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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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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