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The Shed

July 22, 2012

Alice Pung
THE SHED

The shed was always locked.

Right from when I was about four, I was told never to tell anyone about the metal shed. It whirred and hummed like a live thing. It vibrated like a massive machine with a throbbing migraine heartbeat. “If you tell anyone, we could get into big trouble from the government,” Mum and Dad always warned. “The government does not know we do this.”

“What’s the government?” I asked.

“People who are good to us,” my father explained, “but who also take our money.”

“Isn’t that stealing?” I imagined cloaked pilferers stalking our house at night, with crowbars ready to break into the shed.

But there was no money in the shed, just a lot of twenty-four-karat gold. So I thought that the government wanted our gold, the gold my mother melted and molded into shape in that shed. Red dust floated out when the breeze blew, from the gaps beneath the door. In the Australian summer, the shed heated up like a hot poker, and because it did not have any windows that could open, it was difficult for Mum to breathe while she was in there.

Mum spent most of her daylight hours in that shed and I was never allowed to tell, let alone show anyone, what was inside: the wax molds, the plaster casts, the gray filings and tiny hills of gold dust on metal trays—remnants from the filing down of rings. When I was four, I used to poke my finger in those gold hills and spread them flat into strange rivers on the tray. “Aiyoh!” Mum would yell when she saw me. I was not allowed to move or take my hands from the tray lest we lost a bit of the gold dust to the ground. Dad would fill a used ice-cream container with water and soak my fingers in it, so that the gold would un-adhere itself and slowly float to the bottom of the container, where it could be rescued, melted down and reused.

Mum made jewelry in that shed in our backyard. Bespoke jewelry, some of the shops in the inner city would call it. Completely made by hand. Artisan labor, they proclaimed on small tags in the sterling surfaces of the shop counters, and because each item had that little label it could be sold at a hundred times the price of my mother’s labor. To make a bracelet, my mother would stretch gold wire until it was almost hair thin. One end of the wire would slip and flick her in the face, and there would be a line of blood. She would then take the wire and sit down at her work desk, which was a white corkboard affair one of our family friends had knocked up for us. Her tools were second- or thirdhand, but she used new blades in the surgeon’s scalpel to cut the strand of gold wire into tiny pieces of no more than half a centimeter long. Then she would link the tiny segments together with a pair of tweezers, as children string Christmas paper chains together with scissors and tape. She would treat it in potassium cyanide and polish the surfaces with a piece of jade that was stuck on a wooden handle.

“One dollar a ring,” Mum would promise us when we were young, “if you help me polish them.” But she never gave us the money—she just counted up all the rings we had polished. “Five dollars,” she would tell us, tallying up our halfhearted palely polished efforts, efforts she would always have to fix, “five dollars will get you an umbrella.” Then she would come home with one that had Spoony on it, which was the Chinese counterfeit of Charles Schulz’s creation; but I didn’t want Mum’s practical protection from the elements. My seven-year-old self took umbrage at that umbrella. I wanted the five dollars in hand, damn it, I wanted to be paid like a proper Asian back-shed worker so I could use my ill-gotten gain to get a Babie doll, the poor man’s version of Barbie. Babie looked like Barbie, but all her hair lifted up at the back so she had a severe undercut, as if she were auditioning to join a white hair supremacist gang, and when she sat down her legs splayed wide like the fingers of my hand showing Mum how much I was due to be paid, in a pathetic attempt to procure cash from her instead of an umbrella.

Mum used that umbrella when it rained and she had to deliver her wares. Mum did not deliver her wares to the shops in the inner city because the upmarket clientele of Collins Street was a completely foreign world. The Paris end of Melbourne, they called it, where women walked around with faces like Chanel ads. The kind of beauty that would leak down their necks if it rained. I don’t even think Mum had been up there more than once in her life. She was more used to the markets of Phnom Penh and Saigon. Carrying the Spoony umbrella and the fake Gucci handbag (that my brother had brought her from China) into a Collins Street jewelry store would mean that the carefully coiffeured ladies would be speaking about her long after she had left. Although Mum’s jewelry was entirely handmade, she transported it around wrapped in McDonald’s napkins in her fifteen-dollar handbag, and she never wore makeup.

She delivered the hard, shining fruits of her labor to places along the small shopping strips of suburbs brimming with South-east Asians: the Vietnamese, the Cambodians, the ethnic Chinese. She would set her bag on their narrow glass counters below which was displayed bright red velvet dotted with coveted twenty-four-karat gold: pendants shaped like Mercedes-Benz signs, rings with dragons and Buddhas on them, blingy necklaces with chains as thick as my little finger.

My brother and I would sit on the chairs reserved for customers who needed their pieces adjusted on the spot—rings too large or bracelets too short. “When will you be done?” we would whine, “When will you be done, Mum?” We would walk toward the trays of gold behind the cabinets and breathe on the glass.

Mum was trying to do business, so this time she handed me four dollars and told me to go two stores down to buy pork bread rolls from the Vietnamese bakery. We came back with the food and sat back down. We peeled back the white paper bags and bit into the bread. “Aiyoh!” Mum yelled at us, “don’t eat in other people’s stores!” The store was tiny so all ears were alert. “Embarrassments to society, that’s what you are!” We put the bread away, shut our mouths and learned to wait. We waited while the jewelry store owners pored over each ring.

“This one’s a good one,” Mum told the owner earnestly. “Kim Heng from the other store ordered seventeen of those.” I looked at the little pendants with the massive faces of Jesus rendered in three-dimensional twenty-four-karat gold and wondered why I never saw anyone wear such a thing. Some of the rings even had tiny emerald or blue cubic zirconias in the eye sockets.

The store owner, a Vietnamese man, turned the pieces around in his hands. His fingers were gnarled like ginseng from his own outworking in the stuffy room near the back of the cramped shop. “How much?” he asked Mum.

“Four-fifty,” she said. Four-fifty for her four and a half hours of labor.

“Four-fifty, sister?” he repeated.

My mother answered in the affirmative. “You know that was the price last time I was here.”

“Four-fifty is too much,” said the man.

“What do you mean, too much, brother?”

“Four-fifty is not what the new brother from Cambodia is charging.”

“What new brother from Cambodia?”

“The one who used to be a goldsmith in Cambodia. He brought along some of his old tools. He’s been doing it for only six years, but wah! is he good in his detail! Must be because he’s so young.”

Mum shifted her glasses. Mum never used to wear glasses and her eyesight became shot from too much close work attaching tiny clasps and polishing pendants of the Lord’s face with care. Mum didn’t know what to say. “Come on, I’ve been delivering to you for so long, brother,” Mum cajoled.

It did not work, because the new man had better tools and more nimble fingers.

“The new brother only charges four dollars.”

“But that’s ridiculous!”

The small store owner did not say a thing, because there was no need to. He knew that new migrants were desperate to find work and they would settle with any work they could find at any cost. They were just so grateful. And Mum, having worked for over a decade, was not so replete with gratitude or the youthful fervor of ambition. She just wanted the money so we would not be snot-nosed sooks loitering the streets like she did when she was twelve and they closed down her Chinese school in Cambodia. She wanted to make sure we stayed in school, that we did not need to enter a factory as she did at thirteen.

“Okay. Four dollars then, brother.”

By then, my brother and I had lost interest in the Jesus pendants and even the rings encrusted with red jewels as massive as minor melanomas. We wanted to bite back into our bread rolls. We wanted to leave the sticky seats and the red and gold decor of the store.

But we watched as the store owner measured out ounces of gold on scales, in payment, because he did not have cash on hand that day. Mum had come too early and they had made no sales. Mum watched to make sure that the scales were balanced exactly right, that they were not dodgily weighted in any way. Mum wrote down a few figures of what was owing to her on a small notebook she carried in her handbag. Then she wrapped up the remainder of her wares in the now slightly torn McDonald’s napkin, and then the small facecloth.

“Come on you two, let’s go.”

And she led us out down the street to the next store, where the whole scene would repeat itself all over again. But we had learned to wait.

When I was eight, I hated being eight. I smelled like piss all the time—before my sister was born, my mum’s fluorescent yellow pools on our tiles, because she could not control her bladder when she had babies pushing against her pelvic floor, and after my sister was born her pale yellow streams soaked through the sheets. They did not call us Southeast Asians “yellow” for nothing, I supposed. I list incense in front of our Buddha shrine—not due to any particular child’s faith or piety, but just to disguise the smell of pee from the carpet.

I hated being stuck between the four walls of the house. If I had been born in Cambodia, all my friends my age would have had their babies slung over their backs and we would have played together in the streets. But growing up in sordid suburbia, in a house behind the Invicta carpet factories, my friends came over carrying their cabbage patch dolls while I had my sister Alison in my arms. “Let’s go outside and walk to the school and hang around on the monkey bars!” they would tell me, dumping down their dolls on the tiles.

I couldn’t do that with Alison. Live babies hollered, and stuffs came out of their nappies and stuff came out of their mouths. A baby was cute for half an hour. But to an eight year old, that was the limit—after one hour, it got a bit tedious, and after a whole day, they went home muttering how weird that I had this baby that I could not give back to my mum to look after. Slowly, after a few weeks, my mates petered out, and I knew the only times I would be seeing them was at school. Sometimes their parents would see me balancing a baby on my hip and once, Bianca’s dad exclaimed, “What? Another one?” as if at twelve I was responsible for new progeny in the family.

Mum, like me, was just supposed to be at home watching babies: that was her childhood dream. She grew up in Cambodia, narrowly escaping the country’s closing acts of the 1970s, when curtains of bombs rained down between the borders to keep out the North Vietnamese, the Vietcong, The Charlies, the Americans called them, and wanted to blast them all out of existence. They were so worried the Charlies were hiding in the jungles of the Vietnam-Cambodia border that they didn’t care how many Cambodian villagers they would kill in their pursuit of democracy.

My father survived the Cambodian killing fields, emerging as a skin-and-bones man so thin that if he turned sideways he would almost disappear from view. He and my grandmother led the living remnants of his family—his little sister and his wife—through three different countries on foot, sleeping on the floors of jungles when darkness rose. My father calls that trek their three-month backpacker honeymoon, and when they reached the Thai refugee camp, they spent a long sleepy year waiting. My father liked to tell people that I was manufactured in Thailand but assembled in Australia, because I was conceived on a small mat in that camp.

When Mum arrived here, eight months’ pregnant with me at twenty-two, not knowing a word of English, she began with making jewelry molds, a sedentary and silent task suitable for new daughters-in-law who’ve been blessedly deposited in democracies. She made rings by first planting little waxen trees—sometimes sherbet pink, sometimes opal green, growing from waxen stalks that she grew on rubber bases. These waxen trees would be the basis of plaster molds, which would then be filled with melted gold. After the birth of my brother, she moved on to working with gold. While others saw what dirty work it was and how little ill-gotten gains were to be had, Mum persisted with planting these artificial trees and sawing off their real-gold branches.

When I was fourteen, I realized why we weren’t allowed to tell a soul what Mum did, and why Dad had told me once that it was a little like stealing. “We don’t pay taxes on this,” my mother said, “the government will get us.” The government would tax Mum on her two dollars fifty an hour? That did not make sense even to me. But to illiterate migrants like Mum who were paid cash in hand and asked no questions, it made perfect sense.

Even when the surgeon’s scalpel stabbed Mum through the palm so deep that the handle had to be unscrewed to get the blade out, we were not to tell. I remember Mum coming into the house, one hand holding the other like a dead bird. “The knife stabbed through,” she gasped to Dad. The rims of her eyes were not even red-wet with reflexive tears.

Mum was brave, but it was only later in life that I came to this realization. When I was young, I didn’t care. She was never in the house and I had howling babies to watch over, when all I wanted to do was muck around with my nine-year-old mates. Two decades later, Mum finally stopped working. I had made it to university, and my three siblings were looking as if they would follow suit.

When Mum stopped working, she discovered she could not be still. Her hands ached to the bone. She had a hacking cough from the potassium cyanide. She had puckered skin on her forearms from third-degree burns of the welding torch and scars from the surgeon’s scalpel. Her eyesight was shot, and she needed to wear glasses, which she kept losing, because she never used them to read. She did not read, she could not read.

Mum was locked from the language of the outside world. She had spent two decades in that shed, making those rings and pendants and bracelets. A bracelet would earn her twenty dollars, but it would take her a whole day. That worked out to be a couple of dollars an hour for an eight-hour day. Two dollars fifty does not even get someone a cup of coffee at Starbucks these days. So of course, all our coffee came in massive tins of International Roast from the local Coles supermarket. She would also have tins of sweetened condensed milk in the cupboard, and she mixed it with the coffee with boiling water and gulped cupfuls of that stuff down like there was no tomorrow, even though she knew there was and that it would be exactly the same as the previous day, and the one before that, and the one before that. She woke up each morning blinking at the ceiling of our new house wondering what she would do for the next three decades. Mum was forty, and her life was finally confined to supermarket shopping. That was all. The rest of her world had receded into unintelligible sounds and symbols.

“Your mother’s been here twenty years, why doesn’t she speak English?” people at the university asked me in bewilderment. There was a group that called themselves the Socialist Alternative and they once invited me to one of their meetings, when one of them in my Global Politics class discovered what my mother did. “Tell us about how bad it was for your mother,” they urged.

I thought about my mum working for two decades, an active independent business contractor. Then I thought about her not working, lying in bed at home with limp creaking limbs and Zoloft in her bloodstream. “It wasn’t that bad, really.”

We were all seated in a large circle on the floor and there was a cardboard box of organic cooperative food in the middle. One of the Alternative Socialists picked up a roll. “What do you mean it wasn’t that bad? Of course it must be effing awful. It must have been, like, the living manifestation of the Third World in the First World.”

“No.” I was resolute in my conviction: “My mother’s work gave her a sense of purpose and dignity.”

“Dignity?” They were so wide-mouthed incredulous that I could see the masticated remnants of their beansprout alfalfa wholemeal rolls. “What kind of dignity is that? That’s exploitation!”

They wanted to see me as stoic, because they wanted to offer polite charges of bravery before charging on to their manifestos of destroying the capitalists. They needed a scapegoat, but I thought about my mother’s “friends” in the jewelry stores—the small-business owners: the Kims, the Trans, the Quachs—small industrious people with terror in their eyes whenever they saw parking inspectors let alone policemen. The university socialists needed to see me as a suffering victim who would stick with saying the mass line of overthrowing the whole exploitative system of labor. Instead, I became an employment lawyer.

At work, I visited sheltered workshops, places where people with severe disabilities were supported in the most simple of tasks: folding small paper boxes, sorting donated clothing, putting a certain number of screws in containers. Some of the employees had worked there for over four decades, doing the exact same thing day in and day out. The workshops were beautiful austere spaces, every corner cleaner and neater than our entire house in Braybrook, where I grew up. As I visited these places, Mum lay in bed without the disability pension because her physical disabilities weren’t severe enough to warrant any compensation from anyone, and perhaps by the time they became severe enough she would have become too old to work anyway.

Now the shed no longer vibrates with its massive-machine heartbeat. Red dust no longer floats out from beneath the door. But we are still not to speak of what Mum did for those two working decades of her life.

The door to the shed is still locked.

“The Shed” is a work of nonfiction based on the experiences of the author.

~ ~ ~

The above story is a copy from:

Freedom: Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human RightsFreedom: Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Amnesty International Usa

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some of the stories read more like poems and are hard to digest, but some were written based on actual facts. They cover all the declarations of human rights so I got a wide view of people’s struggles in fighting for their rights (freedom of speech, peace, economic justice, obtaining education, etc). Good read to open my eyes to the injustices that are in the world.

View all my reviews

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