Histories of Controversy: Food and Migrant Resistance in Post-war Australia

Below is a short extract from my upcoming book Histories of Controversy: Bonegilla Migrant Centre (available for pre-order now)Each chapter addresses a “controversial” episode or aspect of Bonegilla’s history, and in so doing provides an alternative history of the postwar immigration scheme in Australia.

A12111 1.1949.22.6 CHILDRENThe following discussion will demonstrate that, as residents resisted and expressed their desires, and as Australia slowly transformed from a monocultural Anglo-British society in the 1950s into a multi-ethnic one that eventually rejected the doctrine of assimilation by the late 1960s, so too did provisions for meeting difference at Bonegilla evolve. However, in some cases, change was less a matter of progressive ideological change, and more a matter of convenience and administrative ease. The issue of ‘improved’ standards remains debatable—this is not always a progressive, linear narrative. This chapter will first explore why and how food has become so important in memories of Bonegilla. It will then offer an alternative history of Bonegilla’s food controversies, one which places migrant recollections and resistance to established food practices at the fore. Finally, it will try to make sense of responses to migrant resistance and changes to food practices at Bonegilla…

Centres like Bonegilla (and others, like Greta in New South Wales or Northam in Western Australia) were first points of mediation. It was in these spaces that migrants and their needs first came into collision with an unresponsive administration, particularly over food, which could become a matter of cultural resistance on both sides. While Italian protesters in 1952 were not motivated exclusively by the poor quality of food at Bonegilla, but rather by a lack of job allocations, food was nonetheless a catalyst. Food was grounds for resistance and contention for much of Bonegilla’s history, and in countless memories of the centre. There is a reason why historian Catherine Panich’s engaging account of postwar migration, Sanctuary?, included a chapter on ‘Food and Friction’: these are the points at which cultural differences are made tangible…

The bitter conflicts that erupted over food are not only contained in memories that have no long-term economic or philosophical implications: they were not but ‘short-term impositions’. [i] What if we were to consider these recollections, as contentious and contested as they are, for their historical insights into first encounters with the systems of bureaucracy that formed the postwar immigration scheme, and as a means to explore migrant resistance, agency and cultural negotiation?  Not only do these memories provide an image of ‘hostel life’, they also bring to the fore migrants’ complete dependence on the immigration centres for basic sustenance, for these communal systems of food supply. This system also had the effect of intervening in and cutting away family and cultural habits of consumption. This food history—at times a sensory history—can therefore be framed as a struggle for control against the intrinsic limitations of centres to meet the needs of residents.

This post originally appeared on the Child Refugees blog, run by Prof Joy Damousi’s ARC Laureate research team: https://blogs.unimelb.edu.au/childrefugees/2017/03/24/histories-of-controversy-food-and-migrant-resistance/comment-page-1/#comment-7

[i] Panich, p. 81.


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