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Coming to Work

Coming to Work

Horizons told the stories of migrants who packed their bags and often their tools of trade to begin a new life in Australia. Attracted by work opportunities, and encouraged by a government seeking their skills, many arrived in this country with little more than the will to succeed.

This exhibition told these stories through personal possessions and narratives. The scope of objects on offer from dental equipment to barber's tools gave visitors an insight into the diversity of migration experiences.

Read the stories below of Mei Quong Tart, an entrepreneurial Chinese businessman, Lilija Brakmanis, a Latvian-trained dentist whose professional equipment sat idle for many years, and Vincenzo Dublé, a Sicilian-born barber who made Melbourne his home.

Quong's Buddha, Courtesy Lois McEvoy, National Museum of Australia
Quong's Buddha
Courtesy Lois McEvoy

Mei Quong Tart: child of the goldfields

Mei Quong Tart from Canton never missed an opportunity and there were plenty on the New South Wales goldfields where he grew up in the 1850s. He lived with Scottish settlers, adopted their customs, and spoke English with a Scottish accent. By the 1890s, he was a prominent business figure in Sydney and was widely respected in the colony.

A generous employer

Around 1900, Quong Tart was planning to make all his employees shareholders in his company. He paid his workers meal allowances and holiday and sick pay.

Many faiths

Although an Anglican, Quong Tart had each of his six children baptised and educated in different Christian denominations to avoid favouring one church over others. He also kept a wooden shrine in his home containing a figure of Buddha. This was on display in Horizons.

Bringing culture to the colony

Quong Tart and some employees at his tearooms, Sydney, around 1900. Courtesy Lois McEvoy, National Museum of Australia
Quong Tart and some employees at his tearooms, Sydney, around 1900.
Courtesy Lois McEvoy

Quong Tart's nine stylish tearooms delighted Sydney society in the 1880s and 1890s. Loose tea was stored in elegant pewter caddies. Customers sipped the finest Chinese teas and ate familiar European food from crockery hand-painted in China.

Success in Australia

Quong Tart was an unofficial ambassador and interpreter for the Chinese community in Sydney. Recognising his prominence, the colony's lieutenant governor presented him with a testimonial in 1888. In 1889, the Chinese emperor appointed him as a mandarin. He died in 1903.

Lilija Brakmanis: barriers to success

In 1944, Lilija Brakmanis fled the Russian invasion of Latvia. She took her dentistry equipment with her. When Australia advertised for skilled migrants, she looked forward to practising her profession in a new land, but her equipment sat idle for many years.

Brakmanis's qualifications were not officially recognised, so she worked as a housekeeper and cleaner instead. Eventually, she was able to operate a limited dental practice in Canberra.

Well-travelled tools

Pedal driven dentist drill, Donated by John Jankaus, National Museum of Australia, Photography: Gerald Preiss
Pedal driven dentist drill
Donated by John Jankaus, National Museum of Australia, Photography: Gerald Preiss

Brakmanis's dentist's drill and spittoon are on display in the Museum. These were made in Germany during the 1930s and used by her in Latvia, Germany and eventually Australia.

Proof of qualification

An English translation of Brakmanis's dentistry qualifications represented hope for a new life and professional work opportunities in Australia. The document was made in Germany's Meerbeck refugee camp by the United Nations Refugee Organisation.

Vincenzo Dublé: have tools, will travel

In the 1920s and 1930s, economic depression hit Italy hard. Men left the country in their thousands to escape poverty and political upheaval. Some were enticed by Italian shipping agents who promoted Australia as a land of opportunity.

Twenty thousand Italians arrived in Australia between 1922 and 1930. Four out of five were men. Although most intended to return home, many settled permanently in Australia.

Vincenzo Dublé brought his barber's tools with him to Australia. He began working as a travelling barber and a potato-picker before finding full-time employment in a Melbourne salon. In 1934, his wife and children followed him to Australia.

From barber to businessman

Vin's Palace, Coburg, 1937 (Vincenzo Dublé in salon)
Vin's Palace, Coburg, 1937 (Vincenzo Dublé in salon). Mrs Vincenza Dublé Collection, National Museum of Australia

In Sicily, Dublé's skills as a barber were complemented by his knowledge and skills in dentistry, giving injections, stitching wounds, using leeches to let blood, setting animal and human bones, and making plasters.

After working in Melbourne salons for a few years, Dublé made enough money to go it alone. In 1936, he opened a barbershop in Bell Street, Coburg. Vin's Palace became a well-known business in the area.