Interview (Part 2): Tash Aw on old and new China

You’re reading part two of a six-part interview. Click on the links to navigate:

  1. On Five Star Billionaire and personal reinvention
  2. On old and new China
  3. On censorship and (not) being a spokesperson
  4. On living in and writing about Shanghai
  5. On the art of writing
  6. On literary culture in Singapore

Click to view the interview on a single page. 

See Aw’s schedule of public appearances in Singapore in April.

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.