If you found an ‘Asiatic labour’ stamp on the back of a piece of your furniture, what would you think? The two words, scorched into wood like branding on livestock, reveal a chapter of Australia’s history we’ve largely chosen to forget.
Federation in 1901 stands as one of the defining dates in Australian history. It is typically remembered as a time of excitement, when six separate colonies became a new nation.
But it was also a time when racism abounded, and resentment toward non-white migrants was expressed openly and vehemently.
‘Any right thinking white man needs Federation to keep out the foreign races. A vote for Federation is a vote for a white Australia,’ read an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald.
One of the first pieces of legislation the newly formed Australian Parliament created was the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, designed to exclude non-European migrants.
It would form the basis of the White Australia Policy, which would endure in different forms for much of the century.
‘For many people, this is why they voted for Federation,’ says historian Eddie Marcus.
In Western Australia, panic about non-white workers and their supposedly destabilising impact on the local labour market prompted the state government to introduce the overtly racist Factories Act.
‘In 1902, it was deemed that it was necessary for every bit of furniture to be stamped “European Labour only” or “Asiatic Labour,”‘ explains Marcus.
‘The thinking was that you, as a racist buyer, would want to buy white-only furniture.
‘It’s probably not the case that you felt it was contaminated, but what you were doing [was] you were letting down your race.’
Comments made in The West Australian newspaper in 1900 by the president of the WA Chamber of Manufacturers, EJ Bickford, show just how pervasive this attitude was.
‘The question is one of Chinese labour, and the only way to overcome the difficulty, as I pointed out in the Town Hall a few months ago, is to keep the Chinaman out of the country,’ he said.
‘People will have the cheaper class of furniture, and if the furniture dealers don’t keep it in stock the Chinamen who make it will sell for them.’
Paul Bowler, an antique dealer operating in North Fremantle, says ‘Asiatic labour’ stamps were used as a way of ‘preserving imperial heritage.’
‘In people’s minds, they would want to know that their piece of furniture was made for them by a true-blue, ridgy-didge Australian cabinet maker,’ says Bowler.
‘It had to be indelible. Otherwise you could peel off the label and get away with it.’
So did ‘Asiatic labour’ produce inferior merchandise? Paul Bowler scoffs at the suggestion.
‘Absolutely not. They were as good as anybody,’ he says.
‘They could definitely teach the Australians a thing or two at the time.’