Tash Aw: "It's a very complex form of bigotry"

The Malaysian novelist on fiction, immigration and the Shanghainese.

On a bright weekday morning in the lobby of the Aldwych Hotel in central London, the frequent flyers are talking shop. While I wait to interview the Malaysian novelist Tash Aw, pushing my teaspoon around a heinously overpriced coffee, an American businesswoman is boasting to an elderly British man about her one-day roundtrips from New York. "I leave the house around four, take a cab to JFK, fly, then nap and freshen up in what I call the no-tel-mo-tels at Heathrow – you can pay there by the hour. I get the train into the city, sit through five or six meetings (one over lunch, another during dinner), take the train back to Heathrow and arrive home around 2am."

The old man raises his strigine eyebrows in amazement. When I am introduced to Mr Aw a few moments later, I tell him what I have overheard.

"How does that make you feel?" he asks me.

"Nauseas," I reply.

Tash Aw is no stranger to travel. Born in Taipei and raised in Kuala Lumpur, he moved to the UK to study law in the early 90s and has lived in London ever since. His first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory (2005), centred on the life of the enigmatic textiles magnate Johnny Lim, and was set in 1940s British-controlled Malaya. His second, Map of the Invisible World (2009), examines Malaysia and Indonesia post-independence, at a time when the maps were being redrawn and multiple voices aimed to rewrite the historical record, freed from the influence of foreign rule. He travels regularly around south-east Asia to research, teach, explore and visit relatives. It was on one such journey that his new subject presented itself.

"People of my generation, born in the 70s, think of Malaysia as a country built on immigration. Everyone came from somewhere else at one time or another. It's in the genes. Previously, people gravitated to the big cities of the west, but about ten years ago I started noticing that people were leaving, as they had always done, but now to China. At first it tended to be people in low-skill work, waiters or construction workers, but gradually it became bankers and lawyers and now yoga teachers and lifestyle coaches."

Five Star Billionaire, Aw's most recent novel, is a long, sprawling work assembled in the Balzacian mode: distinct narrative strands weave together the experiences of Malaysian migrants (shifting and tumbling up and down the socio-economic ladder), trying to make new lives for themselves in rising China.

"Ultimately, what I wanted to show in the novel is that immigration is often a lonely thing, a difficult thing. It doesn’t matter how rich you are."

Of course the movement north has more intimate cultural implications, as many migrants are ethnically Chinese. Their families have been living overseas for generations. What they believe to be "traditionally Chinese" has long been wiped away in the Cultural Revolution and the emergence of market-driven economics.

"I’m currently teaching at Nanyang University in Singapore, where there has been a huge influx of mainland Chinese people encouraged by the government. Singaporeans blame them for rising costs. They exhibit the same xenophobia everyone else does. But what I find interesting is that these are ethnically Chinese people being xenophobic towards other ethnic Chinese: it is a very complex form of bigotry."

The point of convergence for Gary Gao, a pop star whose career is falling apart, as much as for Phoebe, the factory worker who adores his music, is Shanghai. Arguably there is no greater symbol in Asia for the collision of cultures and competing histories – and for the creation of the new China.

"In Beijing, everyone is very cynical of Shanghai," Aw says. "They call it a city of foreigners – but I think that gives Shanghai a real edge. It has always been a place people have arrived, thinking they could make their mark."

"A lot of what Shanghai is, is tied up in the language. It gives the city a certain independence. There is a popular stand-up comedian there who does shows in the Shanghai stadium to 50,000 people who's very anti-government, very satirical. But a lot of it is ignored by Beijing because it’s in Shanghai, and the sophisticated Shanghai-dweller isn’t representative of the rest of China at all."

When Phoebe starts dating, the ideas she was raised with in Malaysia appear outmoded, particularly with regard to modesty and dress.

"One of the first times I lived there, I had my parents over to visit. My mother was so shocked to see how much flesh young Shanghainese women showed. It’s not like that back home. People are conflicted in Asia – China particularly – about what social values should be. Many see themselves as the polar opposite of Americans, but I see a lot of similarities in that you have a country which is so big and diverse, it really doesn’t need the rest of the world, economically or culturally."

The novel delves into disputes about land appropriation, heritage and pop culture – the book’s chapters are given headings such as "Move to Where the Money Is", "Forget the Past, Look Only to the Future." Yesterday’s propaganda has been displaced by the self-help mantra.

"It’s a novel about how people see China, not just how western people see China, but how the various Chinese people see China. People from Shanghai and Beijing don’t even see each other as part of the same race."

Aw is reluctant to cohere to the dominent presentation of China as a monolithic culture. The novel refuses to see any individual's story as being anything but his or her own. "We are dealing with a country that is really a continent. You can’t summarise it. When the Chinese government vetoes the vote on Syria or pulls out of the climate change talks even the BBC, who are normally neutral, say something like ‘the Chinese don’t like being pushed around’ and I think, do they mean me? The denial of difference is damaging in any context, but particularly so in China. The differences in China, what it respresents, is what I am keen to explore. We don’t see enough of it in literature."

Five Star Billionaire is out now (Fourth Estate, £18.99)

The novelist Tash Aw. Image: Aradhana Seth.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Stavros Damos for the New Statesman
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A L Kennedy Q&A: “Of course we’re all doomed"

The novelist talks wise politicians, time travel and Captain Haddock. 

What’s your earliest memory?
I’m not sure my early memories are that real. I recall pulling a doorknob off in the hallway in an attempt to leave home, because I was walking away from salad and was never going back . . . Salad back then was limited and scary.

Who was your childhood hero?
I was fond of Captain Haddock. And impressed by Henry Dunant. My heroes were mainly in books. My adult heroes would be numerous. The Lakota (and other) folks resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline are amazing. Bill Nighy is quietly doing amazingnesses on behalf of others. The whole of Médecins sans Frontières – they’re extraordinary. Lots of people do amazing things but don’t get mentioned. We are constantly given the impression by politicians and the media that everyone else is a bastard. It’s not true.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?
I don’t think that’s ever happened. I’m always happy to read a wonderful book. But I guess I have envied writers who have been to amazing places or lived in amazing times and been useful. Rebecca West, then, Chekhov, Robert Louis Stevenson.

What politician, past or present, do you look up to?
Nelson Mandela was very wise about a number of things. Václav Havel and Gandhi also. In the present, the mayor of Düsseldorf is pretty impressive. So is Nicola Sturgeon. They’re people you can stand to be in the same room with – which is unusual in politics.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?
Anything I enjoy knowing would get spoiled by having to sit and spit out chips of it. Plus: my memory is on temporary leave of absence while I have the menopause.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?
I’d like to have visited Shakespeare’s London – awful to live there. The UK in 1946-50 would fascinate me. And I’d like to have been in the US for the Sixties.

What’s your theme tune?
Depends. Bits of Dylan, lots of Elvis Costello, “Bread and Roses”, some First World War songs.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I was told that if I held on and passed my forties, life would be infinitely more fun. I did and it is.

What’s currently bugging you?
Don’t get me started. Let’s boil it all down to ambient cruelty and stupidity. We seem intent on becoming extinct. And if we go on as we are – we kind of should.

What single thing would make your life better?
I can’t tell you. But it would.

If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
No idea. I quite liked bits of acting – that’s tough, though. I like painting, in the sense of decorating. I wouldn’t mind being a painter.

When were you happiest?
I would imagine it’s all the times when I’ve forgotten about being me entirely and been completely involved in something other – nature, writing, giving a shit about someone else . . .

Are we all doomed?
Yes, of course. We always are. We all die. That’s why we ought to be kind. 

A L Kennedy’s “Serious Sweet” is newly published in paperback by Vintage. Her children’s book “Uncle Shawn and Bill and the Almost Entirely Unplanned Adventure” is published by Walker Books

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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