Tash Aw is the author of two previous novels, The Harmony Silk Factory, winner of the Costa First Novel Award and a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel, and Map of the Invisible World. He was born in Malaysia and now lives in London. Lucy Chatburn spoke to Tash about his new book, Five Star Billionaire…
Lucy Chatburn (LC): Why Shanghai?
Tash Aw (TA): I was travelling there and realised how cosmopolitan it was – quite the opposite of the image that people have of China being closed and completely alien and unaccepting of foreigners. I was fascinated by the number of people from all over the world who had come to seek new opportunities there, and also by the city itself – in a number of ways its image was akin to that of New York a hundred years ago, a huge city where foreigners could arrive with nothing and reinvent themselves without questions being asked. So I decided to return to the city, live there for a while and try and learn about these lives – and I found that I grew to love the city, despite all its problems (pollution, crowds, etc).
LC: Where did you write Five Star Billionaire? Do you find that your location influences your writing?
TA: In Shanghai, London and rural France. It really depends – each novel has its own needs in terms of location, but in general I would say that where I write isn’t that important. I just need to be settled in a particular place for a decent length of time, but I’m not fussy about where that place is, as long as it’s relatively quiet.
LC: Five Star Billionaire is full of coincidences, chance encounters and near misses. Some are entirely believable, whilst others stretch the imagination a little bit. Are we supposed to take them all literally?
TA: You should take them entirely as you wish, depending on how literally you usually read works of fiction. Coincidence isn’t a new device in fiction – much of the nineteenth century novel is built on the idea of chance encounters, so if you think of Hugo or Dickens, my coincidences aren’t particularly remarkable. I wanted to revive these traditions in a modern Asian context, particularly given the fact that coincidence does multiply in a city – the bigger the city, ironically, the higher the chances are of running into the unexpected. That’s certainly been my personal experience. And for anyone who comes from an immigrant background, what others might consider coincidence often isn’t coincidence. People who share a certain background and who are a long way from home have a way of seeking out other people from that background, consciously or unconsciously: the immigrant experience, coupled with the metropolitan phenomenon, amplifies ‘coincidence.’ And of course, alot of the chance encounters in the novel turn out not to be coincidence after all. A lot of traditional Chinese culture is based on fate, chance and fortune, and I wanted to play with these idea. So the novel is a multi-layered, multi-textured reading of what chance and coincidence are.
LC: Do you identify personally with any of the characters?
TA: Yes, of course – all of them (though I’m not able to decide which one I most identify with).
LC: How is China seen from Malaysia?
TA: It’s seen in conflicting ways that have changed rapidly over the last two decades. When I was growing up it was somewhere to be feared and mistrusted because of its support of the Communist movement in South East Asia, and also to be derided because of its poverty and backwardness; but now it is seen as a land of opportunity, where anything can be achieved, particularly for people from an ethnic Chinese background. There’s a sense in which – if you come from a relatively small country like Malaysia – that your future will to some degree be influenced by the rise of China, and that whatever happens in China will have some sort of impact in the region.
LC: You moved to the UK to study university, right? Obviously moving from Malaysia to the UK is not the same thing as moving from Malaysia to China, but are there any parallels in your opinion? What are the main differences?
TA: Malaysians who are ethnically Chinese assume a certain degree of familiarity with China – language, food, etc – so the day-to-day elements of life don’t require a big adjustment. The main difference is that in China, I don’t stand out physically – it’s easier to blend in and not be noticed until I have to engage in a meaningful way with Chinese society. Even in Malaysia, which is a very multi-racial society, I don’t have that sense of looking like everyone else around me. Walking into a country pub anywhere in the UK obviously isn’t going to involve the same level of anonymity for me – outside of London and a few other big cities, I’m definitely aware of the colour of my skin. But beneath these immediate difficulties, there are many parallels, especially if you compare the experience of living in big cities like London and Shanghai as a newly-arrived foreigner – the excitement of being able to carve out your place in the metropolis, of being able to survive in a harsh, alien environment; but also the loneliness and the fear that you might never find what you’re seeking in your new home.
LC: Your novels often seem to show business in a bad light, does this reflect your own views? Do you think business can ever be a force for social good?
TA: I’m not sure I agree with the fact that I portray business negatively! I try and be fair about the nature of business, but being fair in contemporary Asia involves showing the corrosive obsession with money – for often, it’s not even “business” that people are interested in, but rather the benefits of business. We find ourselves in a system in which we are convinced that money is good, not necessarily because we genuinely believe in its inherent qualities, but because everyone talks about it endlessly, so we often feel that the pursuit of business is inevitable. On the other hand many Asian countries have, until recently, been very poor, and I can see the very real effect of money resulting in people having a much higher standard of living, so of course I believe in the positive powers of business, and don’t attach a value judgement to it (I certainly don’t share the upper-middle class European snobbery about money). Social change needs money, so in a sense everything starts with finance. All I wanted to do in this novel and elsewhere was question whether the choices we make are genuinely what we want for ourselves, rather than something dictated by the rest of society – a path that we follow because it has been laid out for us and therefore seems inevitable. Every character in the novel faces these choices – the rest of lives depends on how they respond to this self-questioning.
LC: You’ve talked about a need to reinvent the south-east Asian novel. How is this revolution characterised for you?
TA: It’s not violent or important enough a change to count as a ‘revolution’ – I’d rather the term be used in terms of rebalancing social injustices in SE Asia (of which there are many)! I used to see the reinvention of the SE Asian novel partly as a re-appropriating of a literary voice – telling stories about SE Asia from an Asian viewpoint, about things that people in the region can relate to; and partly as a re-energising and refocussing of our literary interests. Fifteen years ago, when I was writing my first novel, I felt that my contemporaries had a wonderful sense of adventure and energy when it came to reading, but the moment they sat down to write, they seemed mired in issues of history and identity – the stuff of post-colonial studies at university, which was not at all what they were concerned with in their daily lives. It struck me that our literary opinions of ourselves were still attached to the views that Westerners had of us – we were either trying to battle against those views, or else unwittingly affirming them by presenting white people with what they could relate to. Either way, the struggle seemed out of step with our real life, day-to-day concerns, so I took a classic literary tradition – the War-and-its-aftermath novel – and played with people’s expectations of it. Nowadays, I don’t have those anxieties, largely because I feel that there’s enough writing and art elsewhere to reflect the plurality of contemporary Asian life; but also because those grand gestures at literary ‘revolution’ feel overstated, a bit pompous. When you’re in your forties, writing takes on a different slant from when you’re in your twenties. It’s still a fundamental part of my work to feel as if I am pushing the boundaries, always redefining, even if in a minute way, the SE Asian novel, moving it forward and making it relevant to its readers in the region and elsewhere – I think it’s impossible for Asian writers in my position to do otherwise. But I also feel freer now in my experiments – there are more writers at work now, producing interesting novels; I don’t feel as if it’s a lonely battle any more.