choie Sew Hoy is an example of how one person can transform, achieve, and use their status to break through barriers and fight the prejudice and injustice of their time.”

In an era when Chinese people’s success or very existence in New Zealand aroused hostility, he challenged the prevalent racism and biased government legislation of the day. A philanthropic benefactor of many social causes, he supported hospitals as well as benevolent associations to help less fortunate Chinese immigrants.

Travelling from Guangdong province, via the goldfields of Australia, Sew Hoy arrived in Port Chalmers in 1869, when Cantonese merchants and storekeepers were becoming an important and highly visible part of the local business community.

Sew Hoy quickly became known as a notable local character, always elegantly dressed and with legendary success in horse racing. His sharp business acuity, self-assurance and charm soon gained him influence and entry to the echelons of the Chamber of Commerce, the Jockey Club, the Masons and even the Caledonian Society.

It is a sad irony that while he had played a leading role in repatriating the bodies of Chinese miners for reburial in their home villages, Sew Hoy’s own body was one of those lost when the SS Ventnor sank on 28 October 1902.

Richly illustrated with 120 illustrations and 4 newly-commissioned maps, as well as a cover portrait of Choie Sew Hoy by renowned artist Gavin Bishop, Merchant, Miner, Mandarin is now available to purchase at all good bookstores and online here.

About the authors

Jenny Sew Hoy Agnew is a fifth-generation New Zealander and a great-great-granddaughter of Choie Sew Hoy. Born into a Cantonese-speaking family in Dunedin, she didn’t learn English until she started school, later graduating from university with a languages degree to become a high school teacher.

Former teacher and award-winning writer published in New Zealand and Australia, Trevor Agnew has a lifelong passion for New Zealand history. He has combined his interests to help explore the life of a remarkable man in this new history.

Merchant, Miner, Mandarin: The life and times of the remarkable Choie Sew Hoy, by Jenny Sew Hoy Agnew and Trevor Agnew, published by Canterbury University Press (CUP), June 2020, $49.99, 288pp, softback with flaps, 265 x 210mm, B&W illustrations, ISBN: 978-1-98-850309-7

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