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.

Show Hide image

How wine crosses national boundaries

With a glass of wine, and a bit of imagination, wine can take us anywhere.

Wine offers many pleasures, one of which is effortless movement. You can visit places that make the wines you love, but you can also sip yourself to where these grapes once grew, or use a mind-expanding mouthful to conjure somewhere unrelated but more appropriate to your mood. Chablis, say, need not transport you to damp and landlocked Burgundy, even if the vines flourish there, not when those stony white wines suit sun, sea and shellfish so well.

Still, I’d never been to Istria – a triangle of land across the Adriatic from the upper calf of Italy’s boot – either in vino or in veritas, until I tried a selection of wines from Pacta Connect, a Brighton-based, wine-importing couple obsessed with Central and Eastern Europe. 

The tapas restaurant Poco on Broadway Market in east London has fiercely ecological credentials – it uses lots of locally sourced and sustainably grown food and the space is a former bike shop – but this fierceness doesn’t extend to entirely virtuous wine-buying, thank goodness. I’m all for saving the planet: waggle the eco-spear too hard, however, and I’ll be forced to drink nothing but English wine. Trying each other’s wines, like learning each other’s customs, is vital to understanding: there’s no point improving the atmosphere if we all just sit around inhaling our own CO2 at home.

The world is full of wine and it is our duty to drink variously in the name of peace and co-operation – which are not gifts that have frequently been bestowed on Istria. I have sought enlightenment from Anna, the Culinary Anthropologist. A cookery teacher and part-time Istrian, she has a house on the peninsula and a PhD in progress on its gastronomy. So now, I know that Istria is a peninsula, even if its borders are debated – a result of Croatia, Slovenia and Italy all wanting a piece of its fertile red soil and Mediterranean climate.

From ancient Romans to independence-seeking Croatians in the early 1990s, all sorts of people have churned up the vineyards, which hasn’t stopped the Istrians making wine; political troubles may even have added to the impetus. A strawberry-ish, slightly sparkling Slovenian rosé got on splendidly with plump Greek olives and English bean hummus, topped with pickled tarragon and thyme-like za’atar herbs from the Syrian-Lebanese mountains. A perfumed white called Sivi Pinot by the same winemaker, Miha Batič, from Slovenian Istria’s Vipava Valley, was excellent with kale in lemon juice: an unlikely meeting of the Adriatic, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Sivi Pinot is another name for Pinot Grigio, which seems fair enough: as long as we can raise our glasses and agree to differ, names should be no problem.

But sometimes we can’t. The other Slovenian winemaker on the menu, Uroš Klabjan, lives three kilometres from the Italian city of Trieste, where his Malvazija Istarska would be called Malvasia Istriana. Either way, it is fresh and slightly apricot-like, and goes dangerously well with nothing at all: I see why this is Istria’s most popular white grape. His Refošk, an intense red, is also good but there is a complicated argument over when Refošk should be called Teran. Like battles over parts of the Balkans, these wrangles seem incomprehensible to many of us, but it’s sobering to think that wine can reflect the less pleasant aspects of cross-cultural contact. Intolerance and jingoism don’t taste any better than they sound.

We finish with Gerzinić’s Yellow Muskat and rhubarb parfait: Croatian dessert wine from an ancient grape found around the world, with an English plant transformed by a French name. There’s nothing sweeter than international co-operation. Except, perhaps, armchair travel.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain