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.

Warner Brothers
Show Hide image

Nigel Farage's love for Dunkirk shows how Brexiteers learned the wrong lessons from WWII

Film has given Britain a dangerously skewed perspective on World War II

For months now it’s been hard to avoid the publicity for what seems like an epidemic of new World War Two films for 2017. June brought us Churchill (starring Brian Cox), which concerns Operation Overlord and the allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. A month later, in July we were pushed back four years, to Dunkirk, with Christopher Nolan’s film of the evacuation of Allied troops from French soil in the summer of 1940. April had already brought Their Finest, a comedy about making a - let us not let the irony go unacknowledged -  stirring film about the evacuation of Dunkirk in the event’s more or less immediate aftermath and November will bring us Darkest Hour, some events in which will predate all three earlier films, as Gary Oldman’s Churchill struggles through the earliest days of his war premiership.

This glut is peculiar. There are no significant round anniversaries to commemorate (e.g. Dunkirk is 77 years ago, the Normandy landings 73). More, we’re meant to be in the middle of a series of commemorations of the horror and waste of the Great War of 1914-18, but that seems to have slipped away from us in the political turmoil that’s engulfed this country since 2014. Instead, it’s to the Second World War we return yet again. To modern Britain’s founding myth.

It’s a coincidence, of course, that these films should come along together, and at a seemingly odd time. They were developed separately, and films takes so long to conceive and produce that no one could have anticipated them arriving together, let alone arriving in a toxic Brexit Britain where they seem like literally the least useful things for anyone in the UK to watch right now. As works that will inevitably, whatever their own creative intentions and merits, be hi-jacked by a press and political culture that is determined to gloss its opposition to the UK’s membership of the European Union, and its appalling mishandling of the process of exit with garbled references to, the conflict the films portray.

This is an impression that is not exactly dismissed by Nigel Farage posting to twitter of an image of himself standing next to the poster for Dunkirk, along with a statement in which he encourages all young people to see the film. For what reason, we’re entitled to wonder, does he make this encouragement? Does he admire the sound design? Or the aerial photography? Or is he just a big fan of Mark Rylance and Harry Styles? Or perhaps he is, inevitably, indulging in a behaviour that some might call "nostalgic"? Of pining for the past. Except, of course, nostalgia requires an element of pain. The suffix "algia" the same as employed when referring to chronic conditions. For Farage and his ilk there is no pain in this behaviour, just the most extraordinarily banal comfort.

Farage is asking us and asking the young who voted against his chosen cause by an overwhelming majority, and who are are sickened by where he and his ilk have brought us - to share in his indulgence. To enjoy, as he does, those fatuous analogies between the UK’s isolation between Dunkirk and Pearl Harbour with its imminent failures in European politics. To see that "escaping from Europe with nothing is at least better than not escaping at all". Or to believe, once again, in a "plucky little Britain, standing up against the might of a wicked mainland European tyranny, its back against the wall".

All this, confused, indeed nonsensical, as it is, is being invoked, as surely as the anti-EU right have always invoked Churchill. This is despite his own family recognising him, as the EU itself does, as the fervent pro-European he was. Indeed, he was one of the founding fathers of the whole post-war pan-European enterprise.

What Farage and his behaviour demonstrates, yet again, is that British culture, in many ways, learned not merely the wrong lessons from the war against Hitler, but exactly the wrong lessons. It’s a lesson that found its most enduring, poisonous expression in Margaret Thatcher’s breathtaking assertion that the European Union was a "third attempt" by Germany to take over the world.

In contrast to the rush of war films in cinemas, television has recently given us glimpses into theoretical worlds where Nazism did succeed in conquering the planet, in Amazon Prime’s The Man In The High Castle and BBC One’s SS-GB. There are lessons too, in these alternative histories, proper lessons that we have collectively failed to learn from the real one. Which is that fascism or authoritarianism are not diseases to which anglophone countries are somehow miraculously immune due to [insert misunderstood historical fetish of choice].

The Man in the High Castle, particularly in its more subtle first series, goes out of its way to show Americans that their lack of experience of collaboration with Nazi occupation is a result of circumstance, even luck. Not because collaboration is a peculiarly European tendency. SS-GB also worked hard to demonstrate the helplessness of occupation, and how that leads to the sheer ordinariness of collaboration. Both show the understanding that while fascism from the outside is funny accents and funny uniforms, fascism from the inside is your neighbours informing on you and the absence of the rule of law.

That experience of occupation, of subsequent complicity, and humiliation, felt by many other other European nations, is absent in Britain. Farage’s fellow Leaver Liam Fox, without anything resembling self-awareness, asserted that "the United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history". Fox’s remark summed up, again seemingly unintentionally, the oafishness of the principle Brexiteers. A group who exemplify a culture that boils a vast and unimaginably complex conflict down to the title sequence of Dad’s Army - an animation in which a Union Flag is forced off the European continent by a trio of Nazi triangles, and after returning home bobs around defiantly. A group who, in a strange and witless inversion, have fantasised themselves into a position where they see the Britain’s membership of the European Union as the occupation the country once avoided.

This is the UK’s postponed tragedy. At a timethat European countries experienced national humiliations which fundamentally reconfigured their understandings of their place in the world, the UK got yet another excuse to shout about how much better it was than everyone else.

I’m a child of the very late Seventies. I grew up in a world where (British) boys’ comics were dominated by war stories rather than science fiction or superheroes, where literally everyone knew several people who had fought in World War Two - and almost everyone someone who could remember World War One. That war was the ever-present past. I am, as a friend who teaches history neatly phrased it "Of the last post-war generation." After me, the generations are post-post-war. They are free. The moral clarity of the war against Hitler has, in the end, been a curse on British culture - a distorting mirror in which we can always see ourselves as heroes. 

But, not, of course, all other generations. The war generation collectively (I make no claim that there were not exceptions) understood what the war was. Which meant they understood that the European Union was, and is, its antonym, not an extension of it. Unlike their children and the eldest of their grandchildren, they had real experience of the conflict, they hadn’t just grown up surrounded by films about how great Britain was during it.

The Prime Minister who, or so he thought, had secured Britain’s European destiny had also, as he related in his autobiography, seen the devastation wrought by that conflict, including by shells he himself had given the order to be fired. Like Helmut Kohl, whose worshipped, conscripted older brother died pointlessly fighting for Hitler, and Francois Mitterrand, himself captured during the fall of France, his experience was real and lived, not second hand.

This can be seen even in the voting in 2016 referendum. That the young principally voted Remain and the old voted Leave has been often noted. But if you break that over-65 vote up further, there’s a substantial flip to back towards Remain amongst the oldest voters, the survivors of the survivors of World War Two. After all, someone who is 65 today was born nearly a decade after the war ended. It was their parents’ war, not their own. A war that has been appropriated, and for purposes of which those who fought in it would, collectively, not approve.

Let’s return to Dad’s Army, after all, BBC Two does often enough. Don’t Panic! The Dad’s Army Story (2000) a cheerful history of the sitcom great written and presented by Victoria Wood contains a telling juxtaposition of interviewees. The series' surprising continued popularity is discussed and Wendy Richard (born 1943) expresses a nostalgia for the war years, and how people banded together during them. This is a sentiment which Clive Dunn (born 1920) bluntly dismisses. “Like most people I had a foul war,” he says, and disgust and horror briefly pass across his face.

It’s the difference between those who remember war, and those who only remember war films.