Hand in Hand with Crossed Top Plates: Mapping the Contribution of Chinese Carpenters to the Production and Installation of Prefabricated ‘Singapore Cottages’ in Melbourne

Dr John Ting3

3University of Canberra, Canberra, Australia

Prefabricated houses were imported into Victoria during the 1850s gold rush to address the lack of builders in the state. Manufactured by British colonial interests in Singapore, their architecture displayed European influence through their type, scale and form. However, they can also be seen as adapting vernacular approaches as the construction details of these buildings clearly show the involvement of migrant Chinese and Malay carpenters. As timber buildings, construction details were not masked or covered up but expressed as integrated parts of the architecture. The roof structures display Malay intermediate beams, and Chinese crossed top plates are used on top of the wall framing. Long runs of horizontal timber members were joined in what the Chinese call a ‘hand in hand’ connection (also known in European carpentry as ‘lightning scarf’ joints). These systems were not self-evident, and often required Singapore carpenters to accompany knocked-down prefabricated houses to export markets like Australia. This paper investigates why these highly skilled Chinese carpenters left their home country, how they might have implemented their skills in Singapore, and how they then came to move on to other colonial jurisdictions. It also examines the legacy of nineteenth century Chinese carpentry and construction practices in Australia.


Dr. John Ting is an architect, researcher and educator. He teaches in the architecture program at the University of Canberra, with a PhD from the University of Melbourne and a professional degree in architecture from RMIT University. His present research investigates Sarawak’s architectural history, the vernacular architecture of Malaysia, and mobile and prefabricated timber buildings in nineteenth century colonial Southeast Asia and Australia. He is the author of The History of Architecture in Sarawak before Malaysia, published in 2018.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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