Alexander Don’s ‘Roll’ of the Chinese
Don and the Roll
Alexander Don (1857–1934) came to New Zealand in 1879 from the Victorian goldfields. It was his interest in mission that brought him to New Zealand. He sought work with the Presbyterian Church of Otago and Southland, which ran a number of missions in Asia and the Pacific, as well as in New Zealand itself. Don was given the position of missionary to the Chinese miners who had begun coming to the region in increasing numbers following an invitation from the Otago Chamber of Commerce in 1865. He first went to Canton to study Cantonese and learn something of the environment from which the Chinese miners came. After returning to Dunedin in 1881 he began his theological training, before going into the field, first at Riverton and then Round Hill. In 1886 he moved again, this time to Lawrence, where there were a large number of Chinese living. From 1889 he was based in Dunedin, but he continued to travel extensively around the mining regions of Otago and Southland. From 1913 onwards his direct contact with Chinese miners lessened, as his career took him in new directions. He moved first to Palmerston North, then back to Dunedin to take up the position as Foreign Missions Secretary. He retired to Ophir in 1923, where he wrote Memories of the Golden Road: A History of the Presbyterian Church in Central Otago ( Dunedin: A.H. and A.W. Reed, 1936).
It is not entirely clear at what stage Don began compiling his Roll, but it was probably soon after he arrived at Round Hill in 1883. The first entry in the Notebook is dated 1883, and while it is possible that this was entered at a later date, it seems likely that he began recording the names of Chinese he met in the Notebook at this time. The early sections of the book contain a list of the names of around 400 men, covering the period between 1883 and 1896. Don provides a romanisation of the man's Chinese name, and sometimes brief notes on the physical appearance of the person. As James Ng suggests, Don probably used this early part of the Notebook as an aide-mémoire to help call faces to mind. Here, Don also listed the names of men he organized remittances for, as well as those whom he had assisted by getting letters carried to their families in China.
The Roll proper begins at page 50 in the Notebook, where Don begins to set out much more systematically information about the Chinese he encountered. He gathered this information during his travels (especially his tours of Central Otago) and through many interviews with the Chinese he met. Some he knew well, others were little more than passing acquaintances. Early entries are often grouped according to people's location in New Zealand in 1896, indicating that Don would fill in a section of the Roll after visiting a group of Chinese in a particular place. There were long periods when he was able to add little new information to the Roll, but if he met a group of Chinese, perhaps gathered for a festival or congregating in Dunedin prior to the departure of a boat back to China, he would be able to gather a great deal of new material, which he would then use to update individual entries. Similarly, after he shifted to Palmerston North in 1913, he was able to add many more entries for Chinese residents in the North Island, and we find long sections of the Roll devoted to people living in places like Otaki or Wanganui. After he was appointed Foreign Missions Secretary, Don was not able to maintain such regular contact with Chinese people and the entries in the Roll become less frequent, but he continued to add occasional notes up until 1929.
Most of the people Don encountered came from a cluster of districts or counties in and around Canton in the Pearl River delta in south China. The majority, nearly 70 per cent, came from Poon Yue (Panyu), which lies immediately north of Canton, while a much smaller number came from the two other Sam Yap counties around the city itself (Sun Dak and Naam Hoi). Another significant group came from the Four Counties (Seyip, especially Toi Saan), which lie to the south of Canton. Nearly 8 per cent came from Jang Sing County (Zengcheng) to the north of the city, while 2.4 per cent came from Heung Saan (Zhongshan) and 1.3 per cent from Fa Yuen (Hua county).