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David Neng Hwan Wang (1920–1978)

by John Lack

This article was published:

David Neng Hwan Wang (1920-1978), by unknown photographer

David Neng Hwan Wang (1920-1978), by unknown photographer

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/5779

David Neng Hwan Wang (1920-1978), merchant, was born on 12 February 1920 near San Chang, Haimen county, Kiangsu (Jiangsu) province, China, fourth of six children of Wang De Xiu, peasant farmer, and his wife, a member of the Jiang family who was known after her marriage as Wang Jiang Shi. Wang Neng Hwan attended school from the age of 9, and at 18 went to nearby Shanghai to study radio communications. In 1939 he entered a military academy in Chungking (Chongqing). Promoted lieutenant in 1941 in the Nationalist Chinese army, he served in the intelligence section of the general headquarters. He was posted to Singapore, but the Japanese invasion of Malaya saw him diverted to Australia in 1942 as a captain with the Chinese military mission.

In Melbourne Wang met Mabel Chen, the Australian-born daughter of George Wing Dann Chen, a leading Chinese businessman. From 1944 Wang served as a liaison officer in India and Burma. On being demobilized, he returned to Shanghai where Mabel joined him in 1946 and where they were married. China's political turmoil caused them to leave for Melbourne in early 1948. Supported by Arthur Calwell, a long-time friend of the Chen family, Wang entered Australia on a business permit, renewable but requiring a minimum annual turnover of £500.

Mabel chose the name David for him. Their business was registered as David Wang & Co. and they bought the goodwill of a small gift shop at South Yarra. Anticipating a growing taste for oriental wares, they prospered almost immediately, obtaining Chinese goods through a Hong Kong agent, and later importing from Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and the Pacific Islands, and, after 1972, mainland China. The Wangs largely pioneered the trade in Chinese cane-ware, bamboo blinds, camphorwood chests, and arts and crafts. Fireworks were among their most lucrative earners. In 1962, wishing to make his first overseas business trip on an Australian passport, David applied for naturalization six months before he had completed the required fifteen years residence, and succeeded on appeal. He purchased and demolished the 'Canton Building 1888' in Little Bourke Street, erecting in its place a modern emporium, opened in 1964 by Calwell.

By the mid-1960s David and Mabel Wang were business and social successes. Their import operation was flourishing, with four shops and showrooms, a factory and a bulk warehouse. Handsome and personable, and noted for his Chinese New Year hospitality at his home at Toorak, Wang was poised to enter Melbourne's staid civic and business Establishment. On Calwell's nomination he was appointed a justice of the peace in February 1964.

Campaigning for a brighter city with more street-entertainment and night-life, and an international flavour to appeal to tourists, Wang was elected in August 1969 to the Melbourne City Council; he was Melbourne's first Chinese-born councillor. He joined the council's dominant Civic Group, and served on the finance and the parks, gardens and recreation sub-committees, among others. As founder and chairman of the Keep Melbourne Beautiful citizens' committee and of the Make Melbourne Brighter committee, he advocated a cleaner city, extended shopping hours and liberalized liquor laws: 'Part of Melbourne's problem', he observed, 'is its social rigidity'. He achieved some success in rejuvenating the central business district.

When Wang won his seat for a third time, in 1975, some observers predicted his election as mayor. Having experienced little personal prejudice in the business and professional milieux, he saw his advance as demonstrating the fairness of the Australian people, as distinct from the sometimes overbearing behaviour of the country's officialdom. Cautious and a gradualist, he condemned examples of racism in public life, welcomed the replacement of the White Australia policy by selective immigration, forecast a multi-racial nation, and supported an Asian immigration quota. In 1977 he described Australia as a cosmopolitan community and endorsed racial integration, including mixed marriages, arguing that the Australian Chinese should serve as a bridge of friendship between the two countries. The tolerance displayed by Australian youth made him optimistic about the future.

Wang had initiated Melbourne's Chinatown project in 1960, and he revived it in the 1970s as a city councillor and as a founder of the Chinese Professional and Businessmen's Association of Victoria. He wished to transform the declining Chinese quarter of Little Bourke Street with authentic imported pagodas, archways and lighting. Critics asserted that the scheme would make Melbourne's Chinese community a curiosity, and that some Chinese found the very term 'Chinatown' offensive. Wang replied that it would promote China's five-thousand-year-old culture. As president of the Little Bourke Street Traders, he wanted to attract Melbourne shoppers and tourists. The launch of Chinatown in the spring of 1976 coincided with the press announcement of Wang's candidacy for the mayoralty, but in the event he did not seek nomination.

When political opposition delayed the completion of Chinatown, Wang sought a fresh challenge. He decided to establish in Melbourne the largest Chinese emporium outside Hong Kong, as a showcase for the culture of the land of his birth. The press now dubbed him the 'King of Chinatown', but the project was barely started when Wang suffered a heart attack at a function on 31 December 1977. He died in the early hours of 1 January 1978 at St Vincent's Hospital, Fitzroy, and was buried with Anglican rites in Boroondara cemetery, Kew. His wife and their two sons and two daughters survived him. A 1966 portrait by Paul Fitzgerald is held by his family, who completed the David Wang Emporium and opened it in 1979. Melbourne's Moomba procession that year featured, as have Chinese New Year celebrations ever since, a spectacular Dai Loong ceremonial dragon bought with the proceeds of an appeal David Wang had launched shortly before his death.

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne), 5 Jan, 1 Feb 1960, 5 Feb 1964, 28 July 1969, 16 Feb, 23 July 1970, 11 May 1971, 20 Jan, 4, 26 Aug 1976, 14 Feb 1977, 2 Jan, 22 June 1978, 20, 31 Jan 1979
  • Australian, 23 Jan 1967, 1 Sept 1969, 10 Oct 1971, 9 Feb 1972, 17 June 1977, 4 Jan 1978
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 29 July, 30 Aug, 1 Sept 1969, 20 Jan, 3 Feb, 10 Apr, 4 Aug 1976, 14 Feb, 17 June, 13 Dec 1977, 2 Jan, 23 June 1978
  • Herald (Melbourne), 24 Apr, 10 May 1971, 3 Apr 1973, 19 Jan, 9 Apr, 22 May, 6 July 1976, 20 June 1981, 10 Feb 1983
  • Australasian, Feb 1978
  • Australian Financial Review, 2 Feb 1978
  • 'Reunion', SBS TV, 1 Oct 1998 (National Film and Sound Archive)
  • private information.

Citation details

John Lack, 'Wang, David Neng Hwan (1920–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

David Neng Hwan Wang (1920-1978), by unknown photographer

David Neng Hwan Wang (1920-1978), by unknown photographer

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/5779

Life Summary [details]


12 February, 1920
Haimen, Jiangsu, China


1 January, 1978 (aged 57)
Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.