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Opinion: Family migrants’ history beyond English proficiency

David and Mabel c1942 Source: Mabel Wang’s private collection

You do not need language to do that and in fact it inspires people to improve their language skills, just like David when he became a councillor.

In last week’s federal budget new English language requirements for Partner visa applicants and their permanent resident sponsors, were introduced. In an interview, the acting minister for immigration, Alan Tudge clarified that if prospective partner visa holders do not want to take a English test to demonstrate “basic conversational English”, they would be required to undergo 500 hours of free English language lessons before they would be eligible for a visa. Mr Tudge claims that these measures matter to ensure jobs, civil participation and social cohesion.

In the last decades Australia’s migration program has prioritised skilled migrants over family migrants.  In 2018-19, there were 47,247 in the family migrants stream (27%) and 109,713 in skilled migrants stream (62%). The budget paper announced that in 2021 the intake for the family stream will increase to 77,300, including 72,300 Partner visas. We might expect that once international borders are reopened the Australian government will work again to help foreigners reunite with their Australian spouses.

However, multiple reports and sources indicate how complex this process is, including the requirement to pay an application fee of more than $7,000 which will make it even more difficult to bring family and partner to Australia during this tumultuous year. The new English language requirements won’t make the process any easier. The reasons given in the budget paper emphasise the “economic benefits” to the community in the face of Australia’s evolving health and economic challenges. This is misleading and underestimates the cultural economy and community contributions made by family migrants over the years. It also limits our capacity to embrace being a multicultural nation in its fullest sense. 

Chinese Australian history offers plenty of lessons on this issue for the present. In my recent interviews with the late Mabel Wang (1924-2017) she told me how she and her foreign-born spouse supported and encouraged each other for resettlement in the post-war Melbourne. Her husband reached his potential as a successful Australian entrepreneur and politician. Mable was also encouraged by her husband to involve in cultural economy in the 1980s and 1990s.   

Mabel was the third generation Australia born Chinese. She met David Neng Hwan Wang (1920-1978) in 1942 in Melbourne. David was a captain with the Chinese military mission with very little knowledge of English. Language proficiency does not stand in the way of a loving relationship. 

In 1944 David left Australia and served as a liaison officer in India and Burma. Mabel raised their first child by herself and reunited David in Shanghai in 1946. Mabel recalled her stay in Shanghai as both happy and bitter. Due to Chinese civil war, they decided to move to Melbourne. 

Although Mabel was Australia born, racially-discriminatory Australian laws prevented David’s entry to Australia as a foreign spouse.  With the support of Mabel’s father, George Wing Dann Chen, David obtained approval from Arthur Calwell to enter Australia on a short-stay business permit in 1948. David and Mabel opened their small gift shop at South Yarra. With limited English, David gradually built his business and by the 1950s became a prominent Melbourne businessman dealing in imported Asian products. Mabel recalled the support and caring of Australian friends and neighbors played important role in the success of their business.    

In 1962 David’s application for his naturalization was successful. The joyful feeling of being a naturalised Australian inspired David to devote his life giving back to the community. In 1964 David and Mabel’s new modern emporium was opened in Melbourne. The emporium was a showcase of Asian fashion and culture. Their restaurant was the first to introduce Yum Cha to Melbourne in 1964. 

In 1969 David decided to begin the campaign for election to the Melbourne City Council. Mabel recalled that there was little chance of being accepted, especially as someone who had been born in China and did not speak English well. But David took the challenges regardless and was elected as the first Chinese-born councilor in Australia in August 1969. From then on, he studied English and practiced his speeches every night. During this period, one of the councilors put forward a motion that speeches could not be read in council - a motion obviously directed at David. With the support of other councillors, the motion failed. 

David chaired the “Make Melbourne Brighter“ committee which eventually resulted in a cleaner city, extended shopping hours and liberalized liquor laws. He won his seat three times and had initiated Melbourne's Chinatown project. Just before he passed away, he described “Australia as a cosmopolitan community and endorsed racial integration including mixed marriage”. 

Non-English-speaking spouses like David demonstrate that English language proficiency isn’t crucial in the process of building our community and nation today. Loving relationships and the support of community members play a much larger role in encouraging people like David and other foreign spouses today. 

Australian law, on the other hand, served as an instrument of ideology, constructing and justifying social and moral orders intended to exclude them. 

There are many ways we can tell migrant families’ stories. Focussing no languages barriers is just one. Politicians chose to present non-English speaking spouses’ language barrier as a “problem” for unemployment and social miscommunication. This misleads the Australian people into believing that simply giving 500 hours of free English language lessons may be good enough to build social cohesion. What is lost in our discussion about family migration is that building connections with community is much more important. You do not need language to do that and in fact it inspires people to improve their language skills, just like David when he became a councillor.

Dr Mei-fen Kuo is a Lecturer in Contemporary Chinese Culture and History at Macquarie University

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