Woman Lau, Marion (1943 - )

Administrator, Ethnic leader and Nurse

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Marion Lau was inducted into the Victorian Women's Honour Roll in 2011, in acknowledgement of the significant work she has done in advocating for greater recognition of migrant women in Australian public, private and community life. She has been a pioneer for women in Victorian ethnic communities, having been the first woman to be elected as Chair of the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria (ECCV) and the first woman president of the Chinese Community Society of Victoria. She was awarded the Order of Australia in 1996 for her work with older Australians and those from Chinese backgrounds, and a Centenary Medal in 2003 for her work in promoting multiculturalism in Australia.

Born in what was then Malaya in 1943, Marion Lau is the first child in a family of seven. Her father worked in a British-owned engineering supplies company, her mother stayed at home to raise the seven children. As the oldest daughter, she was expected to help her mother look after her younger siblings in accordance with the filial duties assigned to individuals within Chinese families. 'I understood my place in the order of things' (Interview). She did what was expected, but dreamed of independence. Completing her education at British schools in her home town of Ipoh, Lau took her first step towards that aim. 'I'm glad I went to an Anglo school,' she says, 'because it gave me an excellent background in English Language' (Interview).

After completing school, Lau decided that her thirst for independence would be best satisfied by travel. Choosing a career option that made this possible was her next step. She applied to do nursing in the United Kingdom, a decision that displeased her mother greatly, not only because of the distance involved but because she believed nurses had 'a bad reputation'. Says Lau, 'my mother was so certain I had done the wrong thing, she gave me money for a return ticket. This was motivation enough for me to never give up' (Interview). Lau arrived in Great Britain as a sixteen year old in 1961 and stayed for seven years. She completed her basic training at St Charles Hospital in Hammersmith, London going on to qualify in midwifery at Dumfries Maternity Hospital in Scotland. Experiences of racism were few and far between; if anything, Lau's British experience was one of diversity. Students came from all over the world to study nursing in Great Britain, a testament to the good reputation of the training. She remembers only one episode of overt racism that upset her, the perpetrator being an elderly man in a geriatric ward. But this was not representative of the bulk of the British people who were generally respectful of her and of her role as a nurse.

Lau was encouraged to complete a ward manager's course to formalise her obvious management and leadership skills in a hospital environment. Once this was complete, her parents encouraged her to return to Malaysia and, believing she had been away from home long enough, she did so. Unfortunately, she had not predicted how closed the job market would be in public hospitals to Malaysians of Chinese descent. She was not prepared to work in jobs that were below her level of seniority and experience and so found her options restricted to night supervision work in private hospitals. After working in this role for two years at an Australian run Catholic hospital, she again looked for opportunities overseas.

In 1969, after reading in the papers that the White Australia Policy has been abolished, Lau successfully applied for a position at the Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne. Once settled in Melbourne, she furthered her qualifications with postgraduate study and continued to advance her career and education in nursing management and administration. She was headhunted in 1972 to become the Matron/Manager of a new private hospital, The Avenue, in Windsor. A team of surgeons she had worked with in the public hospital system, along with other investors from the Melbourne business world, recognised her talent and contracted her to build the administration of their new venture, from the ground up. 'I was never entirely sure what they saw in me that gave them the confidence to give me the position,' she said (Interview) but the directors provided Lau with great support and were ahead of their time, when it came to the challenges women had when managing work and family responsibilities. Lau married in 1972 and when she became pregnant, was worried what this would mean for her work at the hospital. Fortunately, the directors wanted the right person for the job and accommodated her needs so that she could continue working.

When the hospital was bought out by an American private health consortium, Lau looked for new challenges. She received an invitation from an old colleague to join the Hospitals, Charities and Health Commission as a nurse advisor, and was thus introduced to the not for profit sector. Her foothold in community organisations was established, although theoretically, she already had played a part for some years. Her husband had been heavily involved in Chinese Community Society of Victoria (CCSV) and the Elderly Chinese Welfare Society (ECWS) and while Marion had no formal roles when he was a community leader, she was a regular committee meeting attendee because he wanted to take advantage of her English language skills. Her husband's sudden death left a gap in the running of many Chinese community organisations and demonstrated how the leadership had come to rely upon her as well. She became a formal member of the ECWS and was eventually asked to fill the leadership vacuum because it was apparent that better links with the rest of the community needed to be established. Her networks and language skills, along with her political acumen, were finally recognised as desirable attributes, regardless of her gender.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, Lau immersed herself in Chinese ethnic community organisations, encouraging them to present a united front at a time when the state machinery for the support and development of multicultural Victoria was being developed. She was the ECWS delegate on the newly established Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria (ECCV) in 1983 and then the delegate for the CCSV. She progressed through the hierarchy of the ECCV until she became Chair for the period 2001-2003. This, she says, 'was the culmination of her work that sought to link the Chinese community to the broader community' (Interview).

Lau's involvement in ethnic community organisations came about as a result of her understanding of issues confronting elderly Chinese who did not know how to access health services, rather than from a position of having been discriminated against. This is not to say, however, that as she advanced her career in multicultural politics, she did not experience discrimination; she just 'refused to accept it, personally' (Interview). In some respects, she says, this made her more like young women contributing to ethnic community organisations today. 'They haven't bought into traditional perceptions of what is perceived to be men's and women's work and are much more active than women were in my day', she says. 'I suspect some women regarded me as intimidating, but I wasn't interested in their small talk' (Interview). And while the behaviour of some individuals towards her was nothing short of misogynist, this was not typical. While she was chair of the ECCV most board members were supportive. Much was achieved during her tenure, including the establishment of the Multicultural Act and the Racial Discrimination and Vilification Act. She also worked effectively with the then Chair of the Federation of Ethnic Community Councils of Australian (FECCA), Abdul Malik, on the development of a nationally endorsed refugee policy.

A trailblazing woman leader in Australian ethnic organisations, Marion Lau says her own mentors and role models were people working within healthcare organisations, in particular Victor and Fleur Spitzer, who were directors at The Avenue Private Hospital in the 1970s. Her own style of leadership is something that came to her organically and arises from her own 'inborn impulse to mind other people's business' (Interview). She believes in the value of creating a good example that others will follow, the importance of providing effective mentoring and the wisdom to be gained from openly sharing knowledge and experience. 'Being a leader in ethnic organisations', she says, 'can be extremely challenging, but it is a challenge worth taking up because leadership provides you with the opportunity to do things the way you want to do them. Participate, and you can change things. There is nothing we cannot do if we have a commitment to change' (Interview).

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Marion Lau interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project [sound recording], 9 August 2011, ORAL TRC 6290/15; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources

See also