As a memoir of immigrant life in Australia, Unpolished Gem takes up where books like Jung Chang’s Wild Swans leave off. From China to Cambodia, Vietnam and then to Thailand, Alice Pung’s family fled war and starvation to find asylum on Australian shores. The political slaughterhouses of Mao and Pol Pot are behind them. With hope and energy, Pung’s family set about discovering their new home—the Melbourne suburb of Footscray. Conceived in a refugee camp in Thailand, but born here within two months of her parents’ arrival, Pung straddles both worlds. As she begins school, it becomes up to her to ease the transition from the uncertainty of Southeast Asia to western abundance.
This is something she does with tenderness, understanding, and a great deal of humour. She documents her family’s slow and awkward adjustment. Her father invests in a Retra-Vision franchise, while her mother works long hours fashioning gold jewellery, leaving their daughter in the care of her spirited, beloved grandmother. Her grandmother tells her stories—of China, of Cambodia and Vietnam—passing this talent to the bright child. And this is the heart of Pung’s memoir; it is this relationship that gives Pung her voice and connects her to her family history. She is to learn just how much she has been formed by these stories and how much she values her origins.
Pung comes to understand her experience in poignant, awkward moments: glimpsing the hopefulness in newly arrived immigrants shows her who her parents were; at her graduation her parents realise that, for all their hard work, their daughter is still an outsider; Pung discovers there is an unbridgeable gulf dividing her from the boy she loves.
There are lovely touches too, lighter moments that reveal a new literary talent: blue shoes left outside a door revealing a visitor; a dream of gold buried in the back garden leading to many hours of digging; and kindly ‘Father Government’ who respects the elderly.
Unpolished Gem is a delightful read—a funny, touching debut from a writer I am certain we will hear more from. It’s a welcome glimpse into another culture. You can feel Asia in its pages. More importantly, you can feel a new Australia.
Unpolished Gem, Alice Pung, 282 pages, Black Inc.
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in 2006.