Q & A with Peter Charles Gibson, author of Made in Chinatown

Portrait photo of Peter Charles Gibson

Made in Chinatown was published in March this year. The book delves into a little-known aspect of Australia’s past: its hundreds of Chinese furniture factories. These businesses thrived in the post-goldrush era, becoming an important economic activity for Chinese immigrants and their descendants and a vital part of Australia’s furniture industry. Guided by Chinese manufacturers’ and workers’ own reflections and records, this book examines how these factories operated under the exclusionary vision of White Australia. We caught up with Peter to ask him a few questions about his motivations for writing the book, its significance and his writing process.

What gave you the inspiration to write this book?

I was inspired by the activities and lives of the people in the book, which I thought deserved greater publicity and recognition than I could offer through a PhD thesis, on which the book is based. I chose to look at this topic largely by accident, having found a large collection of old insolvency and bankruptcy files.

What were your influences?

Other than the book’s subjects, I was influenced by accomplished and diligent scholars, especially my main dissertation supervisor Julia Martínez at the University of Wollongong and my friend Huang Zhong at Wuhan University. In addition, a number of people within the Chinese communities of Wollongong and Sydney, and more recently Nanjing, Jiangsu, China, have been positive influences regarding the writing process.

Do you have personal links or ties to the history described in the book?

I collected and scrutinised all of the primary sources and used them to write the thesis over five years and spent another two years rewriting the thesis into a book, so I do indeed feel very close to the history. The research was also partly an exercise in diplomacy. Since my Chinese is poor, I needed some help with Chinese-language materials, so I reached out to native speakers, and together we have forged lasting friendships.

What did you find surprising during your research, is there something that stands out?

I was surprised to find such a vast amount of historical source material on this subject, enough for a book, yet I had heard so very little about it previously in Australian history. 

What was the most interesting?

I found the courtroom testimonies and financial records of ordinary Chinese factory workers, which make up a large part of the book, the most interesting. I think that’s because workers in general tend to leave behind little evidence of their lives, and so are commonly left out of historical writing.

How would you describe your writing process?

It was gruelling, with round after round of feedback and changes, but ultimately rewarding.

What did you edit out of this book?

The book is based on a doctoral thesis, which I revised heavily with much assistance from Sydney University Press. It is shorter and lighter with a different structure, reflecting the different intended audiences, that is, thesis examiners versus general readers.

Why is this book important, and what do you hope readers take away from it?

The book is important, I think, in terms of increasing the diversity of Australian history, which has for a long time sidelined Chinese migrants and their descendants. I hope readers find some interest in the activities of these furniture manufacturers and workers, as I have, and recognise that they were there and that they mattered.

Is there anything that you would have done differently?

I would have taken high-quality photos of materials like work contracts and factory invoices, which I think would have made nice additions to the book. Sadly, I only took rough photos for my own reference, not expecting to need them for publication.

Made in Chinatown is part of the China and the West in the Modern World series published by Sydney University Press. The focus of this series is how ideas, beliefs and cultural practices in China and Western nations are understood – or sometimes misunderstood by both parties. Other books in this series are South Flows the Pearl and the Poison of Polygamy.