An Interview with Tash Aw
Tash Aw’s new novel, Five Star Billionaire, follows five Malaysian immigrants in Shanghai as they struggle to succeed in the Chinese boom. In her review, Jill Baker noted that despite the large cast of characters, “Shanghai itself is the book’s real main character, a glimmering fata morgana, luring in people hoping for a second chance or... any chance at all.”
Born in Taiwan, raised in Malaysia, and now based in England, Tash Aw is the author of three books. His first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, won the Costa Whitbread First Novel Award and was longlisted for the Man Booker prize. His second, Map of the Invisible World, set amid political turmoil in Indonesia, received critical praise for its characterization and prose.
This week, Aw spoke with the Asian Review of Books about Five Star Billionaire and writing about a new kind of Asian migrant experience. Edited excerpts follow.
ARB: What do China, and especially Shanghai, have to offer as settings for contemporary fiction?
TA: The interesting thing about China is what it represents to other Asian people. I was really attracted by the whole notion of changing patterns of migration. I was struck by the way that young people of my generation...are looking to leave our home countries, to seek adventure elsewhere.
If you come from a small country like Malaysia or Singapore, twenty years ago that choice was really clear: people just naturally gravitated toward the Western cities, like London and New York or maybe Australia. Things started to change about ten years ago, and really accelerated in the last five or six years. For a lot of young people now, the West is not just no longer inevitable, it’s just much less attractive than say, China. China gives the illusion that you can just arrive from anywhere and no questions will be asked. The potential for reinvention is so much greater there than it is elsewhere these days. That’s the illusion it gives.
Shanghai is the pinnacle of that illusion that China offers. It really is the city that’s most geared to attracting and receiving people from other places in the world. Shanghai, for people from Southeast Asia, seems a lot easier to negotiate. When I was there, I noticed there are a lot of Malaysians and Singaporeans, and not just working at the kinds of jobs that you’d expect them to work in—the low-level, low-skill jobs. They were working in professional jobs, like banking or law. I met Malaysians who were yoga teachers and lifestyle coaches and florists. The changing nature of migration was interesting to me.
Finally, it was the fact that there’s a beautiful irony in a way, that our forefathers—either grandfathers or great-grandfathers—left China to emigrate to Southeast Asia for economic reasons. A few generations down the line, it’s interesting how so many young ethnic Chinese are moving back to China for economic reasons too. I was interested to see how those relationship between Southeast Asia and China played out, and whether or not they were different because of this cultural aspect.
ARB: President Xi Jinping has talked about this idea of a Chinese dream, and it seems like your book is interested in that idea as well. Were you conscious of that idea as you wrote?
TA: Very much so. That was what really struck me in a big way when I was there. This was before Xi articulated it, but it’s very obvious, very palpable. There’s this idea that you could go there and start from scratch. No one was going to ask you where you were from, no one was going to ask you for your paper qualifications. All they wanted to know was if you could do what you said you could. No one asked you for a piece of paper with your qualifications and your breeding and all that—that’s kind of immaterial in China because things are moving so fast.
I met so many people who were drawn by this energy. So the book is my way of showing how that dream is attracting a lot of people, and asking whether that dream is actually achievable.
ARB: That was something I noticed in the book. It seems like there’s a sense of the betrayal of wealth, that a lot of this is illusory and transient.
TA: A lot of dreams are linked to a certain kind of aspiration and ambition, and that’s very linked to the idea of how material wealth can change you fundamentally. I think that necessarily they’re illusory... particularly in a place like China. A lot of people. went to China thinking that they could be like all these new Chinese billionaires—they could from one day to the next make these huge fortunes. But of course, China has a way of confounding these expectations. Most people who go to China thinking that they can have it easy soon discover that that’s not true...
China is so big, and so complex, and so brutal. I think it treats everyone equally in that way—it’s very ruthless, and it’s a ruthlessness that’s applied kind of equally. The characters in the book come from very different social backgrounds in their home countries, and yet they get treated in exactly the same way. I think China’s very egalitarian in that respect. It’s kind of harsh, but it’s harsh on everyone.
ARB: What made you choose to do an ensemble book instead of focusing on one person’s story?
TA: It was a roundabout way of really talking about the people of my generation in Malaysia, the people that I grew up with. Although the book is about China, in one sense really what anchors the novel is Malaysia.
It’s a love letter to the people I grew up with—the people I went to school with, the people who grew up in the same suburbs as I did, the people who were working in the cheap restaurants, the people who I met when I took my mum down to the hair salon, the whole part of my family that didn’t make it out of small-town, rural Malaysia. I wanted to write a novel that in some way encapsulated all their aspirations, all their ambitions. I wanted to see how far along they had progressed. Whether or not they had managed to achieve all that they wanted to achieve...
I think China’s rise has changed, in a quite a significant way, how we see ourselves—particularly ethnic Chinese. When they go to China, how Chinese do they feel when they get there? All these things relate to the Malaysian identity. So writing about a big cast of characters was... a way to explore the different stories that make up the Malaysian experience.
ARB: Five Star Billionaire in some ways subverts the genre of the China expat novel. Were you aware of that as you were writing?
TA: A lot of my work concerns what it is to be an insider and an outsider at the same time... People who hover on the margins of a particular group or society. Ethnic Chinese coming to China from another country is an interesting position to be in. From a personal point of view, I felt when I was in China... I would get into taxis, and the initial instinct was that I’m from southern Chinese stock, I look Chinese, so they would start talking to me in Shanghainese. It was only after that they would realize, oh, you’re not local. I found it quite liberating being in a quite a big city and looking like everyone else on the street. It’s not even like being in Malaysia where although there are large numbers of Chinese, there are larger numbers of Malays and Indians. You’re constantly aware of how different you look. In China, everyone looks like me.
And yet I knew that I wasn’t like them. I was interested in what it means to subvert the idea of foreignness—and the relationship between Southeast Asia and China does do that.