Alexander Don’s ‘Roll’ of the Chinese


  Don and the Roll

  Reshaping the Data

  Romanisation of
  Chinese Characters

  Search the roll


Alexander Don with a scripture class in Central Otago. Reproduced with permission of Hocken Library, Uare Taoka hakena, Neg. c/n E2445/22.

This database is an electronic version of Alexander Don's (1857–1934) ‘Roll' of the Chinese. We have based it on the facsimile reproduction of the Roll provided in Volume Four of James Ng Windows on a Chinese Past (Dunedin: Otago Heritage Books, 1993).

The Roll consists of entries for some 3,682 Chinese present within New Zealand between 1896 and 1913. In it, Don recorded the person's name (in Chinese characters), their age in 1896, the number of years they had been away from China, the number of times they had returned, and the number of years of schooling they had received. This information is followed by columns listing the district (or county) in China that the person came from, the nearest market town to their family home, and the town or village in which that home was located.

The opposing page of the Roll was divided into two. The first column listed the location in New Zealand where the person was living in 1896, then the final column, by far the largest, was used to add a range of miscellaneous information that Don was able to collect about each individual. Here, we find details about the person's movements, about Poll Tax requirements, family relationships, personal health, debts, run-ins with the law, bequests and remittances.

These records relating to each individual can provide fascinating insights into the lives of the Chinese who came to New Zealand in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. When taken together, however, they enable us to begin to build a social profile of the early Chinese community in New Zealand. From this information it is possible to reconstruct patterns of dispersal and resettlement, the founding of communities around new forms of employment and in new locations.

In creating this searchable database, we hope to present the information in the Roll in a form that enables researchers to generate responses to questions much more quickly than would be possible by working through the Roll in its printed form.  

The database is only as accurate as the source it represents. At no stage have we attempted to revise or manipulate the data in the Roll.   The database is simply an electronic, and searchable, version of Don's Roll. It will be most useful when used in conjunction with the Roll itself.

For an example of the kind of research that can be done with the data in the Roll, see Brian Moloughney, Tony Ballantyne and David Hood 'After Gold: Reconstructing Chinese Communities, 1896-1913,' in Henry Johnson and Brian Moloughney (eds), Asia in the Making of New Zealand (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2007), pp. 58-75.