Interview with Fran Martin

The cultural studies scholar reflects on Tiananmen Square, the experience of Chinese students in Australia, and why online education can never replace a sage on the stage

October 3, 2019
Associate Professor Fran Martin University of Melbourne

Fran Martin is associate professor in cultural studies at the University of Melbourne. She researches Chinese television, film and youth cultures, specialising in questions of gender and sexuality. She has lived and studied in Beijing, Shanghai and Taiwan and is now researching the experiences of 50 young Chinese women living and studying in Australia.

Where and when were you born, and how has it shaped you?
London in 1971. I’ve had almost nothing to do with the UK since. My parents were Australians; part of the 1960s intellectual middle-class diaspora, over there for 10 years. When I was four we all came back to Melbourne. You hear about British migrants in Australia talking about the “old country”. It was like a reversal of that.

What prompted your decision to study Chinese?
I didn’t make the decision. Everyone in my school had to do Mandarin in grades five and six. I wanted to stop and study Italian, but my mum wouldn’t let me.

What made you persist with Chinese?
I ended up applying for a scholarship under the Australian Young Scholars in China programme. It took groups of Australian students fresh out of year 12 and set them up for a year of further Mandarin study, in Beijing and then Shanghai. We were the second year of the programme, in 1989, and became involved in the student movement in Beijing. I was 17. I don’t think I fully grasped what a historical moment that was, or was able to process what happened with the crackdown in Tiananmen Square. A few days later our cohort was evacuated back to Australia, along with other Australians, and later sent to Shanghai. My roommate and I felt we’d had this chunk taken out of our scholarship year, so we both decided to stay on for another year. By that time it had become a life trajectory. I was so involved in studying language and became really fascinated by historical, cultural and political developments.

Were you in Tiananmen Square during the massacre?
I was back in our dormitory. Some friends had gone to Tianjin and arrived at Beijing railway station at dawn on 4 June. They passed the square in the aftermath. My roommate burst in, woke me up and told me they’d opened fire on the students. It was unimaginable. None of my friends died, but it was a very weird time in terms of relationships. We who were evacuated kept thinking the same way about the whole thing – what an outrage; what a betrayal of the patriotic movement that we thought had been about making a better future for China. But our Chinese friends were re-educated in certain ways. We saw some of them quite a while afterwards. I remember a close friend saying she now felt confused about the whole thing and that maybe they’d been led astray and had been wrong to participate. That was incomprehensible to us at the time.

Apart from the harrowing events of June 1989, what was it like being a young Australian in China in the 1980s?
Being a white person in China is a particularly nice experience. People go out of their way to be friendly, which I gather from friends is not necessarily the experience of Chinese migrants in Australia – or of dark-skinned people in China, I suspect. It’s like you get extra points for being someone who looks foreign and has learned a little bit of Chinese. It seems an unfair racial advantage.

What hindrances did you face?
We had local friends but it wasn’t possible to be that close, because of segregation enforced by the bureaucracy. Westerners were seen as a potential source of “spiritual pollution”. We foreigners had to stay in designated buildings. Sharing a flat with local friends was impossible. When local students at our university wanted to visit the foreign students’ building, they had to show ID. In Taiwan, where I went in 1995 to do research and more language study, there was no such regulation and students mingled much more easily.

Do today’s Chinese students have similar immersive experiences in Australia?
Some of the young women in my current study have that kind of cultural exchange. They’ve decided to rent a room in a house where no one else is Chinese. Ten or 15 per cent of people are extroverted enough to do that sort of thing. But with the number of students from China coming to large capital cities on Australia’s east coast at the moment, it’s unrealistic to expect them all to be so self-cosmopolitanising. Imagine more than 200,000 young Australians going to three cities in China to study business, finance and accounting. There’s Australian media, Australian restaurants, Australian businesses and all these Australian classmates; and they’re not there to learn about Chinese culture anyway. What would they do? Some of them would branch out and become part of a Chinese flat share or whatever, but you wouldn’t expect the vast majority to do that. Many Chinese students have trouble doing it here in Australia, much to their disappointment, but I don’t think that’s some culturally specific issue.

Are there other differences between China and Australia as education destinations?
There is too much casual racism in Australia. People feel it clearly. It’s not comparable in cities such as Shanghai, where people do everything they can to make Westerners feel welcome. To live among difference without experiencing anything worse than mild puzzlement – that’s an art, and maybe we haven’t got it right yet in Australia.

What delights and frustrates you most about higher education?
I love lecturing. I really love the traditional lecture format, where you get to stand up and speak to a big group of people, interactively. I get really energised by the opportunity to do that and get people to participate live – not online, live. Something I dislike is this push towards online delivery. I can understand it because students are under a lot of pressure and need to work while they’re studying. But I do not believe it’s the right way to go. It’s a tool among other tools, but there’s nothing like human-to-human connection for making education happen.


Alexander Wai Ping-kong has been appointed deputy president and provost of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, for a five-year term. Professor Wai, an expert in fibre optic communication, joined PolyU in 1996 and has been vice-president (research development) since 2010. He will take up the new post in March 2020, following the retirement of Philip Chan. Lam Tai-fai, chair of PolyU’s council, said that Professor Wai had “made great contributions to research and education in PolyU over the past two decades. We are confident that Professor Wai will continue to contribute to PolyU’s development in his new capacity.”

Chris Taylor has been named academic director of Cardiff University’s Social Science Research Park (Spark). The new centre, due to open in spring 2021 as part of Cardiff’s £300 million Innovation Campus, aims to co-locate academics with private sector organisations and charities, and to support multidisciplinary collaborations. Professor Taylor, professor of social sciences at Cardiff and co-director of the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods, said that Spark would “create a unique and innovative research environment that encourages groundbreaking approaches to the many ‘wicked problems’ we face locally, in Wales, across the UK and internationally”.

Steve Kunkel has been named executive vice-dean for research and chief scientific officer for Michigan Medicine, the academic medical centre of the University of Michigan, having held the post on an interim basis since October 2018.

Karen Foster has joined Jisc, the main technology body for UK higher education, as executive director of a new analytics directorate. She joins Jisc from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, where she was managing director of enterprise, along with 22 members of her team.

The University of Arkansas has made two senior appointments within its library division: Lori Birrell, former head of special collections, has been selected as associate dean for special collections, and Joel Thornton, former head of research and instruction services, has been named interim associate dean for research and learning.

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