BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Surviving Cambodia's killing fields
, February 18, 2012
HER FATHER’S DAUGHTER
by Alice Pung
(Melbourne: Black Inc.)
Paperback: 256 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
“Sometimes, the eyes can see too much” (p. 162).
One of Australia’s most engaging emerging writers is Alice Pung. The daughter of Cambodian refugees, she was raised in Melbourne’s western suburbs and is a lawyer by profession.
Her Father’s Daughter is her third work and complements her first best-seller, Unpolished Gem, an autobiographical account of her upbringing. Her other work, Growing Up Asian in Australia — currently on the Victorian Year 12 English/ESL (English as a Second Language) syllabus — is an anthology of reflections written by Australians of Asian background about their childhoods.
In Her Father’s Daughter, Alice Pung recounts her life from when she became a residential tutor and entered the workforce, as well as her father’s life before his arrival in Australia.
As the title suggests, the focus of this work is the relationship between herself and her father. The chapters alternate between reflections written from her own and her father’s perspectives. These provide the reader with an insight into the difficulties Alice and her father Kuan have had in understanding each other.
Alice paints an impressive portrait of her father, a man who arrived in Australia with virtually nothing and who, through hard work, built up a business that employs a number of people.
However, his first commitment was to his family, of whom he was very protective. Indeed, the reader soon notices how Alice, in the first part of her book where she recounts leaving home, clearly resented what she perceived to be her father’s over-protectiveness.
The reader gains a sense that the father was protective because of his traumatic former life in Cambodia during the murderous rule of the communist Khmer Rouge.
When the Khmer Rouge, whom Kuan describes as “Black Bandits”, under the command of Pol Pot, seized control of Cambodia in “Year Zero” (1975) they conducted a ferocious campaign of de-Westernisation and mass extermination.
They denounced as evil anything that smacked of a Western-style urbanised lifestyle. As a consequence, they expelled inhabitants from cities such as the capital Phnom Penh (where Kuan lived) and forced them to work on the land.
Anyone suspected of being a capitalist, an intellectual or even having been influenced by Western ideas, was murdered.
Fearing for his life, Kuan was careful not to disclose the fact that his family owned a factory. For the next three years, Kuan and fellow Cambodians endured starvation. In the rural villages to which he was assigned to live and work, small contingents of Black Bandits carried out frequent and brutal executions of those deemed to be class enemies.
In some instances, the Khmer Rouge marched people into the jungle and forced them to dig their own graves before killing them. In other instances, they conducted public executions as a warning to the population, with villagers such as Kuan being forced to watch.
A significant number of Kuan’s family and friends were executed or starved to death during this period.
Kuan first met his future wife Kien when she was a teenage employee in his family’s factory. When she was being forcibly relocated in the countryside, she managed to escape the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror by bribing a ferryman to take her across the Mekong River into Vietnam.
The nightmare ended in 1979 when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. Kuan then went to Vietnam where he met Kien by chance. They both decided to leave Vietnam, as Cambodians were not made to feel welcome there, and they had heard that Western democracies were accepting Cambodian refugees from camps in Thailand.
Having earlier vowed never to re-enter Cambodia, they nevertheless undertook a lengthy and hazardous journey through Cambodia to the Thai border.
As with other survivors of trauma, Kuan, once he reached Australia, was determined to put this unhappy period of his life behind him. He maintained that there was little point in dwelling on the past; instead one should look to the future.
Thus, when Alice asked her father about the horrors of Pol Pot’s regime, Kuan would often suggest she speak to other survivors. Despite her father’s reticence, she has managed to piece together his incredible story of survival against the odds, and this takes up the second half of her book.
Her Father’s Daughter is a well-written and engaging reflection of the daughter of south-east Asian migrants. It provides an invaluable insight into the ordeal Cambodians suffered under communism and how they made a new life for themselves in a free country.