Labour History

Voices of Sydney’s Chinese Furniture Factory Workers, 1890–1920

Labour History (2017), 112, (1), 99–117.


Chinese furniture factory workers were the focus of a heated debate that helped shape “White Australia.” Often considered a threat to the “European,” or “white,” working class, they were vigorously campaigned against by labour activists and staunchly defended by Chinese merchant elites, the outcome of this contest being the institution of a range of anti-Chinese legislation from the 1880s. While labour activists’ claims about Chinese furniture factory workers - and to a certain extent the counterclaims of Chinese elites - have been scrutinised in historical scholarship, workers’ own reflections on their lives have not been examined. Drawing for the most part on New South Wales bankruptcy files, this paper explores the world of Sydney’s Chinese furniture workers as they described it. It argues that their understandings of their activities were considerably more complex than the assertions made about them.

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*The author would like to thank the two anonymous referees for their time and suggestions, as well as the editorial and administrative staff at Labour History. He would also like to thank Julia Martínez, Jane Carey, Claire Lowrie and Zhong Huang for advice on drafts of this article, and Kate Bagnall, Juanita Kwok, Michael Williams, Paul Macgregor and Mei-fen Kuo for help with the research. The author is particularly grateful to Wang Feng-i (王鳳儀), Feng Zhuqin (锋竹沁), You Mengyun (游梦云), Tian Ye (田烨) Huang Kai (黄开) and He Anyuan (何安圆) for their assistance with Chinese-language sources. This work was funded by an Australian Government Research Training Program Award at the University of Wollongong. Google Scholar

1.“Chinese” and “Chinese Australian” are contested terms; see Jen Sen Kwok, “Postscript: Beyond ‘Two Worlds,’” in Chinese Australians: Politics, Engagement and Resistance, ed. Sophie Couchman and Kate Bagnall (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 290–307. “European,” “British,” “Anglo Celt” and “white” are also contested terms; see Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2008), 75–94. “Factory” is taken as any place where four or more “persons” - or one or more “Chinese” - were engaged “working at any handicraft,” as per the 1896 New South Wales Factories and Shops Act, 2. (a), (b). Google Scholar

2.Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, 3 April 1911, vol. 2, pt 8 (Melbourne: J. Kemp, 1911), 1022. Chinese furniture manufacturers were concentrated in Sydney and Melbourne. Chinese workers rarely, if ever, worked in European factories. Google Scholar

3.There were 7,000 market gardeners in Australia in 1911, but a large proportion of these were equal partners in gardening operations rather than employees; see, for instance, Joanna Boileau, “Chinese Market Gardening in Australia and New Zealand, 1860s-1960s: A Study in Technological Transfer” (PhD diss., University of New England, 2014), 75–78. Google Scholar

4.William Holman’s Testimony, 17 December 1891, Report of the Royal Commission on Alleged Chinese Gambling and Immorality and Charges of Bribery against Members of the Police Force (hereafter NSWRC) (Sydney: Government Printer, 1892), 432–36. Plank 15 of the electoral platform NSW Labour Electoral League in 1891 was “stamping of Chinese-made furniture”; see “Labour Electoral League,” Australian Star, 1 April 1891. “White-Australian” industrialisation also had tremendous symbolic value, meaning that not only the labour movement opposed Chinese furniture factories; see Denise Hutchinson, “Manufacturing,” in The Cambridge Economic History of Australia, ed. Simon Ville and Glenn Withers (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 290. Refer also to Phil Griffiths, “‘This is a British Colony’: The Ruling-Class Politics of the Seafarers’ Strike, 1878–79,” Labour History, no. 105 (November 2013): 131–52. Google Scholar

6.I use period Chinese characters and Hanyu Pinyin where period transliterations are unavailable. Google Scholar

7.John Hoe had an interest in Sydney’s Tung Wah Times (東華報) (hereafter TWT), which published articles condemning discrimination against Chinese factory workers; see, for instance, “Maltreatment of Woodworkers” (苛待木工), TWT, 9 January 1901. He also participated in a Sydney Morning Herald (hereafter SMH) debate on this issue in 1908; see “The Chinese Question,” SMH, 1 July 1908; “Chinese in Waterloo,” SMH, 2 July 1908; “The Chinese Question,” SMH, 27 July-15 August 1908. European supporters opposed this kind of discrimination, too; see J. L. Clarke, The Chinese Case against the Chinese Employment Bill (Melbourne: Arbuckle, Waddell and Fawckner, 1907). Google Scholar

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9.Victoria Factories and Shops Amendment Act 1887, 3; Victoria Factories and Shops Act 1896, 3 (1a), 23 (1), (3), 56, 57; NSW Factories and Shops Act 1896, 2 (a), (c). Similar laws followed in other parts of Australia. The zenith of official discrimination in NSW, providing for Chinese-only working hours, was the NSW Factories and Shops (Amendment) Act 1927. While furniture factories were largely unique to Australia throughout the Pacific Rim, garment and boot factories in San Francisco, and the workers therein, attracted comparable controversy; see, for instance, Alexander Saxton, The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Berkeley: UC Press, 1975). Google Scholar

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14.I am inspired in this approach by Carlo Ginzburg’s account of the trial of Domenico Scandella, or Menocchio, a sixteenth-century Friulian miller; Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980). Google Scholar

15.NSW Bankruptcy Act 1887, 45–47. Bankruptcies were common in industrial manufacturing of this period, including in the furniture industry amongst Chinese and non-Chinese operators alike. Chinese factory bosses attributed their bankruptcies to economic issues, especially a lack of capital, that were only partially related to “White Australia.” Google Scholar

16.Nadia Rhook, “Speaking in Grids: Race, Law and Audibility in late colonial Victoria” (PhD diss., La Trobe University, 2015), ch. 4; Mark Finnane, “Law as Politics: Chinese Litigants in Australian Colonial Courts,” in Couchman and Bagnall, Chinese Australians, 117–37. Google Scholar

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18.Edgar Cutler’s Testimony, 6 December 1891, NSWRC, 428. Google Scholar

19.Ben Maddison, “‘The Skilful Unskilled Labourer’: The Decline of Artisanal Discourses of Skill in the NSW Arbitration Court, 1905–15,” Labour History, no. 93 (November 2007): 77–84. Google Scholar

20.“The Chinese Question,” SMH, 30 July 1908; “The Chinese Question,” SMH, 15 August 1908. Google Scholar

21.Affidavits of Debt, 7 March-7 April 1876, Chow Young Insolvency, 13654–2/9598–12761, 71–96, NSWSR. Google Scholar

22.Affidavits of Debt, 27–28 November 1890, Man Sing Bankruptcy, 13655–10/22675–3020, 33–57, NSWSR. Google Scholar

23.Sun Sing Loong’s Testimony, 11 December 1891, NSWRC, 388. Google Scholar

24.Klaas Ruitenbeek, Carpentry and Building in Late Imperial China: A Study of the Fifteenth-Century Carpenter’s Manual Lu Ban Jing (Leiden: Brill, 1993), 15–24. Google Scholar

25.See, for instance, “Chinese Invents New Machine” (華人製造新式機器), TWT, 29 September 1906 and “Woodworker Union Secretary Interviewed by Sydney Newspaper” (木匠工黨會之司理人對雪梨某報訪事人), TWT, 17 January 1903. Advertisements portrayed woodworkers as being highly skilled, too; see “John Hoe’s Wood Factory Advertisement” (俊豪號木廠廣告) TWT, 9 February 1924. Google Scholar

26.Chi-Kong Lai, “Xiangshan County and the 1911 Revolution,” New Asia Review, 13 (2012): 162–67; see also David Faure, Emperor and Ancestor: State and Lineage in South China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), 291–347. Google Scholar

27.Melbourne workers, though, seem to have been more active in promoting their Lu Ban Day celebrations; see “Wood Industry Association Announcement” (木行大慶會廣吿), Chinese Times (愛國報), 1 July 1911. Google Scholar

28.Sun Sing Loong’s Testimony, 390–91. Google Scholar

29.Yong, The New Gold Mountain, 41. Louis Ah Mouy, a spokesperson for the Chinese community in Melbourne, had migrated to Australia to build houses when the first gold rush began in the early 1850s; see Paul Macgregor, “Chinese Political Values in Colonial Victoria: Lowe Kong Meng and the Legacy of the July 1880 Election,” in Couchman and Bagnall, eds., Chinese Australians, 72. Google Scholar

30.Sun Sing Loong’s Testimony, 388. Google Scholar

31.Yuen Tah’s Testimony, 2 October 1891, NSWRC, 119. Google Scholar

32.James Broadbent, Suzanne Ricard and Margaret Steven, India, China, Australia: Trade and Society, 1788–1850 (Sydney: Historic Houses Trust of NSW, 2003), 31–64. Google Scholar

33.Lay Jong’s Testimony, 27 July 1893, Lay Jong Bankruptcy, 13655–10/1022864–06597, 40, NSWSR. Google Scholar

34.Sun Sing Loong’s Testimony, 391. It was also normal in San Francisco’s Chinese garment industry for workers to buy their own sewing machines; see Him Mark Lai, “Chinese Guilds in the Apparel Industry of San Francisco,” Chinese America: History and Perspectives 21 (2008): 21. Google Scholar

35.“Among the Chinese,” SMH, 8 February 1879; see also “The Furniture Trade,” SMH, 1 November 1886. Google Scholar

36.Affidavits of Debt, 9–14 March 1910, Henry Louey Bankruptcy, 13655–10/23603–18391, 77–89, NSWSR. Google Scholar

37.Chan King’s Testimony, 31 March 1913, Willie King Bankruptcy, 13655–10/23691–19488, 66–7, NSWSR. Google Scholar

38.“The Furniture Board,” SMH, 14 April 1897. See also Report on the Working of the Factories and Shops Act (hereafter FSA Report) 1897 (Sydney: Government Printer, 1898), 33. Google Scholar

39.On inspectors’ efforts to publicise the 1896 Act in Chinese factories, see, for example, FSA Report 1897, 24; FSA Report 1898 (Sydney: Government Printer, 1899), 23. Google Scholar

40.Nora Ah Toy’s Testimony, 31 December 1891, NSWRC, 463. Google Scholar

41.Pennell v. Quong Wing, trading as W. Rising and Co., 18–19 October 1926, 2713–6/1309, NSWSR. Google Scholar

42.Willie Wing’s Testimony, 9 March 1906, Furniture Trade Union v. Ah Wong, Court of Arbitration, 5340–2/74–18, 167–75, NSWSR. Google Scholar

43.Maddison, “‘The Skilful Unskilled Labourer,’” 73–86. Chinese furniture factories, however, mechanised less than European ones; see FSA Reports 1897–1930. Google Scholar

44.Mei-fen Kuo, “Confucian Heritage, Public Narratives and Community Politics of Chinese Australians at the Beginning of the 20th Century,” in Couchman and Bagnall, Chinese Australians, 156. Factory mechanisation was another source of increased Chinese-European worker interaction. Indeed, factory operator Zhao Hao Tian (趙浩天) from the Gaoyao area told the Tung Wah Times in 1909 that he had employed a European machinist to help him mechanise his operation; see “Chinese Invents New Machine (華人新欵機器之發明),” TWT, 23 January 1909. Google Scholar

45.Sidney Jack’s Testimony, 30 March 1909, Jack Lem Bankruptcy, 13655–10/23574–17992, 111–12, NSWSR. Google Scholar

46.Sun Sing Loong’s Testimony, 391. Google Scholar

47.Yee Lim’s and Ah You’s Affidavits of Debt, 27 April 1889, Yee Wye Insolvency, 762–335, 123, 162, Public Records Office of Victoria. Google Scholar

48.Willie Wing’s Testimony, 167. Google Scholar

49.Affidavits of Debt, 17 February 1908, Harry Kow Bankruptcy, 13655–10/23541–17604, 6–15, NSWSR. Google Scholar

50.Sing Leng’s Testimony, 5 March 1896, Sing Leng Bankruptcy, 13655–10/23072–10431, 3, NSWSR. Google Scholar

51.Boileau, “Chinese Market Gardening in Australia and New Zealand,” 46–85. Google Scholar

52.Sun Sing Loong’s Testimony, 390. Google Scholar

53.Ibid. On sales to Marcus Clarke and Co., see, for example, Harry Kow’s Testimony, 18 February 1908, Harry Kow Bankruptcy, 13655–10/23541–17604, 46, NSWSR. Google Scholar

54.Ah Hing’s Testimony, 28 May 1883, Ack Chow Insolvency, 13654–2/9993–17928, 14, NSWSR. Google Scholar

55.Seck Fan’s Testimony, 9 March 1906, Furniture Trade Union v. Ah Wong, 175. Google Scholar

56.Ah Fat’s Testimony, 9 March 1906, Furniture Trade Union v. Ah Wong, 149. Google Scholar

57.Ah Wah’s Testimony, 20 March 1896, Sun Hap On Bankruptcy, 13655–10/23079–10554, 4, NSWSR. Google Scholar

58.Yit Yung’s Testimony, 10 August 1915, Jan Way Bankruptcy, 13655–10/23778–20439, 156, NSWSR. Google Scholar

59.Seck Fan’s Testimony, 183. Google Scholar

60.Zhong Huang, “Representations of Chinese Masculinity in Chinese Australian Literature, 1978–2008” (PhD diss., University of Wollongong, 2012), 43–44. Google Scholar

61.Ah Fat’s Testimony, 152. Google Scholar

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64.Yit Yung’s Testimony, 156. Google Scholar

65.Edgar Cutler’s Testimony, 428, 431. Google Scholar

66.See, for instance, “Mongolian Sweating,” Worker, 4 February 1905. Google Scholar

67.Lake, “Challenging the Slave-Driving Employers,” 100–102. Google Scholar

68.“The Chinese Question,” SMH, 30 July 1908. See also Chinese Chamber of Commerce, A Chinese Appeal (Sydney: Chinese Chamber of Commerce, 1926), 14–16. Google Scholar

69.Affidavits of Debt, 27–8 November 1890, Man Sing Bankruptcy, 33–57. Google Scholar

70.Affidavits of Debt, 10–3 April 1893, Leong Dong Bankruptcy, 13655–10/22844–6266, 9–24, NSWSR. Google Scholar

71.Ding On’s Testimony, 10 August 1915, Jan Way Bankruptcy, 151. Google Scholar

72.This refers to the minimum remuneration for adult journeymen; see “Blessings of Protection,” Evening News, 15 July 1879; “The Furniture Trade,” SMH, 30 October 1886. See also William Holman’s Testimony, 433. Google Scholar

73.Mok Leong Shing’s Affidavit of Debt, 12 December 1883, Kum Leong Insolvency, 13654–2/10028–18374, 12, NSWSR. Google Scholar

74.Judgement of Court, The United Furniture Trade Society of New South Wales v. Anthony Hordern and Sons, 2/5714–11/12–1904, 9, NSWSR. Historians such as Joe Isaac have disputed the impact of minimum wage law, although Andrew Seltzer and Jeff Borland have shown that such laws were successful at increasing wages in Melbourne; see Joe Isaac, “The Economic Consequences of Harvester,” Australian Economic History Review 48, no. 3 (2008): 280–300; Andrew Seltzer and Jeff Borland, “The Impact of the 1896 Factory and Shops Act on Victorian Labour Markets,” IZA Discussion Paper Series, no. 10388 (November 2016). Google Scholar

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76.The popular “credit-ticket system” of the gold rushes, whereby passage to Australia was paid for Chinese workers by employers on the understanding that they would have to work off the cost, is unlikely to have been in use in the factories because this system had all but ceased to exist in Australia by 1880; see, Macgregor, “Chinese Political Values in Colonial Victoria,” 89. Google Scholar

77.My claim is based on earnings data provided by 93 Melbourne furniture factory workers in court. See also Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories, Work-Rooms, and Shops 1900 (Melbourne: Government Printer, 1901), 14. Google Scholar

78.David Faure has talked briefly about subcontracted workforces in factories in China, particularly in Shanghai, where successful Chinese Australians did business, yet such arrangements do not seem to have been usual in Australia. Workers appear in most cases to have worked directly for factory proprietors. See David Faure, “Beyond Networking: An Institutional View of Chinese Business,” in Chinese and Indian Business: Historical Antecedents, ed. Medha Kudaisya and Ng Chin-keong (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 35. Google Scholar

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80.Ying Sing’s Testimony, 5 March 1896, Sun Hap On Bankruptcy, 29. Google Scholar

81.Louie Fook’s Affidavit of Debt, 7 October 1911, George Suey Bankruptcy, 32. Google Scholar

82.“Furniture Trades Award,” SMH, 10 September 1909. Google Scholar

83.Hing Pound’s Testimony, 17 March 1909, Hing Pound Bankruptcy, 13655–10/23578–18024, 45, NSWSR. Google Scholar

84.Ding On’s Testimony, 151. Google Scholar

85.See, for instance, Workers’ Affidavits of Debt, 3 May 1889, Quong Lee Insolvency, 762–338, 49–55, Public Records Office of Victoria. Google Scholar

86.Ah Hing’s Testimony, 14. Google Scholar

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90.FSA Report 1897, 1. Google Scholar

91.Sun Sing Loong’s Testimony, 389. Google Scholar

92.Ah Wah’s Testimony, 5–6. Google Scholar

93.Ding On’s Testimony, 155. Google Scholar

94.Hong Bow CEDT Application, B13/0–1925/10543, National Archives of Australia (NAA) Melbourne. See also CEDT applications by Hong Sing, B13/0–1924/26848, NAA Melbourne; also Louey Foo, B13/0–1925/10588, NAA Melbourne. Google Scholar

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96.Sun Sing Loong’s Testimony, 390. Google Scholar

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101.See, for instance, Kwong Sing Loong and Co.’s Accounts, 16 February 1889–5 December 1889, Ah How Bankruptcy, 13655–10/22653–2602, 2, NSWSR. Practically identical arrangements have also been identified by Him Mark Lai in San Francisco garment factories; see Him Mark Lai, “Chinese Guilds in the Apparel Industry of San Francisco,” 20. Google Scholar

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107.Chow Kum’s Testimony, 12 December 1891, NSWRC, 394. Google Scholar

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Author details

Gibson, Peter