Various degrees of financial precariousness and a vibrant—yet maddingly hot and humid—Malaysia are the theme and setting of Tash Aw’s newest novel We, The Survivors. Through the main character Ah Hock, an ethnically Hokkien Chinese Malaysian, a tantalizing story of broken family life that crisscrosses both the megacity of Kuala Lumpur and the tropical provinces and crashes violently into the country’s often callous use of “dark-skinned and foreign” migrants from Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Nepal.
The novel is rich in despair. The author unforgivingly explores the peculiar benefits and vulnerabilities of being Chinese in the Malay-dominated Southeast Asian nation. Ah Hock is raised by a single mother and is shuttled back and forth from the provinces to the capital as they struggle to earn a living. Ah Hock’s mother sometimes works as a maid, sometimes in a restaurant, and later, when they purchase a small plot of land near the sea, as a vegetable farmer. But without luck or any social safety net, their poverty proves intractable when their land is flooded by the rising tides and the mothers becomes terminally ill. A young Ah Hock reflects:
… even at that age I knew, like everyone else, that it was hopeless. We were the wrong race, the wrong religion—who was going to give any help? Not the government, that’s for sure. We knew that for no-money Chinese people like us, there was no point in even trying.
Through an honest desire to better himself, Ah Hock’s situation in life improves into adulthood. Even without an education, he rises to the position of manager of a fish farm. Through interactions with wealthier clients of city restaurants and resort hotels, Ah Hock’s dating circle expands and he soon finds himself a wife, a mortgage, and endless evenings of Korean soap operas subtitled into Mandarin—all the pleasant trappings of the up-and-coming Malaysian middle class minus the baby-on-the-way. But with one phone call from a rowdy childhood friend, who brokers in the gray market of migrant labor supply, Ah Hock trips backward into the penury of his youth.
A spat of cholera runs through the Indonesian migrant community that supports his farm and Ah Hock must decide how far he is willing to sidestep his conscience. He could use his friend’s supply of undocumented workers as replacements for a tenth of the wages. Ah Hock uniquely understands what the choice entails:
What struck me and made me shake my head was all the nonsense they said about money. Migrant wages age degrading, they humiliate the soul. They didn’t understand that it wasn’t the pay that destroyed the spirits of these men and women, it was the work—the way it broke their bodies before they could even contemplate the question of salaries. The way it turned them from children to withered old creatures in the space of a few years.
Because of his friend, Ah Hock is also familiar with how migrants are smuggled in as human cargo—fodder for an ever-expanding Malaysian economy:
Customs officers see a big lorry loaded with sacks of rice or cages of live chickens, of course they know what’s underneath all that. They could spend an hour unloading the lorry and finding the migrants hidden underneath, but pay them enough and they won’t bother. Maybe they don’t want to find the real stash; maybe they’re afraid of discovering dead bodies, children suffocated in that tiny hollowed-out space under a mound of squawking chickens. But a tiny bit of cash makes it easy to turn your head and look the other way—someone actually pays you not to see dirty, upsetting shit. Anyone would do the same.
Ah Hock’s fear of losing his managerial position propels a rash decision. The migrants who he wants to use turn out to not be the normal “Bangla, Myanma, Nepal” type but rather Rohingya refugees, fleeing persecution by the Burmese state, barely able to walk let alone do hard manual labor. When events culminate into a tumultuous confrontation, Ah Hock loses everything and is convicted of a violent crime, forced to spend time in prison for years for murder.
Despite the severity of the situation, the author inserts a tongue-in-cheek character in the story, who appears to represent the usual, milksop response to poverty and illegal migration by many Malaysian intellectuals. After serving his time in prison, Ah Hock finds himself the center of attention of a left-leaning lesbian Chinese Malay, who has taken an interest in his life story. She flies from her university in New York to her country of birth to collect research for a PhD in one of those nebulous disciplines that ends with “studies”. The interaction between the researcher and Ah Hock allows for him to recount his backstory and all the events that led to Ah Hock’s crime. She is able to concoct a social justice angle on Ah Hock’s life, the prototypical “survivor” in an unjust world, and earn herself a doctorate. At her book release party, a very confused Ah Hock is handed off from one English-speaking literary socialite to another—a scholarly scrubbing away of Ah Hock’s passed misdeeds as somehow “structural” or “systematic” and therefore forgivable.
At the party, she reminds him:
It wasn’t murder. She laughs. The same laugh I’ve heard all evening, drifting across the farm, mingling with the sound of water. I could marry you if you want. A militant queer girl and a depressed felon—a perfect match.
That’s not even funny, I say, but I’m laughing. We both are. The moment lasts a few seconds, but seems to stretch into the night.
As in his previous novels, Tash Aw is able to take a complicated subject and animate it in an engrossing and visceral work of fiction. Intriguing and worldly, We, The Survivors is a story about what transpires when the everyday poor are threatened by the poorest of the poor.