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.

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.