October 2007

The Nation Reviewed

Caveat emptor

By Alice Pung
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

There are two important things your Chinese parents will teach you in life. First, don’t owe any debts; and secondly, own your own property. Unlike their other attempts at edification, these two lessons are non-gender-specific. A year or so after you have started full-time work, after you’ve paid off your university loan in one lump sum, your parents will begin to bug you about buying a house. Your mother and father will insist that you get the property in your own name, in case you marry a man who might want to leave you, gamble or steal your assets - or, worse, a white ghost who does not want to share. In 25 years of marriage, your father has given every cent he has earned to your mother.

Your father will spend a day each weekend with you - a day where he could be working at his store - looking at houses. In the car, driving from property to property, you will have conversations about many things. Your father will tell you about the importance of owning an investment property, explain the concept of negative gearing, and discuss family trusts and tax offsets. But most importantly he will teach you, indirectly, about security and the importance of saving.

When your mother was younger, she worked in a factory and saved all her earnings in a jar stashed underneath her pillow. When your great-grandmother died, the family couldn’t afford a funeral because they had spent all their savings on her week in hospital. Fortunately, your mother had that jar beneath her pillow.

In Pol Pot’s Cambodia your father once took the belt from his waist and buried it where no one would find it. He then watched as the people around him died of starvation. He was responsible for burying their bodies on higher ground when the floods came, so that their corpses would not contaminate the Mekong River. One day, when he felt as if soon he too might be one of those bodies, he dug up the belt, cut it into small strips and boiled it for hours in secret. Then he called his mother and sister over, and they ate it. In this way, they stayed alive.

Your father will tell you that you don’t want to live a life of in-the-moment hedonism like a lot of Australians, always spending what they have and often what they don’t have. But you know he’s not talking about credit-card debt or mortgages. This is what you have inherited: this knowledge that to save your family you have to save things. And that is why the idea of the investment property looms so large in the migrant version of the Great Australian Dream. It secures your existence.

The areas your father targets are the western suburbs of Melbourne, from which you came: the properties in front of the carpet factory in Braybrook; the weatherboard homes in Footscray, Sunshine and Maidstone. You plan your day according to open-house times, and park the car five minutes before the agent arrives. Already there is a line forming outside. At every house you inspect there are at least five other Asian couples or families. You can’t tell which are planning to buy investment properties and which are wanting to break the rental cycle, as you are all dressed in shabby Saturday clothes that you have owned for decades or made yourselves.

When you enter, you are hit by a familiar scent, an icky mix of nostalgia and stuffy nausea. In these small homes the smells of sleep, cooking and daily life permeate every crevice. You see the sewing machine next to the baby’s cot in the back room, the Laminex and cork tables, the curtains nearly falling off their hinges but always drawn so outsiders can’t look inside and see the Asians engaging in tax-evasive work. You see the children’s rooms with none of the pink-and-blue-and-laden-with-toys look of Target ads, but packed with boxes filled with miscellany from import businesses, or stacks of cut fabric pieces. You look down and see the grouting of the tiles clotted with blackness. You look up and see the plastic prints of fluorescent deities on the wall - Buddha or Jesus looking down on you, condemning your condescension. You go outside to backyards filled with weeds and broken clotheslines.

Your father does not seem to be affected by all this. “How many square metres is it? What is the rental in the area like?” he asks the agent, and takes down notes.

“Of course you’re not going to live in it,” your father says when you voice your dismay at how certain properties are falling apart, how the wooden beams have been eaten away by rot, how windowsills are cracking. They are investment properties to him, but walking around inside you see that they are real residences inhabited by people leading temporary, rented lives - waiting, waiting to make it, all the while working in the grot and gritty stickiness.

One time, you and your father venture to Carlton, to see an old terrace house that has been advertised for a steal. You think about this house, and about what it would be like to own and live in your own home so close to the city. When you walk through it you know that you would not just be investing in an asset but in cultural capital, the chance for a very different life.

When your father walks inside and sees the renovations, he thinks about the exorbitant rental prices in Carlton. He is thrilled for you. He tells you to check the contract of sale on the table while he inspects the new extensions - extensions that are not approved by the building council, as you soon discover in the vendor’s statement. Approval for a permit is conditional on “restoring the house back to its natural fittings and rooms to their original use”: the extended rumpus room has to be knocked down, the original positioning of windows reinstated. The kitchen that has been turned into a washing room has to be turned back into a kitchen. The real-estate agent standing outside never murmurs a word about this to anyone. He is under no obligation to, because in this area of law it’s caveator emptor.

The white couples walking though the house talk excitedly about attending the auction next week. Many of them don’t even bother to look at the contract, so taken in are they by the low asking price.

You motion your dad over and explain what you have discovered. You’re both flabbergasted: there are around two pages of unauthorised renovations. Alarmed, you both decide to leave. As you walk down the steps of the porch, your father unexpectedly meets a Chinese friend.

“Ay, boss,” your father warns, “be very careful about this house.”

“Hah? Why?”

“Do you know why it’s so cheap?”

“Because it’s half-finished,” says the friend, “but no worries. I can fix the rest of it myself. It’s a good investment, eh?”

Your father explains about the unauthorised extensions and the building permit. You watch the realisation dawn on the man’s face. “Thank you for telling me this, boss,” he tells your father. “I can’t read the contract, so I would have come to the auction and bid.”

“No worries, mate,” says your father, “My daughter’s a lawyer, so lucky for us she can spot these things.”

The next stop is an auction in Footscray. The street is packed with lines of cars and people, almost as if for a school fête. Bidding has started, and already you see Asian people walking away from the property. “Forget it, boss,” says a man in Vietnamese as he moves off slowly in his four-wheel drive, “it’s already over $410,000.”

But you both stay for the auction, and by the end of it you both can’t believe that a dilapidated little house in Macpherson Street could go for almost half a million dollars. It is the very house that your parents first rented when they got here, the house you were brought home to from the hospital. But this is Footscray, after all, a suburb not immune to gentrification. It appears that you might never be able to afford your first home in this area, but sometimes it is good to move on.

Alice Pung

Alice Pung is a writer, lawyer and teacher. She is the author of Unpolished Gem, Her Father’s Daughter, Laurinda and Writers on Writers: Alice Pung on John Marsden.

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