Interview (Part 4): Tash Aw on living in and writing about Shanghai

You’re reading part four 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.

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.