Jim Shum, whose Chinese name was Sham Tseung Chim, was baptised James by the Reverend Alexander Don. Shum had chosen the name Jim because it sounded like his Chinese name, Chim. Both Don and another missionary, G. H. McNeur, collected information about him. He is the best-documented of the Chinese goldminers who came to New Zealand in the nineteenth century.
Shum is said to have been born on 11 May 1853 in Shui Lek (Shui Li), a village in the upper district of Panyu county, north of Canton (Guangzhou) in Guangdong province, China. His parents' names are unknown. It is likely that they were small farmers who gave him four years' education, and that he was their second son.
In 1870 his father gave him 36 taels of silver (about £12) to emigrate with nine other men of the village to the Otago goldfields in New Zealand. After a journey of three months in a ship with about 330 Chinese passengers, Shum arrived at Dunedin in 1871. His ship was one of six bearing nearly 2,000 Chinese to Otago that year; almost 2,600 were already in the province.
A network of Chinese storekeepers, lodgings and doctors catered for the newcomers. Shum was outfitted in Dunedin and joined others in hiring a wagon to take their gear to the goldfields. He joined 15 men from his own and an adjoining village in opening a gold claim in Pipeclay Gully near Bannockburn. In the next four years he worked a dozen different claims, two of them with good results.
In 1875 he had over £100 saved and returned to Panyu, where he married. Some months later, leaving his wife with his family, he left again for Otago, after causing great family discord by his impatience of superstition. The Dunedin merchant Charles Sew Hoy financed his second venture to the goldfields and again he worked successively on many shared claims. The Chinese goldminer's existence had always been precarious, and was especially so now that the shallow-lying alluvial gold was mostly worked out. Don's notes reveal that Shum possessed great physical stamina.
Shum's wife, childless, died in 1899, after sending a last despairing letter to him to return home. But he had been unable to save enough money. He did not hear of her death, or even that she had left Shui Lek some time previously, until 1902. By this time his financial position was improving. He had accumulated about £140 by 1904, but his health failed the next year.
Returning to Canton in 1906 he married a young woman named P'oon Saam Koo on 17 February. Both joined the Canton Villages Mission of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, which opened a hospital in upper Panyu. They worked as hospital steward and nurse respectively, and adopted a daughter. Shum was praised by some of the missionary staff for his firm Christian faith and evangelistic gifts – he argued 'untiringly and effectively' against Chinese beliefs.
Shum died in Canton on 18 July 1914, survived by his second wife. He had always been an argumentative person and had become something of a bigot. Sheltering under foreign patronage he had separated himself from his village and from most of his relatives, and had a low opinion of his fellow migrants who had returned home. In New Zealand he was eulogised by Don as 'Faithful Jim'.