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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How that deleted lesbian scene in Love Actually should have gone

If the film was made in a more utopian 2003, this is what it would have looked like.

Here are some things that “haven’t” made me cry in recent days: “She’s The One” by Robbie Williams coming on the radio in a 3am Uber; my cat farting on my boob; the deleted lesbian storyline in Love Actually. No, the recently unearthed segment of the schmaltziest film of an entire decade in which the resplendent Frances de la Tour plays the terminally ill partner of a “stern headmistress” with a marshmallow interior (Anne Reid) most definitely did not make me sob like someone’s recently divorced uncle spending Christmas Day in a Wetherspoons.

The posh older lesbian archetype, it turns out, is something I find quite affecting. Reid and de la Tour play one of those couples who have (probably…) overcome so many obstacles in order to be lesbians together. Poshness. Being at an all-girls boarding school in which lesbianism was simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. More poshness. Section 28. Gazing longingly at each other while one tinkles Chopin’s Nocturnes on a dilapidated piano, in a crumbling stately home, and the other sips brandy from a chipped crystal tumbler; both daring not taste the forbidden fruit of the poetess Sappho, etc, etc. Radclyffe Hall. Horses. Poor hygiene.

Unfortunately, seeing as Love Actually was released in 2003 – roughly a decade before people began pretending to care about lesbians – Richard Curtis was forced to cut the one genuinely moving plotline (which actually contains none of the above, but I think heavily implies it) from his cinematic ode to bollocks. But perhaps, had the only non-hetero, non-fucking annoying couple been less of an afterthought and more, say, utterly crucial to the narrative, things could’ve been different. Here’s how, in a more utopian 2003, that might have been achieved:

Maggie Smith and Judi Dench (seriously, how did these women get away with not being in Love Actually in the first place?) are militant communists. Judi Dench is a sculptor who used to drink schnapps with Ulrike Meinhof. In the 1980s, she moved to Cuba and became a professional recluse. Maggie Smith, on the other hand, is someone’s spinster great aunt. It doesn’t really matter whose but, for the sake of argument, let’s say that ginger guy who used to be in My Family and those BT ads. (Just a reminder, his actual character in Love Actually is the one whose entire personality is being a bit of a sexist virgin and having an English accent which eventually gets him laid by several American women.)

Anyway, Maggie Smith’s character, let’s call her Edith, has spent her whole life being both a secret lesbian and a secret communist. On holiday in Cuba, she bumps into Judi Dench’s character, let’s call her Annie, and they hook up. Graphically and repeatedly. And, before I’m accused of deus ex machina laziness, please be reminded that this is Love freaking Actually.

Edith and Annie decide that because they’re quite old and don’t care any more, they’re going to go back to London and assassinate the terrible Hugh Grant prime minister. Through yet more hilarious deus ex machina, they manage to sneak into No 10 late at night, with handguns. Hugh Grant is all, “Blimey, who are you.” Edith is all, “your worst nightmare, bitch”. Bear in mind the audience is now shitting itself laughing because an old posh lady just talked all gangster. Then Annie pistol whips him and he passes out in the most Hugh Grant way possible ie he says, “oh dear,” then hits the floor like an untalented, floppy haired douche. When he comes to, he’s tied to a chair in his office. At this point he remembers that he was supposed to turn up at Tiffany from EastEnders’s house and declare his love for her. He begs Annie and Edith to let him phone her. “As it’s Christmas”, they decide to let the fucker do one last really corny thing before he dies. There are no bodyguards or anything, by the way. Remember, this is a film in which – post-9/11 – a child (albeit a white one) runs through airport security and isn’t shot 17 times in the head.

So, the PM phones up Tiffany from EastEnders and says, “Look. I… there’s something I wanted to tell you. And I was planning on doing it in person but …gosh this is all so terribly inconvenient… I’m being held hostage by lesbian communists. I do hope you can forgive me.”

After some more “frightfully English” bumbling crap, Edith puts her gun to Hugh Grant’s head and pulls the trigger. Her and Annie then make out for like seven minutes. Eventually, a cockney policeman played by Timothy Spall shows up and decides to let the two women off, again, “as it’s Christmas.” Also, he mentions, “No one liked that tosser anyway.”

“She’s the One” by Robbie Willams begins to play.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.