Underfoot: history from below

Underfoot is a series of virtual multimedia tours uncovering the secret histories of Footscray. Two old friends, both long-time Footscray residents, bring an intimate lens to local history as they travel through the archives looking for people like them: queers, migrants, radicals, and artists. Here, creators Liz Crash and Jinghua Qian discuss the ethos and methodology behind their project, and what’s thrilling about local history.

Jinghua Qian: I think a lot of people assume that local history is boring. I did. When I started to get interested in history as a teenager, the part that appealed to me was the conflict between competing worldviews: I loved the sense that another world was possible – a whole different way of living and being and thinking – and that the future wasn’t predetermined or inevitable. That’s what I found exciting about studying history, but I didn’t really see that in the way that local history was usually presented.

So with Underfoot, I wanted to look at local history in a different way, through a lens that was explicitly ideological and unabashedly ours, because that’s what I felt was missing. Like, what if we made a local history walking tour, but it was virtual, and accessible online, and charmingly idiosyncratic? What if we were transparent about being queer leftist feminists, and we foregrounded our memories and obsessions rather than trying to produce something neutral or universal? Because part of the draw of the hyperlocal is the sentiment. There’s a political and emotional commitment to this community. Footscray means something to us because it’s where we live.

Liz Crash: And we’ve both lived here for a long time. In that time, we’ve seen a lot of changes. Growing up in the 90s, we knew Footscray as a working-class post-industrial area and a home to many migrant communities. More recently, like many deindustrialised suburbs close to a city centre, it’s experienced rapid gentrification, new building development, and many changes in the population. There’s so much I remember from my childhood that there’s no trace of anymore. But what might have been here before I was born? What didn’t we know?

Footscray was built on stolen Kulin nation land, since changed fundamentally by vast and arrogant earthworks that are never mentioned. After white settlement, it was the bluest of blue-collar suburbs for about 150 years. But the streets aren’t named after the people who paved them, and the factories weren’t named after the workers inside them. Why would they be? We don’t commemorate the masses; we commemorate special people, leaders, the elite.

Jinghua: Something we didn’t want to do was replace these heroes. Even in the left or in anti-racist movements, there’s often this tendency to look for new idols, to try to reinstate the marginalised or the subaltern into their rightful place in the record. And certainly, part of what we wanted to do was to find the stories missing from the narrative, but I’m really resistant to the idea of heroes. That’s in large part because time and time again I’ve seen my idols unmasked as abusers.

Liz: After you’ve had your heart broken like that a few times, you do start to think: what’s the idea of a hero for? Is it just to protect people from criticism? What does it do exactly apart from that? It seems like it’s not very useful to us.

Jinghua: It’s not useful to us. What excites me is mass mobilisation, the democratisation of power, and the idea that we’re all equally invested in our future. I don’t want to topple one statue and put up another.

Liz: But it’s much harder to find out much about the lives of people who don’t get a statue. We knew that Footscray couldn’t have been all white, all straight, all male, all winners, all bosses, all captains of industry, but we weren’t sure what else we’d be able to uncover. We had to go into our research without a predetermined idea of what the final story would be.

And it’s this, I think, that’s more useful for those of us on the Left than mining the past for forebears, or new heroes: seeing its radical unfamiliarity. History can expand your sense of what is possible, if you let it. It’s not that things were necessarily better or worse in the past, but they were different, and different in ways I could never have predicted.

Jinghua: We were both drawn to the idea that progress is not linear, that solidarity is not inevitable. Or as April Rosenblum says in The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, ‘oppression doesn’t go away by itself. You have to take action.’1

Liz: To find the kind of stories we were interested in, we had to cast a really broad net. We made heavy use of the National Library of Australia’s digital archives of historical newspapers through Trove, and particularly their searchable text. That allowed us to skim primary sources without knowing exactly what we were looking for. It also appealed to us that anyone could go to Trove and read the primary sources for themselves. We wanted to make people think this was something they could do themselves.

Jinghua: It can be quite intimidating to approach history as a discipline. We chose to start each track in the present day – starting with our own memories and mistaken assumptions – to cut through that sense of history as a rarefied pursuit. We wanted to bring research and rigour to this project, but we also wanted Underfoot to sit in this space between history, memory and storytelling that feels a little more open and accessible. Because when we talk about history from below, we mean the production, format, and methodology as well as the content.

Liz: We wanted the stories to be accessible in lots of different ways, so you can listen to the tracks as standalone audio stories, read them as illustrated and annotated texts, follow the tracks in real life as a self-guided tour, or explore the tracks virtually through online maps. Or you can dive into the archives yourself – we’ve left lots of entry points through citations. 

Jinghua: We really wanted Underfoot to feel like an invitation to come on this trip with us. Everyone can write history, and everyone can make history.

Now let’s head to the streets of Footscray…


Native Sons

Jinghua Qian: So this is where it all started! 42 Albert Street, on the corner of Raleigh Street. It used to be the Dancing Dog café, I’d come here for coffees pretty often. This is the place that got me wondering about all the hidden histories here in Footscray.

Liz Crash: We both noticed the sign on the top of the building, which says Australian Natives Association Friendly Society. And we both assumed it was an Aboriginal organisation. But it turned out to be a society for white men who were born in Australia. Alfred Deakin was a member, so was Edmund Barton, a lot of the Federation era politicians. They campaigned for Federation and immigration restrictions and protectionism.

Jinghua: It was founded in 1871. Back then, most of the government was made up of people who were born in Britain. So white people who were born in Australia were just starting to develop their own identity around that, in contrast to the British-born, and they called themselves ‘natives’.

Liz: One of the ways the ANA tried to make a hostile environment for Chinese workers was by encouraging consumer boycotts of Chinese goods.

Jinghua: Yeah, they also lobbied for furniture stamping, that’s why you see the ‘Chinese labour’ and ‘European labour only’ stamps on old furniture. It’s like the 1930s version of buying Australian-made linen smock dresses, you’d get your white labour chairs and sugar. But there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, and no ethical consumption under colonisation.

Liz: And in any case, they had a bit of a problem getting these boycotts going because it was women who did most of the shopping. And the white women of Footscray weren’t initially on board. Which is not to say they weren’t racist, but they weren’t racist enough to overlook a bargain.

The anti-Chinese campaigners spent a long time trying to change this, initially not very successfully. The local papers in the 1880s and 1890s are always whingeing that ‘women above all are the most inveterate of freetraders’.2 The same papers pointed to the fact that women didn’t participate much in the anti-Chinese consumer boycott as evidence that they shouldn’t have the vote3 – they were clearly incapable of thinking about things politically or collectively. This is something you’ve done quite a lot of research on, Jinghua.

Jinghua: Yeah, when I was initially researching this stuff for an essay I wrote for Right Now a few years ago, the first thing that really struck me was that these were labour activists.4 But it wasn’t a contradiction for them to attack Chinese workers in the name of equality because for them, Chinese people were inherently unequal. Like Prime Minister Edmund Barton said, ‘The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman.’

Liz: Ah, all part of building a democratic nation.

Jinghua: That was the dream: only a white nation could be a democratic nation.

Who is the working class?

Liz: In 1942, Moira James, the first ever female organiser for the Munition Workers Union, organised a rally in Railway Reserve of munition factory workers, who were predominantly young women.5

Moira was also a Communist.6 The local MP, a Labor Party man called Jack Mullens, described her as a ‘Communist amazon… strong in physique, but doubtful in her femininity.’And talking about her work organising young women factory workers, Mullens said:

…a decent, refined, unsophisticated girl […] suddenly finds herself in an environment due to the war, working in an industry where she can be bossed, body and soul, by a domineering creature such as Moira James.

Jinghua: God, he really attacks her as this predatory butch character.

Liz: It’s pretty wild. I would love it if she was a lesbian, but we have no actual evidence either way. It’s basically just an attempt to use homophobia to discredit her.

Jinghua: It’s interesting how he projects worker exploitation onto the union organiser, too: ‘bossed body and soul’. We all know this kind of attack, the way it paints her as not a real woman but instead a threat to women. Obviously, that happens a lot to trans women, butch women, Black women, intersex women even now – you see it in the transphobic debates around toilets, you see it in women’s sport. It’s this idea that you have to exclude all these women to protect real women. 

There’s a very specific type of woman who’s worthy of protection, and usually it’s not a real woman. It’s a mythical figure of frailty that’s weaponised against people of colour, against trans and intersex people, against women who aren’t sufficiently feminine. The ‘real woman’ is a hypothetical woman.

Liz: Which is an idea that’s often promoted by women themselves, particularly white women – that women, white women, are the pure, respectable, moral guardians of the community as a whole.

Jinghua: If we cross over the train tracks from Railway Reserve and follow the tram line until we hit Barkly/Hopkins, there were several Chinese businesses here that were prosecuted under the Shops and Factories Act in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Act came through in 1896 after a lot of lobbying from white labour activists who basically argued that all Chinese businesses were sweatshops, until that got enshrined in law.

The Act defined a single Chinese person as a factory.8 Even white people recognised it was pretty unfair, like obviously that’s not really about worker exploitation. In 1902, Ming Sing, a Chinese guy who had a laundry on Hopkins St near the corner of Leeds, was charged because he was ironing late on a Friday night and the Act said he couldn’t work past 5pm.9 He tried to say that he didn’t work on Mondays and Tuesdays but Fridays were always busy because he had to get everything done for the weekend. It’s basically the worst of both worlds, being a sole trader but not being able to work your own hours. Anyway, the judge was sympathetic, but Ming Sing still had to pay the fine and costs.

Liz: Another part of the anti-Chinese movement was the idea that Chinese men were a sexual threat to white women, and specifically that they might lure white women into sex work. But also, there was a lot of kind of weird lurid language flying around that implied Chinese men were kind of gay?

Jinghua: Yeah, it’s the same kind of vague sense of perversion lobbed at Moira James. In the 1800s the anti-Chinese rhetoric really drew from every well. So, because most of the Chinese migrants were men, you see this stuff like ‘ooh, what do all these Chinamen get up to together’ alongside panic about protecting white women. Whether or not the sex is paid, whether or not it’s consensual, it doesn’t really matter because it’s all still miscegenation.

There’s this article from the Footscray paper in 1887 titled ‘The Yellow Agony’ and it says that Chinese men’s want of moral training is ‘such that they have no objection to clubbing together and maintaining one frail female in semi-luxury but sickening debauchery’.10 So that really combines a few different flavours of implied perversion.

Liz: They manage to make it sound pretty good, to be honest! But you still see most of the same arguments today, just with some bits rearranged.

Jinghua: Yeah, I do think it’s interesting how it’s been rearranged – these days, Chinese and East Asian men are often desexualised. White nationalists have transferred that sexual threat onto Black men and Muslim men. And Asian women are represented as kind of inherently tied to the sex trade, whether as trafficking victims or just garden-variety gold diggers. That’s faded a little now as well compared to when I was growing up, but it’s definitely still lingering.

And then on the Shops and Factories Act, too, Australian trade unions still use faux concern for migrant workers to frame them as a threat to Australian workers, to real workers.

Liz: Which is interesting, actually, because that is exactly the attitude Moira James, the Munition Workers Union organiser, came up against when she was arguing unions should support equal pay for men and women.11 Fundamentally, Trades Hall Council, the peak union body in Victoria, saw their role as protecting men’s jobs, and working women were a threat to that. Trades Hall only supported equal pay when it became obvious that it wasn’t possible to keep women out of men’s jobs entirely anymore. But they framed it as about protecting women, too, from rough or dirty jobs.

Jinghua: What a lot of these tensions seem to be about is who has the right to be thought of as a worker rather than a threat to workers. And that threat is often described as a sexual threat, as well as a threat to wages or conditions.

Liz: Footscray for most of its history was an industrial centre. People took a lot of pride in that; it was a big part of the community identity. It still is, to an extent. So, this is a place where tensions over who belongs here, who is respectable often take the form of: who is part of the working class?

People often think being working class is the same thing as being blue collar. So you’re working class if you work on a building site, but not if you work in an office – hence why politicians are always posing with construction tools to look down-to-earth. But I don’t think class is an aesthetic or a vibe or a hypermasculine posture. It’s about money and how you get it. People who have nothing to sell but their labour, people who rely on work or welfare, that’s the working class. And we have more in common with each other than the people we might be working for.

Jinghua: It’s quite tragic the way that this narrow imagining of class can foreclose possibilities for solidarity across gender and race and different industries and, of course, across borders. Work is more and more casual and more and more global so we’re doomed if we can’t figure out how to reach across.

Worst Smellbourne

Liz Crash: A widespread heap of decaying entrails, offal, plucks, and coagulated blood, spread out for a long distance under water, and rising above it at the discharge. The contents of the stomachs, and a host of other products of slaughtering on a large scale, are poured into the river, to be spread up and down as the tide flows… A dead sheep, swollen ready to burst, floats close in shore… the river is red with the mixture of blood it contains.

That’s what a local journalist12 saw in 1887, right about where I’m standing now, on the west bank of the Maribyrnong River, in Footscray.

The blood was from the first major settler industry on the Maribyrnong river – slaughterhouses, abattoirs. There were lots of industries that sprung up around slaughterhouse products and by-products – leather tanning, bone grinding, tallow melting, soap making, fertiliser – but by the time they got their raw materials, it had usually been a couple days since slaughter and they hadn’t been cleaned off. The stench was unbelievable. People complained about it constantly.

Growing up in the Western suburbs gives you a bit of a chip on your shoulder. You’re used to being mocked, and it makes you defensive. Footscray is a bit gentrified now, a bit trendy, but when I was growing up here in the 90s, it was definitely not cool.

I remember when I was eight or nine, a kid from another area confidently declared that Footscray smelled bad. And I was furious, but I was also baffled. Footscray smelled pretty much like everywhere else in Melbourne, as far as I could tell. I concluded that the smell she was talking about was a metaphorical smell, the smell of low class.

And that was a pretty good piece of amateur sociological analysis, but it turns out that people have been saying Footscray smells bad for generations, and for most of that time Footscray smelled terrible.

In 1882, Footscray was at peak smelliness. People used to call it Worst Smellbourne. That was also the year the Footscray Rowing Club won the Clarke Challenge Cup, a major national championship on their own home practice river of Maribyrnong. The locals went wild. The rivals were people from rich places like Toorak who practised on the Yarra. It was a victory for the whole township.

Visitors were less enthralled with the event, mainly because they kept getting splashed with blood and fat and chunks of rotting flesh in the river. A few years later, the regatta was moved to Albert Park Lake.

Footscray people complained bitterly and accused the regatta crowd of being a pack of sooks.13 On the face of it, that’s absurd. Not wanting to get splashed with rotting entrails is not exclusive to the aristocracy.

But if that seems absurd, so does this: after winning the championship in 1882, the Footscray squad was disqualified from ever competing again, because too many of them were manual workers.14 It was judged that having to be strong for your job made you basically a professional athlete, and it was an amateur competition. Hence, disqualification. Thus, the dominance of the upper classes in the sport of rowing was assured. So, when the rowing authorities rejected the smells of the Maribyrnong, it was in a context where they’d already rejected the people of Footscray. They had punished them for daring to excel at something the upper classes had decided was theirs. The smell in this case was real, but it was also a metaphor for disgust and contempt for the working class.

People in Footscray did try and fight industrial pollution. But the factory owners pushed back with the narrative that if you loved Footscray’s people, you loved its smells. They framed themselves as job creators, pioneers of Footscray, pillars of the economy, and they stacked out the council and the local media. If you didn’t want to smell rotting meat all day, you were a Toorak toff, a fancy boy.15

It was pretty unpleasant to learn about this because I realised, had I been around at the time, that incredibly cynical PR strategy would have totally worked on me. I used to say I personally wouldn’t care if the whole planet got paved over. I knew it would be a bad idea, I just couldn’t relate to the environmentalists I met – they seemed like annoying hippies who loved ‘forests’ and hated ‘heavily polluted post-industrial regions’. And when I first became interested in industrial history, it was because it made me feel at home, it made me feel more connected to my family and my community. But so many people in my family and my community have been hurt by industrial accidents and poisonings and disease. They played me like a fucking fiddle.

Footscray Fascists

Jinghua Qian: These days, the shopping strip on Victoria Street, Seddon, is a fashionable spot that buzzes with a brunching crowd on weekends. But in the 1970s, it was part of Footscray – which was a hub of fascist activity.

On 25 May 1975, the Yugoslav travel agency at 154a Victoria Street was bombed. The blast blew out the shopfront and took off the roof, and damaged many other buildings including the church across the road.16

As Jeff Sparrow recently wrote, ‘The most sustained terror campaign in this country’s history was conducted by a Croatian fascist group usually known as the Ustasha.’17 In Sydney, they had bombed the Yugoslav Consulate in 1969 and a Yugoslav travel agency in 1972. In Melbourne, their activities centred on Footscray.18

In the 60s and 70s, Footscray had become notorious as a hub for Croatian fascist separatists who supported the Ustasha – the Croatian allies of the Nazis who’d murdered hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Roma during World War II. After the war, the antifascist resistance took over and Croatia became part of communist Yugoslavia. But pro-Ustasha groups still hoped to claw back power. One way was to mobilise the diaspora.

In Footscray, these factions would hang out at Tomislavgrad café on Hopkins Street and Senoa bookshop on Barkly Street, which sold pro-Ustasha magazines, some with recipes for bombs. There were often brawls between Ustasha sympathisers and other Croatians or Yugoslavs. One man was even murdered.

It’s all pretty hectic and when I first learned about this history, I was surprised there wasn’t a memorial of some sort – even just a plaque between all the fancy cafés that are around here now. But it also makes sense that we don’t hear about it.

Years ago, I used to work at an organisation for multicultural broadcasters, and one day an elderly Croatian man called in, quite distressed, saying that fascist sympathisers had taken over the local Croatian community radio program. That was the first time I’d ever heard of the Ustasha. I talked him through how to put in a complaint to ACMA, but I was pretty pessimistic at his chances. Australian media authorities are really soft on even blatant examples of racism in English-language media – I couldn’t see them acting on something that required background reading.

Australians tend to avoid difficult topics. Multiculturalism, here, is colourful and shallow – we want migrants to bring over their food and music, not their homeland drama. A complicated sectarian conflict that’s not just about religion or language but also communism, fascism, nationalism, and independence? Forget it.

But we can’t forget it because these fascists are still around. In 2019, my friend and I confronted a man flaunting a swastika tattoo at Footscray station. Later that year, residents had to campaign to get Maribyrnong Aquatic Centre to acknowledge that swastikas are intimidating.19 The Croatian Club in Footscray still has a statue of Ustasha leader Ante Pavelić.

There’s a danger in telling this story this way. Maybe you’ll write it off as just some Croatian thing. Maybe you’ll reach for the default Australian response to any problem: ignore it or deport it. I hope not. The far right is a growing threat all over the world. Australia has already exported a white supremacist mass murderer to Christchurch. Ethnonationalism is a problem for every community. History is happening now, and it doesn’t freeze if you look away.


Image: Chinese furniture makers, Little Bourke-Street. Wood engraving, 24 April 1888.


  1. April Rosenblum, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, 2007
  2. ‘The Yellow Agony’, The Independent, 4 November 1887
  3. ‘Woman’s Rights’, The Independent, 23 November 1891
  4. Jinghua Qian, ‘Things and their makers: From “European labour only” to “ethical consumerism”’, Right Now, 8 September 2015
  5. ‘Women war-workers help run trade unions’, Australian Women’s Weekly, 8 August 1942
  6. ‘Women In War! Hear Communist Women Speak’, The Herald, 13 November 1942
  7. ‘A Victorian Communists’ Who’s Who. An Extract from Hansard’, Advocate, 2 August 1944
  8. The Factories Act of 1896 stated: ‘Factory or work-room’ shall mean – any office building or place in which four or more persons other than a Chinese or in which any one or more Chinese persons are or is employed directly or indirectly in working in any handicraft or in preparing or manufacturing articles for trade or sale.’
  9. ‘One Chinaman a Factory. A Sympathetic Bench’, The Independent, 29 March 1902
  10. ‘The Yellow Agony’, op. cit.
  11. ‘Mr A.W. Coles, MHR, Under Fire. THC’s Objection To Replacing Men With Women In Industry’, Labor Call, 1 May 1941. This 1941 Trades Hall Council debate over the issue of the approach trade unions should take to equal pay for women presents a fascinating microcosm of the range of views within the Australian labour movement on the issue. 
  12. ‘Out in a Gondola, At Low Water’, The Independent, 27 August 1887, p 3.
  13. John Lack, A History of Footscray, 1991, Hargreen Publishing Company, p 101.
  14. Darren Arthur, ‘A “dirty moleskin crowd”: The Footscray rowing eight, amateurism and the manual labour issue at the annual Melbourne Regatta, 1880-1886′, Sporting Traditions, v.35, no.1, May 2018
  15. Lack, p. 100
  16. ‘From the Archives, 1975: Bomb destroys Footscray travel centre’, The Age, originally published 26 May 1975, republished online 24 May 2020
  17. Jeff Sparrow, ‘Ignoring the Fascist Threat’, Jacobin, 11 March 2020
  18. ‘Ustasha’s New Anti-Semitism’, Tribune, 9 October 1973
  19. Benjamin Millar, ‘Nazi tattoo backlash prompts Maribyrnong Aquatic Centre crackdown’, Star Weekly, 10 January 2020


Read the rest of Overland 241

If you enjoyed this piece, buy the issue

Or subscribe and receive
four brilliant issues for a year

Jinghua Qian

Jinghua Qian is a writer, critic and commentator often found thinking about race, resistance, art, desire, queerness and the Chinese diaspora. Born in Shanghai, Jinghua now lives and works in Melbourne on the land of the Kulin nations.
jinghuaqian.com, @qianjinghua.

More by Jinghua Qian ›

Liz Crash

Liz Crash is an independent historian based in the Western suburbs of Melbourne (Kulin land).

More by Liz Crash ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays