I could find only one handsome Chinese shop in all Melbourne, and that was kept by a ‘celestial’ individual rejoicing in the name of Fong Fat. He indeed, had an excellent display of Chinese fancy goods, in the way of carved ivory work, ebony work, porcelain baskets — besides tea and tobacco. (Carter 1870, 54).
In 1873, four businesses in the Eastern Arcade, Bourke Street, Melbourne, were listed as fancy goods dealers. Popular in arcades and in locations on the city streets, fancy goods stores had a wide variety of products for the home and personal use.
One of these was occupied by Chinese merchant and importer, Fong Fat, whose store occupied two shopfronts – numbers 11 and 13 – but his fancy goods were a little different to many of the products to be found in similar stores in colonial Melbourne and, indeed, in the Eastern Arcade.
Fong Fat was already well-established in the city as a fancy goods dealer, having run such a business at 98 Swanston Street since July 1868 (Herald, 18 July 1868, 1), before opening this second branch in the ostensibly prestigious location of the Eastern Arcade, in December 1872 (Argus, 18 December 1872, 2).
In his stores, he carried Chinese (and some Japanese) products, including manufactured goods, such as carved ivory and ebony ware, porcelain crockery, silk and cotton, dress trimmings, fans, workboxes, tea caddies firecrackers, baskets, slippers, bamboo blinds and fishing rods, Japanese toothpowder, and Chinese crackers, but also consumables such as tea, tobacco, coffee, sugar, and spices.
Advertising indicates that he utilised connections in mainland China to import these treasures himself, for ‘All kinds of Chinese fancy goods [were] imported by Fong Fat direct from Canton … [including] chinaware, direct from the celebrated house of Messrs. Bow Hing and Co.’ for his Swanston Street store (Herald, 18 July 1868, 1). Later ‘he obtained all the newest novelties in China goods expressly for’ his new store in the arcade in 1872 (Argus, 18 December 1872, 2).
We gain an idea of what some of these goods may have looked like by taking a glance some of the imported Chinese items in the collection of Museums Victoria, including an ivory fan box, a silk and ivory fan, and a carved bone fan. Although these objects are of a slightly later date (1880), they perhaps represent some of what customers might be able to buy in Fong Fat’s shops.
The presence of a Chinese shopkeeper in a shopping arcade, a space that is perhaps imagined as a white, elite zone of occupation and leisure, may seem unusual, but such goods fed the desire for ‘Oriental’ and exotic goods in demand in Britain and Europe. But they were also desired, and available, in regional and metropolitan Australia during the latter half of the nineteenth century into the twentieth (e.g., Loy-Wilson 2014, 2017).
We can see from newspaper advertising that a surprising number of shops and businesses in the Australian arcades captured the Orientalist desires of the consumer in the settler colonial landscape. These included importers of Japanese and Chinese silks, furniture and other wares, Indian and Chinese tea shops, Oriental Bazaars, Turkish baths, and more. Many, but not all, were owned and run by non-British or European Australians like Fong Fat.
Fong Fat only lasted a year in the Eastern Arcade, vacating when his lease ran out at the end of 1873. The last we hear of him, as a fancy goods seller at least, is at his Swanston Street store in December 1874.
Who was Fong Fat and what happened to him after this last mention? Is he the man of the same name running a Chinese lottery and gambling den in Little Collins Street in 1875 (Weekly Times, 10 July 1875, 11)? Is he the Fong Fat who was fined for creating noxious gas in 1876 from his opium refinery? (PROV, VPRS 3181/PO/660/473)? Is he the Fong Fatee that appears with his wife on the Melbourne stage in the 1880s? Do we see him donating fruit and tea to the hospital fete committee in Hay, New South Wales, in 1893?
I’m asking these and other questions during the next few weeks, as I try to piece his story together. I have found some interesting information about his personal life already, gleaned from court records, newspapers, inquests, and other documents that I’ve been scouring. In Part Two of this post I’ll talk more about Font Fat’s Chinese wife, Quinti, and their daughter, Ah Chow, as well as his shop assistant, who was later his wife, Catherine Downey.
Public Record Office Victoria, VPRS 3181 [Melbourne City Council] Town Clerk’s Files, Series I
Charles Rooking Carter, Victoria, the British ‘El Dorado’: Or: Melbourne in 1869 (London: Edward Stanford, 1870)
Sophie Loy-Wilson, ‘Rural Geographies and Chinese Empires: Chinese Shopkeepers and Shop-Life in Australia’, Australian Historical Studies 45.3 (2014): 407–424.
Sophie Loy-Wilson, Australians in Shanghai: Race, Rights and Nation in Treaty Port China (London & New York: Routledge, 2017)
Allom Lovell & Associates, The Royal Arcade: Conservation Management Plan (Melbourne: Allom Lovell & Associates, 1995)
Barbara Salisbury, The Strand Arcade: A History (Marrickville: Southwood Press, 1990)