Woman Nguyen, Cam

Ethnic leader

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Cam Nguyen has been a leading figure in ethnic community services in Australia for over thirty years. She was a founding member of the Australian Vietnamese Women's Association (AVWA), established in Melbourne in 1983. In 2014, she was still CEO of the association she had established in a collective with other women.

Born in Vietnam into a family that valued education and expected all children to achieve highly, regardless of gender, Nguyen claims that she 'did not grow up feeling as though being a woman was a disadvantage' (Speaking For Myself). She studied at Cambridge University where she read economics and was awarded a BA (Hons) and an MA. Three months after graduating, she married. Her husband, educated in France, joined the Vietnamese diplomatic service and in the early years of their marriage the Nguyen's travelled extensively. His last diplomatic posting for South Vietnam was ambassador to Japan. Cam and her husband were in Tokyo in 1975 when Saigon fell. Unable to return to their homeland, they decided to make a clean break with Asia. Their preference was to avoid monocultural societies, which left them with three realistic options; the United States, Canada and Australia. The Nguyen's did not want their children to be U.S. citizens, they thought Canada was 'a bit cold', so 'Australia was it,' said Cam. She also appreciated what she called Australia's 'low-key notion of nationhood' (Speaking For Myself).

Arriving in Australia in 1976, Cam Nguyen became an Australian citizen in 1979. She felt the need to give back to the Australian community, which she had found so welcoming, and which, in her view, allowed migrants to settle and contribute, 'without having to forget their roots' (Speaking For Myself). Initially, she wanted be involved in a Koori support group, but soon realised she was far better equipped to help her own Vietnamese community. She had the social, cultural and linguistic tools to make a difference to newly-arrived Vietnamese refugees, many of whom had suffered significant trauma in their homeland. 'The more I reflected on my skills and abilities and the challenges facing the Vietnamese community,' she said, 'the more convinced I was that it was my duty to take on a leadership role' (Price). She was also particularly concerned about the challenges facing Vietnamese women as they settled in a new country. 'Being a woman is a disadvantage, being a migrant woman is a double disadvantage, being a migrant woman from an Asian patriarchal society is a triple disadvantage,' she claimed, five years after founding the AVWA. 'That is why I wanted to start the association' (Cam Nguyen Speaks).

On 15 January 1983, Cam Nguyen held a meeting with sixteen other women to found the AVWA. In the early days, the main purpose was to assist the settlement of the Vietnamese community in Victoria. Heeding the advice of an early mentor and patron, Dame Phyllis Frost, ('don't ever take no for answer') Nguyen has overseen the growth and development of an association that started with a $200 grant for stationery into an organisation that in 2013 boasted a yearly income of $2.8 million, largely sourced from federal, state and local governments (Price). The word 'welfare was dropped from the name in 2007 not because the organisation was no longer involved in providing welfare services but because the range of programs encompassed many other services including accredited training, employment assistance, sports, multimedia, including radio production and website management.

Cam Nguyen's presence has been a source of stability throughout the life of the AVWA. She is proud of what the association has achieved, claiming it is 'unique in the Vietnamese diaspora around the world' (Price).

Additional sources: Speaking for Myself, EP. 88/13, Mrs Cam Nguyen, 1988, 538809; SBS Productions; National Film and Sound Archive.

Archival Resources

National Film and Sound Archive

  • Speaking for Myself, EP. 88/13, Mrs Cam Nguyen, 1988, 538809; SBS Productions; National Film and Sound Archive. Details

Published Resources

Online Resources

See also

Digital Resources

Cam Nguyen talks about Vietnamese women migrants in Australia
Audio Visual
National Film and Sound Archive