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Laundries and factories

Laundries and factories

This scene shows laundry workers and cabinet-makers

Many Chinese immigrants opened laundries or worked in factories. This scene shows laundry workers and cabinet-makers.

The Chinese furniture trade

The move by Chinese immigrants into furniture-making had its beginnings in the gold rush days when Chinese miners made wooden boxes to transport gold back to China. Their furniture, often made from rattan and Australian cedar, appealed to people on limited incomes both for its price and contemporary style. Rattan is a pliable palm, soaked in water so it can be easily shaped into cane furniture.

Lonsdale, Little Lonsdale and Exhibition streets in Melbourne were the centres of the Chinese furniture trade. Some 175 Chinese firms could be found along these streets. Pressure from other furniture-makers to curtail expansion of the Chinese furniture trade brought about the Factories and Shops Act, passed by the governments of both Victoria and New South Wales in 1896. All Chinese-made furniture had to be stamped with the words 'Chinese labour'. The legislation also regulated the definition of a factory: whereas a minimum of four Europeans were considered to constitute a factory, one Chinese person could be legally considered a factory.

During the depression of the 1890s, many Chinese cabinet-makers lost their jobs and turned to running laundries. In a few years almost every suburb in Melbourne had its own Chinese laundry. In 1913, 31 per cent of Victorian laundry workers were Chinese, compared with less than 5 per cent in New South Wales where, despite less stringent regulations, they failed to attract significant custom from the Anglo-Australian community.