March 2008

The Nation Reviewed

Opportunity

By Alice Pung
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

There is a severed bear's head in the hall, and it has been there for more than a week. Its red tongue pokes out from its mouth, which is caught in a bewildered beam. The bear's body lies elsewhere, in another room. It does not smell, although foamy polyester threads poke out of its neck like petrified silkworms. Its eyes are glassy and scratched. Next to the head is a blue dress with its arms cut off. Some plastic beads lie there, the type that would be hazardous if inhaled up a baby's nostril.

When the students have a dress-up party, they take the tram up Sydney Road, Brunswick, to a second-hand mega-store called Savers. They come back with bridesmaids' dresses, handmade by someone's aunt, and hack them short for an '80s party. The blue frock is for a retro night. The head is ripped off the enormous soft teddy to use as a mask in an outfit for a superheroes party. The red shirt is for a Rubik's Cube party, where each person dresses in colours and swaps items of clothing through the evening, until they meander home at 2 am, exultant in borrowed monochrome. Graham Greene wrote a short story, ‘Destructors', about boys who dismantle an old man's house bit by bit. But this is not careful destruction; this seems like tearing out the foundations. Holes are gouged into stockings from another era. Cameo pins are pricked into an old man's softly brushed waistcoat.

"You look awesome!"

"You also look great!"

High-fives all round, as the students roll out the door.

In another suburb, a man without words tries on a pair of trousers, a lined jacket and a similar waistcoat. He sees that the latter was tailor-made in Italy, with craftsmanship rarely seen these days. It is a good fit, but he stands still, too embarrassed to approach the woman behind the counter.

"What can I do for you?" she asks, smiling. The man knows she has seen him, that now he must step forward. He looks down at the glass counter, beneath which lies the more expensive jewellery items and hand-painted plates.

"You have come on a lucky day," she tells him as she takes the three-piece suit. "Today is half-price day." With the discount, the clothes come to a total of $5.40. The man counts out his coins. He stays silent because they do not speak the same language. The woman notices that the man is 30 cents short, but does not say anything. She gives him back his 50-cent coin in change. He too does not say anything, but slides it back towards her. She insists: "Half-price day!" She is confusing him, so he takes the money.

In America, they are called thrift stores, which makes them sound like places for stingy hoarders; but here they are op-shops, real places of opportunity, so much so that two artists and Victoria University lecturers, Sue Dodd and Enza Gandolfo, decided to write and publish a book called Inventory and create an art exhibition using only donated items from op-shops. At the launch I meet 84-year-old Elsie Seidel-Davis, who has been volunteering at the West Footscray Uniting Church's op-shop for 16 years. Without the op-shop, she says, she wouldn't know what to do with herself. Her friends agree. They tell me that people working in such places are never just sales assistants; they become counsellors, social workers, administrators.

Elsie points to the videos on display, which show women in the back rooms of op-shops sorting out donated goods. Tonnes of stretchy, twice-worn Supré clothes are donated every month, but only 30% of all donations actually make it to the shops; the rest are shipped overseas. This culling means that the poor here can have good things. But the only people who seem to use that word publicly these days - ‘poor' - are the Brotherhood of St Laurence and university students. Some students use it after coming back from a year of travelling around the world. "I'm so poor," they say, "but at least I gained my independence!"

In the places they travelled, they could, if they wanted, see the origins of their clothes. In China, silk cloth has been made since the Shang era (1600 BC), and cotton since the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Men picked the cotton and farmed the silkworms, and women wove the cloth. Making a gown was a noble trade back then, or at least that is the way it appears in the museums displaying ancient handicrafts. But often, the marvels of modern manufacturing remain obscure - after all, a student on a self-discovery tour probably does not want to visit a factory where shorts are being sewn. It's easier to have a neat political statement about the marginalisation of third-world workers printed on a T-shirt. Half the things we wear in Australia, in any case, already come with a prêt-à-porter, socio-economic-political label: Made in China. And because it's all so cheap, we have more outfits to stuff into the orange donation bags left in our letterboxes than ever before - and most of it ends up getting sent back overseas.

When my parents first arrived in Australia, they were given a bag of baby clothes from the Brotherhood of St Laurence. My mother took the clothes to the laundromat to wash them, and when she returned she found that someone had emptied out her machine and stolen them all. Since then, my father has travelled the world and returned with impressive Italian dresses for her, but she still mentions that bag of clothes. (My friend Khoa once told me that his mum was also given a bag of baby clothes, and when she opened the bag she realised they were for girls. So he and his brother wore frocks for the first years of their lives.) As a migrant, there is nothing like having the skin of your most precious possession touched by the grace of charity. I understand something of why my mother laments those baby clothes: having a gift pinched is different from someone stealing something you bought and can buy again. And it is difficult to buy such quality in shops these days. You either have to go to boutiques, or visit an op-shop.

In the morning, the aftermath of the students' revelry is strewn about the hall again: discarded garments sticky with Bacardi Breezers, cheap beer and occasional traces of vomit and other bodily effluence - signifiers of living an independent life at 18, debris to be cleaned up later.

For Elsie, though, independence is straightening the bows on brown bears with pokey-tongued smiles, and selling suits on half-price day. And for the man walking out of the store, it's a plastic bag containing clothes that will make him a new man in a new country.

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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