Asian Studies Program

Chinese Australia

furniture making

Since the early 17th century Canton had been an important centre for the production of luxury furniture. As many Chinese in Australia originated from the southern part of China it is perhaps not surprising that they became involved in furniture making. The first Chinese furniture makers in Australia are noted as early as 1827 in Sydney. By the late 1840s the People's Advocate reported that more than half of the furniture manufactured in Sydney was made by Chinese labour. During the gold rushes the Chinese were also involved on a small scale in the production of strong boxes for the transportation of gold.

In the 1880s many Chinese were moving out of mining and looking for a new source of income. The building boom at this time was creating a demand for furniture. Chinese, particularly in Melbourne, moved into the industry. They tended to specialise in cheaper lines of furniture, though in the 1860s a number of Chinese exhibited award winning furniture. Chinese furniture makers were also found in Sydney, Perth and country areas of Victoria. They made simple furniture such chairs, tables, washstands, cupboards, meat safes and dressing tables in a late Victorian style often copying overseas designs. While they adopted western designs they used traditional Chinese carpentery hand tools and used Chinese wood working techniques such as working with their feet as well as their hands. Only a few businesses spent the capital to mechanise their factories.

In Melbourne, Chinese furniture makers were concentrated in Lonsdale, Little Lonsdale, Exhibition streets and some of the lanes at the eastern end of Little Bourke Street. They were ideally located near the major furniture retailers in Melbourne. At its peak in 1912, the number of Chinese working in Victorian furniture making trade was 818 compared with 2024 Europeans, however during the 1890s depression the number of Chinese furniture makers outnumbered European ones. The Chinese were able to reduce the cost of production of their furniture by specialising in particular items and working efficiently.

Although they were accused of sweated labour the Victorian 1895 Factories Act Inquiry Board found Chinese workers were actually paid a little more than Europeans. They tended to be paid on piece rates with meals and accommodation provided but paid for out of their wages. However there may have been some basis to European accusations of harsh working conditions. Some time in the 1880s a Chinese Workers' Union was established in Melbourne. In 1885 about 300 Chinese workers went on strike and by 1888 the Union had won a basic wage, a fifty hour week, holidays and employment for union members in the furniture making industry. During the depression, like many unions, it fell apart, but by 1897 it was active again. In Sydney, Chinese furniture workers, excluded from the main furniture making union, also established their own union in 1890. In 1908 they were also successful in improving working conditions.

In the 1880s Chinese and European furniture workers for the most part coexisted fairly harmonously. By specialising in cheaper lines of furniture Chinese factories were not in direct competition with their European counterparts. However the onset of the 1890s depression led to fierce competition as European workers moved into direct competition with Chinese workers. Fear of Chinese competition lead to the formation in 1880 of an anti-Chinese furniture makers association and eventually the 1895 Factories Act Inquiry. The discriminatory 1896 Factories and Shops Act emerged out the this inquiry. Similar Acts were passed in New South Wales and other colonies. However until the 1909 Factories and Shops Act factories in New South Wales were allowed more freedom than in Victoria as Factory Inspectors did not set working hours and wages.

The Victorian Act stipulated that all Chinese (and part Chinese) made furniture had to be stamped accordingly. Strict rules on wages, work hours and building regulations were also imposed on furniture factories. Although four European furniture workers was defined as a factory, if you were Chinese only one worker was considered a factory. This meant Chinese factories, particularly small ones were regulated and subject to close scrutiny by inspectors and other government officials in a way their European counterparts were not. The effectiveness of stamping furniture as Chinese made as a method of pushing Chinese workers out of the industry is disputable. People continued to buy Chinese made furniture as it was cheap and well made. At the time some even suggested that the stamps made it easier for customers to buy this furniture as they included the address of the factory and identified it as Chinese!

After the Act was passed there were claims that Chinese factories were evading the Act. These claims were not unfounded but were certainly exaggerated. In 1902 a Royal Commission on the Operation of the Factories and Shops Law of Victoria was established. This Royal Commission recommended that all 'Asiatics' in the furniture industry be licenced, that only 20 factories be licenced in Victoria employing no more than 300 persons. In 1904 the Factories and Shops Amendment Bill adopted these recommendations while allowing currently registered factories to continue. Although this Bill was passed in the Legislative Assembly the Legislative Council threw it out as too drastic, inhuman and against British fair play. Between 1905 and 1907 other bills with similar content were similarly passed by the Legislative Assembly and blocked by the Legislative Council. However the 1906 Factories and Shops Amendment Act was successfully passed and made it illegal for Chinese employers to provide lodging in their factories to employees. This had previously been a common practice.

This series of threatening legislation galvanised the Chinese community in Victoria. In 1904 the Chinese National Alliance of Victoria was established to safeguard Chinese interests in Victoria, in 1906 the Sino-Australian Association was established to fight against the 1907 Factories (Employment of Chinese) Bill which affected Australian-born Chinese and in 1909 Chinese employers and employees united for the first time to form the Chinese Furniture Trade Assocation. Four petitions were sent to both Houses of Parliament between 1904 and 1907 urging fair treatment of Chinese and stressing the importance of Sino-Australian relations. Two pamphlets were writen by William Ah Ket, a prominent Chinese-Australian lawyer with J.L. Clarke speaking out against the 1907 Factories (Employment of Chinese) Bill. Cheok Hong Cheong and Ah Ket also wrote to the Chinese Ambassador in London urging him to try and block the Bill if it was passed from England. Much later the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of New South Wales published a pamphlet against the discriminatory elements of the 1926 New South Wales Factories and Shops (Amendment) Bill. Chinese action appears to have tempered the further escalation of racist legislation.

However eventually the wishes of opponents of Chinese in the furniture industry were granted. The number of Chinese furniture makers more than halved during World War I and eventually petered out. This decline was partly due to the drop in numbers of younger Chinese migrating to Australia but was also partly due to under capitalisation in an industry that was becoming more mechanised. Under the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act import and export firms were allowed 'replacement' workers, but no such concessions were made for furniture factories.

Sources/Further Reading

Chamberlain, Kevin, 'Chinese cabinetmakers in Australia', The Tool Chest: Journal of the Hand Tool Preservation Association of Australia, vol.11, no.1, issue 51, February, 1999

Choi, C.Y., Chinese Migration and Settlement in Australia, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1975

Davison, Graham, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne (reprint), 1981

Fahey, Kevin, Simpson, Christina & Simpson, Andrew, Nineteenth Century Australian Furniture, Daniel Ell Press, Sydney, 1985

Fitzgerald, Shirley, Red Tape, Gold Scissors: The Story of Sydney's Chinese, State Library of New South Wales Press: Sydney, 1996

McQueen, Humphrey, Social Sketches of Australia 1888-1975, Penguin Books, New York (reprint), 1980

Rolls, Eric, Sojourners: The Epic Story of China's Centuries-Old Relationship with Australia, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Queensland, 1992

Tucker, Erin, 'Discrimination and the State: Anti-Chinese labor legislation in Victoria', unpublished BA (hons) thesis, Department of History, Monash University, 1986

Yong, C.F., New Gold Mountain: The Chinese in Australia, 1901-1921, Raphael Arts, Richmond S.A., 1977