Tag Archives: Malaysia

Five Star Billionaire (2013) – Tash AW

Tan Twan Eng’s winning of last year’s Man Asian Literary Prize hopefully went some way to recognising that there is a huge output of English language literature coming out of South East Asia, including Malaysia. Tash Aw is another Malaysian author who has made a splash in recent years, and for his third novel, he moves away from historial fiction about Malaysia to the current state of the Chinese Malaysian diaspora returning to China to find wealth.

Five Star Billionaire is the story of four young Malaysians who have come to China to hit the jackpot. But life isn’t easy in the biggest city in the world, when 23 million other people want exactly the same thing. More than ever, it is the small connections, the fragile relationships we have with other people, that become important in a city where everyone is out to get everyone else.

Shanghai’s international pull is well documented here. All four (five, even) main characters have come from Malaysia, Aw’s homeland. They have come because, for them, Shanghai is the Mecca of Asian development. It is the place where people come to get rich beyond their wildest dreams. It is a reminder to all of us in the West that China really has become the ideal for so many people in all of developing Asia.

Though each character is Malaysian, and has come to China to find success, it is a credit to Aw that they are all here for different reasons, and have vastly different family backgrounds. Justin is the heir to a huge family real estate conglomerate that has been successful since colonial times. Gary has been plucked from village obscurity to become a successful M-Pop (is that a thing?). Phoebe represents the thousands (millions?) of factory girls who flow across the borders into China to find wealth. And Yinghui is the end of Phoebe’s journey—a successful business woman who is constantly told that she must now find a man.

Just as we spoke last week about Mo Yan’s dim view on the rapid development of rural China, we now get Tash Aw’s rather depressing view of contemporary, already-developed urban Shanghai. It is a city that will take you in, chew you up and spit you out without a thought for your wellbeing. It is a place where everyone is out to make a buck, no matter the consequences for the people around them. Gary and Justin are the first to find this out the hard way—Justin’s family business goes bankrupt, forcing him to redefine who he is. Gary’s temper gets the better of him one night in a bar, and all of a sudden, he loses the millions of adoring but fickle teenage adorers.

There is a sense of impermanence that pervades all four narrative strands. Every time a character is successful, we are obliged to feel happy for them, because they are, for the most part, nice people. But so often it feels like a hollow victory—we know from past experiences that the fall is always harder than the ascent, and can happen when you are least expecting it.

It seems ironic, then, that the characters themselves seem so blithely unaware of the world in which they live. The best example of this is Yinghui’s story, which is perhaps the most heartbreaking of all the narrative strands. Despite her business acumen, she remains sweetly naïve about the lengths people will go to in order to make money.

I haven’t read Tash Aw’s debut novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, so I can’t comment on whether he is getting better or worse with time. If nothing else, Five Star Billionaire marks Tash Aw as a writer who has his finger on the pulse. This is as modern a novel about developing Asia you are likely to find. From the sleazy chatrooms to the exploited illegal immigrants, from the destruction of old heritage buildings to the glittering new skyscrapers, everything you need to know about rising Asia is here.

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The Garden of Evening Mists (2012) – Tan Twan ENG

I read Tan’s first novel, The Gift of Rain, when it was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007, and loved it. The evocation of Malaysia after the Second World War, and the repercussions of the Japanese Occupation, were pitched perfectly. So I was happy to see that he has (finally) released another novel – five years after his first. The hardcover edition from Myrmidon Books is beautiful, too, by the way, so if you’re thinking of reading it, check it out.

The first female judge of the Malaysian Supreme Court, Teoh Yun Ling, is retiring, though she seems unhappy about it. In an attempt to stave off an illness creeping into her mind, she begins to write her memoirs, explaining for herself as much as anyone else how she has come to be where she is. How she was rounded up into a concentration camp with her mother and sister during the Japanese Occupation. How she escaped. How she rebuilt her life as a lawyer for those wronged by the Japanese. And most importantly, how she fell in love with a Japanese gardener.

For anyone who has read The Gift of Rain, the territory covered in this second novel is nothing new. As with his previous novel, in which history was a backdrop that permeated the lives of its characters, Tan once again explores the ways in which the Japanese Occupation has shaped and affected not only the big picture politics and culture of Malaysia, but also the ways in which individuals have been influenced by living through the Occupation. What makes Tan’s take on this interesting is that he is keen to not paint all Japanese people as intrinsically evil, and all Malaysians as helpless victims. This is nowhere more apparent here than in the surprisingly complex relationship between Teoh Yun Ling and Nakamura Aritomo. The initial tension between them – for Yun Ling, Aritomo is the epitome of the suffering she endured as a child – is understandable, and had Tan continued in this vein, I would not have been surprised. But instead of taking the easy route, he asks bigger questions of his readers. What happens when you begin to not hate, and in fact, love, a member of a group of people who did such terrible things to you, the physical and metal scars remain with you to this day? Is it possible to find love and redemption with such people? Or can the past never be forgotten?

Tan seems optimistic in his own response to these questions. Yun Ling and Aritomo do fall in love, and they do have a fairly functional relationship, even though others may seem less approving. In that sense, I think he does see a way for reconciliation through forgiveness and discussion, rather than an never-ending, festering hatred of a culture and country that has moved on from its imperial days. Fortunately, Yun Ling is a complex character, and it takes time for her to let go of her memories of the past. It is this that is perhaps the novel’s greatest irony – in a desperate attempt to ensure her story is not forgotten – by others, or by herself – she has to come to terms with these memories that have shaped her, and examine them in a new light. It is not good enough for her to simply wallow in self-pity; she must instead find beauty in the life she has lived, even if it was not something she had planned.

Even though some character names don’t quite ring true for me, you can tell Tan has done a lot of research into Japanese culture. What interests me most is that he has taken two diametrically opposed forms of Japanese artistic expression – gardening and tattooing – and found a way to combine them. I think it’s safe to say no one in Japan would do this, and it’s nice to see outsiders finding ways to appropriate Japanese culture and find news ways to engage with them and reinterpret them. For a variety of reasons, tattoos are considered the mark of the yakuza, or the Japanese mafia, and as such, it is, even today, very rare to see Japanese people with tattoos, particularly full body ones like the ones presented in this novel. I have Anglo friends (that is, people who could not possibly be members of the Japanese mafia) who have been denied entry into public baths in Japan for having a small tattoo on their ankle, such is the cultural connection. (Interesting language tidbit for anyone who cares: the word for tattoo in Japanese, as I was taught, is irezumi [刺青], though here, the word used is horimono [彫り物])

So there’s some kind of beautiful vulgarity in the idea that Aritomo’s garden, Yūgiri (夕霧), should become a kind of shakkei (借景), or borrowed scenery, to complete Yun Ling’s tattoo. It is the restrained that completes the vulgar; the two are intertwined in a way that, for Yun Ling, is inescapable. She has become the literal embodiment of Aritomo’s life’s work, a fact she was certainly unaware of when she agreed to be tattooed. It’s an interesting development, and one that is perhaps symbolic of Tan’s wider writing project – violence and beauty, vulgarity and refinement, binary opposites coming together in post-colonial Malaysia.

Before I finish up, a quick word on the structure of the novel. Perhaps in an attempts to evoke the sympathy of his readers for his main character, Tan jumps quickly and often without warning between several time periods throughout the novel. Just as Yun Ling’s ability to reconstruct her memories in a coherent and reasonable way becomes compromised by her illness, the reader, too, is forced to reconstruct her life without clues.

I apologise for this slightly biased review. There’s a lot more to this excellent novel than a discussion of Japanese aesthetics and culture, but since that’s what I do, that’s what I’ve picked up on for discussion. Malaysia itself gets a good look in, too, and so does South Africa, which is where Tan currently lives. The Garden of Evening Mists is a deeply complex novel that asks many questions of its readers about topics as varied as post-colonial politics to the best way to design a garden.


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My Life as a Fake (2003) – Peter CAREY

Peter Carey’s work has always struck me as somewhat overrated. To be fair, I’ve only read some of his later stuff, but none of that has really proved to me that he is a great author, worthy of all the fuss that goes along with him. But My Life as a Fake is ostensibly about a rather interesting part of Australian literary history, so I thought I’d check it out.

Sarah Wode-Douglass is the editor of a small time London literary magazine, who has aspirations of making it big. And when an invitation from a family friend to go to Malaysia comes up, she accepts somewhat reluctantly. Though this quickly becomes the most important decision of her life as she is caught up in the history of two old men trying desperately to cling on to their past, as well as run away from it.

For those who are not aware of Australian literary history, the idea of a court case about indecent poetry may not seem familiar. Carey, as he is want to do, has stolen the basic background of the Ern Malley affair, and turned it into a novel. Kind of. My Life as a Fake is, in the end, not about the case so much as what happened to the people involved in the case, and how they lived their lives in the decades after – something I feel I should warn people about, since that’s not at all the impression I went into the novel with.

Carey’s evocation of Kuala Lumpur is beautiful. I should clarify, I’ve never been to KL, but he seems to evoke so much of that South East Asian feel, I feel like I have. It’s not just the people that he draws deftly – though he manages to sneak in a few background characters that work exceptionally well – but the atmosphere of the city is clear, from the oppressively humid weather to the air-conditioned cool of Sarah’s hotel, from the gaggle of women tailors who hate Chubb, to the Indian doorman of the swanky hotel. This is a place that is well and truly alive in Carey’s novel.

There is, of course, one key difference in Carey’s novel. The fake poet, Bob McCorkle, turns out to be a real man, and spends much of the second half actually chasing his creator, Chris Chubb, around. In many ways, this somewhat detracts from the rather excellent first half, and degenerates somewhat into a weird Heart of Darkness-esque trip through the jungles of Malaysia, interacting with the natives, and generally being a bit odd.

Christopher Chubb is a broken old man here, with a suit that is falling apart, and locals that hate him. This first impression slowly changes, as we realise what has happened to him, and the ordeals he has had to go through. Slater is presented, at first, as his polar opposite, but as Sarah’s family history is slowly revealed, he, too, turns out to be something very different. I like the contrast of the two men – they complement each other well, and their fractious relationship makes for some good stuff here.

Sarah, on the other hand, doesn’t come out of the novel very well. Her refusal to listen to Slater is, at first, completely justified. But at the same time, she doesn’t seem to have much interest in helping Chubb past getting a hold of the hoax poems, so she can justify to her investors why they should prop her magazine up. Indeed, her actions in the final third of the novel make her come off as rather unlikable, and unwilling to consider personal feelings in the face of a profit for her magazine.

Perhaps, then, this is the novel’s biggest problem. It’s not long, but there’s a lot going on: Sarah and Slater’s awkward relationship, their family history, Slater and Chubb’s relationship, Chubb’s original trial and exodus from Australia, his subsequent encounters with McCorkle in Malaysia, and the current events that are going on in Malaysia. In many ways, there is too much going on. Carey flips back and forth between narrative threads and time frames with little concern for proper transitioning, leaving one with a somewhat confused feeling about when and where one is.

I’m yet to find a Carey novel I truly connect with. My Life as a Fake has not done much to change that. I can see his writing as very good, yes, but his storytelling leaves a lot to be desired here. This is by no means a bad novel, but it is very patchy, and the messy second half doesn’t make up for a solid first half that sets up a situation Carey seems determined to ignore.

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