Tash Aw’s first novel The Harmony Silk Factory (2005) earned him a Booker nomination and a Whitbread win. He followed that with Map of the Invisible World (2009), and has just released his third book, Five Star Billionaire. Set in contemporary Shanghai this latest work centers around five Malaysian expats chasing their dreams in the most exciting city on Earth.
Aw, born in Taiwan to Malaysian parents, moved to London in his teens and lived in Shanghai on and off during the writing of the book. Currently artist-in-residence at Singapore’s NTU, where he’s lecturing in creative writing, he spoke to Clara Lim and Ric Stockfis—at generous length—about how the story came together, what makes Shanghai so special, his career so far, and why Singaporeans ought to question things more.
Below is the text of the full interview with Tash Aw. (Great for saving to Instapaper or Pocket!) If you’d prefer to read specific excerpts, click on these links.
- On Five Star Billionaire and personal reinvention
- On old and new China
- On censorship and (not) being a spokesperson
- On living in and writing about Shanghai
- On the art of writing
- On literary culture in Singapore
Where did the idea for this latest story come from?
The moment I realised I could write the novel the way I wanted, was when I was sitting in a late-night Taiwanese dessert place in Shanghai. I heard some people talking with a Malaysian accent, so naturally I tuned in. The more they talked, the more I realised they were from the neighborhood I grew up in, in Kuala Lumpur. And they were talking about someone I’d known when I was a teenager and had lost touch with; and who was now a businesswoman in Shanghai! And from that moment on I kept running into Malaysians and Singaporeans in Shanghai in really unusual situations. Coincidence after coincidence.
I realised the bigger the city is, the chances of those kinds of coincidences are actually higher. When you’re a foreigner in a city you’re always looking out to make connections with people from your background. The old city is more important than the new. They’ve moved to Shanghai to try and recreate a life for themselves, but actually they find when they’re there that the old life is more important. You can never really successfully escape your roots.
But, of course, you have yourself spent a long time away from ‘home’. How do you think that’s shaped who you are?
You only really know who you are when you move away from your home.
Because Singapore’s so comfortable there’s no real need to go for Singaporeans to go and live abroad; and as a result it’s not easy for them to know who they are. The moment you go and spend any time abroad, immediately you know what it means to be British or Singaporean or Malaysian. It’s very hard to get that when you’re surrounded by sameness.
And Shanghai is rather different.
Shanghai is a city for reinvention. The whole book is about reinvention. I was so struck by how many people I met in Shanghai who had just completely reinvented themselves. You didn’t even have to know them to realise they’d done that. Some because they wanted a change. Some because they had to have a change. Some because they were escaping something.
Modern China and modern Shanghai allow you to do that, because no-one’s really interested in your past. No-one asks you where you’re from. No one asks you what your qualifications are. Elsewhere, people want to see your CV. In modern China the only question is: can you do the job?
But it’s not always the easiest place to live.
I found it really, really exciting to begin with, but after a while it’s really tiring. I don’t know how people can keep up. There’s that frontier mentality. Everything’s up for grabs. And you’re not defending your patch in the same way you are in Singapore or Malaysia.
Not being able to get a taxi is a great way of seeing how China works in microcosm. It’s not personal if someone steals your cab. You just weren’t quick enough. Whereas, in London, it would be taken personally and be seen as a real act of aggression. In Shanghai you just have to be quicker than the next guy.
People are caught up in this constant movement; it’s like this river of energy. But no-one knows why they’re doing it; it’s like being on a treadmill. There’s still this big existential question of “why am I doing it?”, which no-one has time to stop and contemplate. The characters in the novel really want to stop, to get off the treadmill and see how they’re connected to their past, but they don’t have time to do that.
How does it feel when you go back to London from Shanghai?
Whenever I go straight there from China, it’s like going to a village. Then after a few weeks it feels really busy and interesting. I think London is more energetic than any other city in Europe, but it doesn’t have that constant motion or energy of Shanghai. I used to lie awake at night and watch the constant traffic on the elevated highway, even at midnight.
Shanghai is seen as this super-futuristic city. But its history is everywhere. Did you get a sense of how that affects the people who live there?
I think there’s something in the Chinese mentality that doesn’t really want you to think about what’s happened in the past. Because they had such traumatic recent history, they don’t want people to do that. When I went back for the residency [Aw was the inaugural M Literary Resident in Shanghai] I lived in a really nice building on Suzhou Creek. A really old building: it was one of the first art-deco blocks to be built in Shanghai but it had been remodeled inside over the years. All the people who lived there where all members of the same work unit and they’d worked in the same missile factory somewhere. They all ended up in this same apartment block, so they were all really old.
I had a tiny studio, with nothing to clean but I still had an ayi to come and do my stuff. She was exactly the same age as my neighbors, and she was incredibly optimistic, and she kept talking about how she was planning a tour of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, and maybe next year she’d save up enough money to go to Europe. I always wondered how people like her could deal with having lived through the Cultural Revolution, as she would’ve lived through it completely. She had seen it from start to finish.
And you think the answer is that they simply don’t think about it.
Yeah, they’re on this super-fast expressway into the future. How can you square that with what you’re living with now? I don’t think I would be able to do that, it’s really hard. These people had to grind tree bark; one of my neighbors was telling me. They had to grind tree bark, to put into their rice, just to have enough to eat.
And if the lives of your children and grandchildren are getting so much better, what’s to be gained by dwelling on it.
Yes, exactly. And as a novelist, I try not to make any judgements. A lot of people are going to be expecting a message. They’re going to be expecting that I’ll say: new China is all about rushing off to get a lot of money, sacrificing too much. But that’s not what I’m saying. The message is not that clear when you get to the end of the book, it’s not that clear at all.
The standard thing in the West is to be really snobbish about Asia, about new Asia: “It’s all about money, there’s no culture.” And I always say to my friends, “But you can say that because you’ve already got money and you’ve been middle-class for a very long time.”
I don’t see why there should be a value judgment attached to people wanting to make money and live a certain lifestyle when they’ve never had those opportunities. But then, I guess, the thing to be balanced against that is if you pursue that at all costs, then you lose sight of where you’re from, of who you actually are. That means that two generations down the line, it’s going to be a little more difficult for people to hang on to that sense of perspective. But for now it’s still exciting.
And anyone who thinks they have the answer, or can provide the “message,” is probably a bit suspect.
We’re only a few years into this boom in China, so we have no idea how it’s going to turn out. We can anticipate, but we have no way of giving the answers.
Did you feel at liberty to write what you wanted; were you worried about censorship at all?
I felt completely liberated in saying what I wanted to say. Personally, I felt much less constrained in China than I do in Malaysia or Singapore. What I was seeing in Shanghai around me, contrary to what we think in the West, is that Chinese people have a really sharp sense of what is going on around them, they know politically what’s happening, and actually they say a lot of stuff, in blogs and in real life. Particularly in Shanghai, which has its own very strong cultural identity. People were very open about what they thought about the government. They’re not stupid. They’re very well informed and they can get the information they need.
If there was anything strong that I needed to say in a political sense, then it was really about Malaysia rather than China. People think about Malaysia and they think it’s about nice beaches and nice holidays—they don’t really think about it as somewhere with absolutely no freedom of press, blanket censorship, huge corruption.
Do people look to you to speak about these things?
No, not really. Ha Jin, the Chinese writer, wrote a really interesting essay on the writer as migrant and in it he says that, once you base yourself abroad, people don’t want you to be their spokesperson. They find it quite annoying. So I don’t set out to make any statements.
But for people of my generation, it was impossible to talk about a full and genuine experience of our growing up—and the characters in the book are my age, my generation—without talking about politics. Because in Malaysia, politics are in your face, all the time. What you can or cannot do is so governed by the politics of money and the politics of race. It’s just normal that when I talk about them growing up and becoming adults, that I would naturally talk about these kind of things as well.
Would you consider writing about the UK?
I just don’t feel ready to do it yet. I think that is because the UK is still where I spend most of my time. I have a less complicated relationship with the UK than I have with most of South-East Asia. It doesn’t trouble me the same way. And because my relationship is less complex with the UK, I don’t feel so compelled writing about it. I don’t feel the emotional need to write about it in the same way.
Were you writing about Shanghai while you were there?
I did write a certain amount in Shanghai; but it was mostly note-taking and research. I usually find it easier to write about a place when I’m not there, though. I find it much more helpful to be physically removed from a place, before I can write successfully about it. It gives me more objectivity and perspective. That’s another reason why I can’t write really well about the UK.
My problem with being in a place is that I have a tendency to be too faithful to the truth. When you’re not there, you feel like: I have the freedom to reinvent things. And sometimes reinventing details is more powerful than actually recording it in real life. That’s why so many holiday snaps are so flat. The reason why a particular viewpoint is so appealing to you is because you have the emotional connection, but then you just take a snap and you forget what’s important is the emotional link.
So how did you spend your time there?
Basically eating in restaurants and walking a lot! I would talk to a lot of random people. Shanghai is quite good for that because there are so many outsiders there. Not just foreigners, but also Chinese people who come from other parts of China to work there. They’re all keen to tell you their story, where they come from; you only have to express the slightest interest. Everybody is lonely and everybody is working so hard. If you just say where you’re from, you’ll get the whole story; how they got to Shanghai and why. So that’s really valuable. That all got distilled in to a lot of the characters. That was basically how I spent my time. I did a lot of reading and writing as well, but it was mainly just taking in everything.
Which probably doesn’t tally with most people’s perception of Shanghai as a place that’s moving way too fast for personal connections.
It is surprising. And it’s the personal things. Waiting in a queue in a restaurant, you engage in a conversation with the people next to you and they’re surprisingly open. Someone made a comment on my book, that all characters in the novel crave intimacy but don’t know how to get it. I think that’s right, because that’s basically what I observed in Shanghai. Everybody wanted to form friendships and relationships, but no one really knew how to do it. Everyone was convinced that they had no time. But actually all it took was for you to say, “what brought you to Shanghai?” And then you’d get this story, and a lot of people were surprised how easily the conversation flowed.
Yet one of the characters in the novel invests a lot of hope—and energy—in online dating; she’s striving for that personal connection.
I was really fascinated by dating in Shanghai. That too, has become this huge source of stress and anxiety, mainly for women in their thirties, who are under such pressure to get married. The pressure is from their family they say, but they don’t help matters by being incredibly demanding. They set up all these barriers between themselves and potential matches and then they complain that it’s impossible to find anyone.
I spent a lot of time going out with my female friends, people in their mid-thirties. And seeing how they’re going out and meeting men, stuff like that. I spent a lot of time in internet bars. That’s where you’d see, not in the middle of town, but further out, the waitresses on their one day off in the month, they’re all there online chatting to people, and observing that was really interesting. It’s surprising how much time that takes.
Is writing easier now that you’re not juggling being a lawyer?
As long as you’re remotely disciplined you can create your own structure. I was always quite clear that when I started writing full-time I would recreate the same kind of working conditions that everyone always has. I think ultimately writing is a job like everything else. You need to give it the respect of a job. I think writers always imagine that they’re more important than other people and that their work is somehow more mysterious; that’s just disrespectful. That’s why, when I started writing full time, I was really determined to behave as if I had to turn up at a job like everyone else.
They say that if you work in an office and you wake up not feeling great or you’re having a bit of an off day, you have to go to the office anyway. You might not be very productive, but at least you’re there and you’re getting something done. If I wake up feeling terrible and just not feeling like writing, I’ll just write anyway, I’ll do something. I will work a whole day, because I think writing relies on that sort of rhythm and continuity.
Do you feel like you’re becoming a better writer?
I think I’m changing as a writer, I don’t know if it’s for better or worse. I think it’s really hard for writers to get a sense of that. I do feel like I’m developing as a writer, but it feels as if I’m still learning my craft.
With every work I write I’m always amazed by how much I learn about the process of writing. Not just the technical things I’m learning, but actually just how to be a writer, how to live with writing. With this book I learnt a lot; at some points it felt like I had to reinvent the wheel. That’s why writing is interesting. Every book has its own rhythm and its own demands. It would be quite sad, and really boring, if I ever got to the point where I was in a comfort zone.
Do you feel the pressure of earlier success?
Personally, I’ve learnt over the years to isolate myself. When I first got published, inevitably, you get caught up in the excitement. I wrote that book [The Harmony Silk Factory] over years and years in my basement flat in London, and I had no idea if anyone was going to read it, and then suddenly people are reviewing my book in the Sunday Times, and inviting me to Sydney and Stockholm. I got caught up in that excitement and thinking people actually gave a shit about what I had to say.
But in fact, that’s not why writers write, and it’s not why writers should write. If you write to get that external validation, then ultimately it’s going to feel quite hollow. Because at some point you’re going to have to come back to your desk and work on a new novel; you have the blank sheet of paper in front of you all over again.
Also, I saw around me how so many writers have got addicted to that cycle of: I have a good review and I’m on a real high, and now I have a really bad review I’m on the floor for three days. I saw how they measured their self-esteem based on how their books were received. I thought: that’s not how I want to live. I basically trained myself: I don’t have that much to do with the literary scene in London, I don’t go out that much to publishing parties, I just get on with what I do.
What I found with my first novel was that, no matter what anyone said about my book, I still had to come back the next day and do my own work. That didn’t change. The challenges that faced me as a writer were still exactly the same as they were before the good or bad review.
I have a lot of expectations when I start writing a novel, I really want to do something different with every novel I write, to do something that’s challenging for me. That’s where I face a lot of pressure, but once a book is done, that’s it: then my job is done and I don’t really worry about it. My publishers worry a lot. But they can’t really control it either. Whether people like the book or don’t like the book, it’s a subjective thing; it’s hard to control that. So why get stressed about it?
Who do you look to for feedback? Who do you really trust?
I have a couple of old friends who are very good readers of mine. Some of them are writers, some of them are not. But they’re the ones whose opinions I go to as a first call. After that, my agents and my editor. But they’re professional people, so they’re looking at the book from a slightly different angle. They’re looking at how to bring the book into the world. That’s already a different point of view. So I’m really careful not to show them anything unless I know what’s going on in the book.
Does it matter whether these friends and editors know the subject matter—in this case Shanghai—or is it better that they don’t?
I think it’s probably best that they don’t know the specifics of Shanghai to begin with, so that they can treat the book on its literary merit, and say whether it’s well written or not well written.
But then again, you get worried about it: it’s a book that’s set in Shanghai, which involves Shanghainese characters, and actually in this case involves a lot of Malaysian characters, so I was really nervous to see what people who lived in Shanghai would make of it. And so far, I’m really glad that a couple of people have said it really spoke to them.
Are people reluctant to share details of their lives with you, because you’re a writer?
No! People are always telling me stuff that they actually shouldn’t. They’re more open because they’re secretly hoping it’s going to work its way into your book.
So what happens now? You’ve got the book out. You’re back to teaching, back to that blank piece of paper the next day.
I would like to get to the blank piece of paper quite soon. But with the teaching and a publicity tour coming up soon, it’s quite distracting. I have to get back to the UK in March, and then to Shanghai and Australia, and then my American edition comes out in the summer. So all that is quite distracting.
How do you reconcile having to do all the publicity, when you could be writing?
I used to be quite conflicted in my view to publicity; I used to really hate it, but kind of feel that it was necessary, so I did it half-heartedly. Now I just think, it’s fine, it’s part of being a novelist in this day and age. My problem is that no one ever explained to me what was going to happen! I thought being a writer was just writing books and that’s it… I’ve learned to be OK at it, but I’m not a natural public speaker, for example. I don’t look forward to speaking in front of 500 people. It’s a source of mild stress for me.
Any disaster stories?
Yes! In Singapore, when my first novel came out, my publishers said “there’s so much interest, we’ve been selling so many copies, we’re going to organize a huge thing for you, at the National Library in Orchard Road.”
First of all, who goes to Orchard Road to go to the national library?! I didn’t know this, so they set up this thing. And there were at least 200 chairs laid out in front of a podium, but there was not one person. It was basically me, my publicist, and the guy who runs the Kinokuniya bookshop. So I was just sitting there reading to them, and they’ve already heard me reading about twelve times, and meanwhile the janitor kept stacking the chairs around me.
It’s better now, though?
Well by the time of the second book [Map of the Invisible World] I was quite well established. So they had me stand in Borders, it was like Meet the Author. And not a single person came! I didn’t sign a single book. So this time, I said “I’m not doing big bookshops. I’m just not doing it, don’t make me do it.” And they said,
“We really want you to do it.”
Do people respond differently to your work in different markets?
The UK responds very well, Australia too. Not so much the US. This one, they seem very interested in. But I think it’s that America doesn’t really care about Malaysia and South-East Asia, but they really care about China. That’s why they’re more interested in this book: “How can we be better than China? How do Chinese people think?”
So much of it depends on subject matter. The British have all these old fashioned links with Malaysia and Singapore, so I think it’s natural that they would be interested in my work. I think a lot of Indian writers say the same thing; they do very well in England and not so much in America.
We’re seeing more and more Chinese authors get international attention. Is there a South East Asian literary wave on the way?
There’s only, like, three of us anyway! The numbers just aren’t there. As far as I know, there really are only about three or four Malaysian writers that have been published internationally. So I think until greater numbers start coming through, we aren’t going to see that.
From your experience teaching here, do you think there are systemic problems that discourage literary talent?
Yeah, my sister was in school in Singapore for years, so I know the school system really well, and I’ve had a lot of Singaporean friends over the years. I think the Singaporean schooling system is not one that’s generally encouraging of creativity. But I think writing is a particular problem. Because the whole thing about writing requires you to question stuff in general. Not necessarily political things, but from a personal point of view. It needs you to question stuff that’s going on inside yourself. Very basic things, like family. That’s not something the Singaporean educational system encourages.
I can say this quite confidently because when I was growing up that was basically the system I grew up in. It was really hard to ask even the most basic questions about yourself and your family, like who am I, am I living in conditions that are happy? Those are not questions that people asked themselves.
Did you find that frustrating or was it only something that occurred to you when you left home?
I think personally I always found it frustrating. I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a sense of being a bit of an outsider. Maybe it’s because I was born in Taiwan, even though I moved back to Malaysia when I was two. Every time I have to fill in a form, my place of birth is Taiwan. When I go through immigration, they say, are you Taiwanese? That makes you feel different. So I have a slightly different perspective.
Perhaps the sort of students who are drawn to the arts are naturally more inquisitive?
Yes, that’s true. The students in my class have the potential but, for whatever reason, I feel they’re holding back. What I’m trying to do is get them to stop writing about zombies and dragons and start writing more about themselves. It’s easier to write about something that’s not yourself, that you don’t have to put yourself into.
These kids have very vivid and active imaginations. I’d just like that alertness to be pointed towards stuff that really matters to them. Because you can argue until you’re blue in the face, but you’re never going to convince me that dragons are the key to your existence, your being. The questioning doesn’t have to be in a provocative way, but it needs to be explored, in a way that’s meaningful. That’s personal.
Writing, particularly at the start of your career, has to involve things that are close to you and important to you. That’s what makes powerful literature. If you write about stuff that you don’t really care about, it’s never going to lead somewhere.
Though your own first novel wasn’t the obvious autobiographical one.
All my novels and particularly this one, draw a lot from my personal experiences. In the first one I wanted to get away from the very personal, because I just didn’t think my life was that interesting! I thought it was quite self-regarding to talk about myself.
But what I did do is talk about the experience of people who share my family background. So it really concerns a lot of stories that I heard when I was really young, about people in my grandfather’s generation; people who never had a voice. This was a part of Malaysia that people are never going to see, if it’s not captured in literature. So for me it was really important that these people had a voice and a presence in literature. From that point of view, it was quite a personal novel.
Are there common themes you think run through your work?
I haven’t thought about my first novel in a very long time. But thinking about it now, I’m interested in the way Asian people reinvent themselves. When you look at these tycoons, like the really rich ones, like Li Ka-Shing. Where does he come from? Where did he start from? There’s always a lot of myth making involved. Often, Asian people don’t celebrate their past in the way that Western people do. In the West, you’re exposed to a surfeit of information about where people are from.
I was always struck by how here, in South-East Asia, you grow up with all these famous figures. Like Mahathir, the former prime minister of Malaysia: you really don’t know who his father was. There is no way someone could be president of America without us knowing every single detail. And I’m really struck by how a lot of Asian cultures go in for this rewriting of their own narratives.
Whereas in places like Britain it’s important for people to talk about where they’re from. Asia’s the polar opposite.
And in China it’s super exaggerated. They really don’t care about what you were doing two years ago, let alone what your family did 100 years ago. I find that contrast interesting. I guess that’s what my books have in common with each other: they’re about how we deal with where we’re from.
So you’re not sitting down to tackle a theme. You just want to tell a story.
Every time I sit down to write a new novel, my only thought is to do something I haven’t done before. So I guess it’s interesting that there are some similarities.
Are you surprised that somewhere like Singapore hasn’t produced more literature about these very topics?
I talk about this a lot with my colleagues here and with other Singaporean writers. Singapore has everything it takes to produce a novel like that, because it has such high levels of education and literacy, and high disposable income. There should be more people reading and more people buying books and becoming writers, but they’re relatively low numbers.
But when you take the MRT, hardly anyone’s reading, they’re all playing games.
I noticed that. Even in London, they’ll be all reading. It always depresses me when I hear people in Singapore and Malaysia say “your books are so expensive.” It’s only $20, that’s not so expensive. People will happily spend $100 on dinner.
When I speak to old friends from school—and we’re all in good jobs now, we had a decent education—they’d say stuff like, “I haven’t read your second novel because Ronald still has it, and after Ronald he has to give it to…” It’s just 35 ringgit for a paperback! It’s just unbelievable. They feel no shame in saying to writers, “I haven’t bought your book because I’m waiting for the paperback because it’s less expensive.” Such a waste of money, someone told me last time.
And yet there’s such rich, recent, turbulent history to draw on. HBO Asia are currently shooting Serangoon Road, set amidst the intrigue of 1960s Singapore. So there are stories to tell.
What I’m finding with a lot of my students, even the Singaporean-Malay students, is that they have very little idea of what Malaysia is. Part of the Singapore narrative, at the governmental level, has involved erasing that part of the story. 1965 [the year in which the Malaysian parliament voted unanimously to expel Singapore from the Federation of Malaysia and Singapore became independent] was a very traumatic event for both sides, but particularly for Singapore.
But you can’t appreciate how significant the achievements of Singapore are, if they’re not measured against pre-1965 Malaysia. To appreciate fully what Singapore is and has become you have to see it as having, really recently, been part of Malaysia.
Are your students aware of the gaps in their knowledge?
When I was growing up, virtually every Singaporean I knew had family in Malaysia. And every other family in Malaysia had at least one relative working in Singapore. But now I have one Singaporean-Malay student who’s never even been to Malaysia. They don’t have that link. They’re not that interested. To them, Malaysia’s this slightly terrifying place, like Indonesia, where you can get robbed. You can only appreciate just how significant that sort of thinking is when you consider that Singapore was part of that country so recently.
One of my students put it quite succinctly. He doesn’t know. He knows that he doesn’t know. When he thinks about his cultural heritage it’s like an alien culture; he doesn’t feel a link to mainland China, there isn’t a link to Malaysia. So you don’t have the same sense of time and perspective.
And yet you still like it here in Singapore.
My liberal friends in London will say “Oh, there’s no press freedom in Singapore.” And I think, “OK, well I grew up with that, and there’s always ways you can work around it.”
But the reason I can’t be down on Singapore in a blanket way is that anyone who doesn’t like Singapore for those reasons—it’s boring or whatever—they basically have educated, middle class tastes, they need a certain kind of environment to get their kicks. But if you’re a working class Chinese from Malaysia, Singapore is nothing but 100% good. My uncles and aunts are small-town working Chinese. They think Singapore is absolutely wonderful. When you see it through their eyes, it’s a land of opportunity, of meritocracy, no corruption.. So the Singapore social experiment is a very valid one. But from a more profound point of view, from a writer’s point of view, I’m concerned that if the emotional timeline stops at ’65, then it’s going to take writers a lot longer to find their place in literature.
I think Singapore is very creative, with great film-makers and visual artists. Literature is the one thing that’s lagging behind. The Great Singapore Novel isn’t going to happen for a long time, because to have any novel, let alone a great one, you need to be able to draw upon reserves of experience. If you’re going to rely on that post-65 narrative, then Singapore is a young country. Somewhere like Britain has had hundreds of years.
Could it not come from the diaspora?
Maybe. I’ve heard that Boey Kim Cheng—who’s going to be at NTU next semester—has written a big novel. So that might be very good. He’s lived in Australia for many years; so that could work. But even to get a diaspora takes time. With a population of 4 or 5 million it’s not going to happen quickly. In the meantime, because Singapore is so success and results-driven, they want it now.