Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung

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I read Laurinda by Australian writer Alice Pung some time ago and quite enjoyed the story of a Chinese-Australian girl from the western suburbs of Melbourne who won a scholarship to an exclusive girl’s school. When I found a copy of this author’s biography, Unpolished Gem, I was very happy to have the opportunity to read her story of growing up in Footscray, a suburb in western Melbourne where I have worked. Footscray is home to a great many Asian-Australians and this story gave me an insight into a world I can see but not be part of.

I suspect the author was able to tell her Chinese-Cambodian family’s story so openly because her parents do not read English, so she was quite safe from getting into trouble with them after telling all of their secrets. I suspect her parents would say “Wah!” if they realised she had written so openly about their faults and failings.

The family’s life in Australia was in complete contrast to her parent’s lives in China and Cambodia, from the atrocities of Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime in particular.

Some of the stories are funny and absolutely gorgeous. I loved hearing about the author’s grandmother blessing Father Government for giving old people money in the form of a pension, and the joy that came from shopping at supermarkets and stopping traffic with the little green man at the pedestrian crossings. It made me laugh to hear that the Chinese people call white Australians ‘ghosts.’ The happier stories also reminded me of how much I take for granted as a white Australian.

Other stories were more difficult to read. A number of generations living together has its’ blessings and its’ curses, and I felt terribly sorry for Alice as her mother and grandmother used her as a tool to make each other angry or unhappy. Sharing her bed with her grandmother must have been difficult for Alice too, possibly not so unusual for a child visiting a grandparent but quite unusual in everyday life in contemporary Australia.

The story which most made my heart go out to the author was an incident when Alice’s younger sister rolled off the bed and had to be checked for brain injuries while Alice had been looking after her. Luckily the baby was fine, but the blame and guilt heaped on Alice, who was also very young, was excessive.

Alice was diagnosed with depression as a teenager, and did amazingly well to end up studying law at Melbourne University. In Australian, Chinese parents are known for expecting their children to do well at school and I found it sad to read stories of families treating their children with contempt when they failed to achieve what was expected of them. Often these ‘failures’ were just shy of achieving the marks to do law, so in reality, they had achieved very good results in school.

The story ends with Alice about 19 or 20, breaking up with her Skippy (white Australian) boyfriend.

I preferred the fiction of Laurinda, but Unpolished Gem was an interesting read.

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3 Comments

Filed under Australian Author, Author, Book Review, Pung - Alice

3 responses to “Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung

  1. Sounds interesting. It’s only fairly recently that I became aware that there had been a lot of Asian immigration to Australia – I still tend to think of it as a very Anglo-Saxon culture. So it’s good to see writers from different cultural backgrounds beginning to make themselves heard.

    • I grew up in a country area which was very English with a few pockets of German and Dutch people whose families came to Australia after WW2. The capital cities would have been quite different to my area even then, with loads of Italian and Greek families, and smaller groups of people from other European countries. The first big wave of immigrants I remember were the Vietnamese during the 1970’s, but these days we are a melting pot of people from around the world. My area of Melbourne is home to a great many first generation immigrants from India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and China, but there are also a lot of people from Africa and South America. Funnily enough there are more New Zealanders in Australia than immigrants from other countries, but with such a shared background New Zealanders blend in.
      Most of the Australian writers I can think of are of English descent. Christos Tsoilkas, who wrote The Slap is of Greek descent, but otherwise the stories of the first and second generations have only just begun appearing. Books by Indigenous writers can be hard to find too.
      If you were imagining Australia based on our literature it does not represent who we are now (and probably never truly did).

      • Same here, really! Up here in Scotland lots of immigration is a fairly recent thing, but London has been a melting pot for decades. But still most of our literature comes from white middle-class authors. I suppose it takes a couple of generations, maybe, for the main culture to accept ‘incomers’…