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 Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis