A Change of Guard

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Saturday, 1 October 2011

From regime to riches [from Cambodia's killing fields to the riches of Australia]

Alice Pung: Making peace ... Pung interprets her parents' complex past. Photo: Rodger Cummins

Review By Diana Carroll
The Sydney Morning Herald
October 1, 2011

Stories of triumph over cruelty in Cambodia are delivered in a riveting exploration of the writer's family history.

Memoir gives the writer ''a second chance at life''. Alice Pung gets that for herself and her family in Her Father's Daughter, a colourful semi-sequel to Unpolished Gem.

Growing up in Phnom Penh, Pung's father Kuan was a privileged child of Cambodia's business class. His father ''wore a real Rolex'' and the young Kuan was driven to school by a chauffeur.

Her mother had a less salubrious upbringing. Kien left school at 12 and found a job in the plastics factory owned by Kuan's father. She would become his wife ''but they did not know that yet, because she was only 13 and life had not yet been turned inside-out''.

That ''inside-outedness'' came at the murderous hands of Pol Pot, Brother Number One of the Political Potential Fraternity. The lacerating cruelty of Pol Pot's Black Bandits reminds us that perhaps civilisation really is just a veneer.

Her Father's Daughter is an exorcism of the ghosts of Kuan's unspeakable past. It is also a thoughtful exploration of the impact those ghosts have on the next generation of Pungs, Alice and her siblings.

This is about desperate times but this is not another misery memoir. The family went on to be successful and now lives in varying degrees of luxury in Melbourne, the new Phnom Penh and Macau.

At first, Kuan has ''no time or desire to plunge a hand back into the past to pull out details. He wishes that he had photographs but he has nothing that's older than 1980''.

The details he does pull from memory are both heart-breaking and heart-warming. These are ''the things he never wanted his children to know'' but his daughter does want to know and, in telling their story, she also tells the story of many other migrants and refugees.

Kuan and Kien begin their new life at Melbourne's Midway Migrant Hostel, with Alice about to become the first Pung born in ''Wonderland''. Thirty years on, her father is a Retravision franchisee employing 40 people and the owner of numerous investment properties around the country.

Her mother is the store's most successful salesperson but she is still insecure about her English skills. Lost on the tram one evening, Kien ''didn't have the words'' to ask for help.

Kuan tells his daughter that ''people want to hear stories of great horrors and triumphs'' and she delivers. The horrors of the Pol Pot years are almost too great to comprehend; the triumph of Kuan and his countrymen and women is not just that they survived but that they were able to go on with life in a sane and sensible way.

Despite the harshness he has suffered, Kuan admits ''you begin to sweat the small stuff again''. Missing the bus to work becomes a source of angst.

By the book's end, the anxieties of her parents - usually about personal safety and financial security - are understandable and their apparent lack of sentiment becomes comprehensible. Even as a university student, Pung observes her father's strict 8pm curfew. In a discussion about bushfires, Kuan says ''forget the family photos, take the money and the gold''.

The story roams from Melbourne to Macau and from China to Cambodia. Kuan and Kien were both born in Cambodia of mainland Chinese parents and so Pung travels to Beijing and then on to her grandparents' home town of Jieyang, a place where children ''can see the corners of their universe''. In Macau she meets her father's brother and ''the deformed dumpling in her chest that was her heart swelled''. Elder Uncle's residential compound ''resembled a picture in a Jehovah's Witness paradise pamphlet''.

Each chapter in Her Father's Daughter is written from the viewpoint of either father or daughter and the story is told in the third-person throughout. At first, this feels like artifice.

I wanted the real Alice Pung to jump from the pages, all flesh and blood, passion and confusion coalesced into one, not seemingly mediated through the considered voice of an unseen narrator.

But travel deeper into the story and its emotional intensity begins to bite. Perhaps this is why she took refuge in the safe distance of the third-person voice.

The non-linear narrative moves smoothly through place and time, effectively juxtaposing the horrendous and the prosaic.

Pung has a keen ear for a telling anecdote and can write an engaging vignette. At her law school graduation party ''the university served up food that tasted like various solidifications of vomit''.

Over Chinese tea she observes that ''the size of a cup was probably the measure of a society's loquaciousness. You couldn't tell a longwinded story … while holding a Chinese cup with two fingers''.

Only Pung's penchant for the creative simile muddies her otherwise polished prose: the white plastic tubes in the factory were carried ''still warm like a limp bride''; the men of the factory wore ''white singlets like cotton facsimiles of the bags they made''; and the Kelvinator in the store ''was like a fridge combining the strength of the Terminator and the flexibility of those Transformer toys''.

But these are small irritations in an otherwise excellent book.

Memoirist Jane Taylor McDonnell says ''although we can never change the past, we can re-experience, interpret and make peace with our past selves''.

In this fine memoir, Pung re-experiences her grown-up relationship with her parents, interprets their complex history and appears to make peace for herself and her family.


By Alice Pung, Black Inc., 256pp, $29.95


Anonymous said...


I just want to say Alice is smart and pretty...how do I meet girl like that.

Anonymous said...

1:27 AM,

Well, let me think...

I guess the only way is ...


Hope you will meet her soon!

Good luck, my friend!

Anonymous said...

thank you, friend.

Since I live the United States, my chance of meeting her is my slim....

Khmer Angkorian, Bridgewater, MASS, USA

6:09 PM where I am

Anonymous said...

Alice family look down on Cambodian people very badly...They won't allow Cambodian men with dark skin to married with their daughter. Don't even try to think of her if you are real Khmer born... I know Alice family very well.

Anonymous said...

1:13 PM, from reading some of the articles about her, I can figure out that they identify themselves as Chinese, not Khmer. The only thing they have the attachment to Cambodia is that they were born in Cambodia and their nightmare during the Khmer rouge regime. I have read also that she claimed that her parents were born in China, which were unlikely because they were still young, may in their mid 50s. Cambodia had stopped immigration from China more than 50 years ago, so only Chinese older than 50 can claim to be born in China. They mostly came before the Chinese communist took power in 1949. However, I commend Alice for her success, but I would advise her not to look down on Khmer people or Khmer heritage.

Anonymous said...

Alice doesn't want Khmer born men!

Anonymous said...

Why she keep posted the same pic. Don't she have any more pic. Beside this one.

Anonymous said...

I think she is confused about her identity...born in white Australia ......she is Chinese to the Khmer community and Cambodian to the Chinese community and a " refo" to the general population of Melbourne .I have heard her on the local radio recently...she is neither Chinese nor Khmer. I think she does not understand the different between ethnicity and nationality. Her dad was born in Cambodia and never been considered as a Chinese citizen. I am of a mixed background and very proud of my Khmer heritage . For I know that my ancestors had look to the heavenly body and had built god's city on earth.