An opinionated timeline of threads, coincidences and contextual stuff

The Chinese Workers Union in Melbourne existed from the early 1880s through to 1909. It’s members were mostly migrants from the ‘Four Districts’ (Sze Yap) around Guangdong.

This timeline aims to inform my sense of who they were, what was happening in their lives, the nature of Chinese immigration to Australia (and the formation of the racist ‘White Australia’ regime), and the contemporary world events that might have impacted on those migrants (particularly the relationship between the rulers of China and those of the British Empire).

Continue reading

Toward a treatment

The film’s opening scene dwells on the craft of cabinet-making. Graceful movements, close-ups of wood grain, of planes and chisels, and falling sawdust. We are sort decoupled from time, this could be the present or the past. A voiceover, in Chinese…

Melbourne: some context

The film is not just set in Melbourne, it is essentially about Melbourne as well. The city was barely 60 years old when the Chinese cabinet-makers were flexing their industrial muscles. This sense of a place in-flux, a city still being built, is an important element in the story. Indeed, the drive on the part of the colonial authorities to have this as a “white” city on a “white” continent at all costs is vital to understanding the context.

So where or when does the history of the city of Melbourne begin?

Continue reading

A synopsis

This film explores the hidden history of the Chinese Workers Union, and their base among the Chinese cabinetmakers in Melbourne from the mid-1880s until the decline of the industry just three decades later. Through determined organising and a series of strikes the cabinetmakers were able to win dramatic improvements in wages and conditions. Their power peaked in 1903, with a dramatic and eventually victorious 12-week strike that brought Chinatown to a standstill and saw a series of violent confrontations with the police and strikebreakers. Just two years after Australian Federation and the birth of the “White Australia” policy, these Chinese Melbournians were not the passive, disempowered victims so often portrayed in mainstream histories. They stood proud and fought valiantly in the face of extreme hostility from the authorities, the media, the mainstream union movement, and even the local Chinese community.

Who were these heroes? Their names were never recorded. Their faces never photographed. On the lists of labour luminaries that adorn the walls of Victorian Trades Hall, there is not a single Chinese name. In our history textbooks the only Chinese names belong to grovelling diplomats and arrogant envoys. To the journalists of the day, these hundreds of defiant working class militants who rioted in Russell Street, who threatened to burn down the factories, and who resisted the tide by refusing to be treated like subhuman slaves were simply “the Chinamen.”

It’s time their story was finally told.