The haze has returned, the winds are changing, but the air inside the National Gallery auditorium is still and clean. The seat cushions are free of lint and don’t creak when you sit down. The projector works. Everything is efficient and sterile—until Tash Aw takes the stage.
by Jen Wei Ting
Something about his voice, something about his story keeps the audience rapt for the next hour. If I close my eyes I’m no longer here but on a sampan drifting down the Kinta river in Perak, the backdrop of his first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory. It’s a carefree existence until adulthood beckons and fortunes diverge. The ones with means leave Malaysia; the ones with ambition strive for scholarships; the ones with neither drift into rock n’ roll. The next time he sees one of his schoolmates, it’s across the counter at McDonald’s. It is his first jarring lesson on class and economic status.
I find my mind returning to the image he shares at the start of his talk. It lingers in a way that words cannot. Boschbrand, or Forest Fire in Dutch, an 1849 masterpiece by the Javanese painter Raden Saleh. Tigers pushed to the edge of the cliff, a water buffalo roars in despair. Overhead, an eagle flees the flames. The raw pathos of these wild, majestic animals losing their dignity continues to grip me even after I leave the National Gallery. Who hears the cries of the colonized? Did King William III of the Netherlands, to whom this painting was presented, react in a similar way? Or was he triumphant, like a grand conqueror, having brought these wild beasts down, quivering at his knee?
But in fire the strongest steel is forged. A hundred years later Java is free, and along the lines of the old Anglo-Dutch treaty Southeast Asia takes shape. The bonded are freed, but at the same time a new class of privilege rises. Nothing has changed and everything has changed at the same time. The Kinta river continues to wear down its banks, but decades of mining have changed its course, creating vast new wetlands where it disappears into the Perak river.
It strikes me so clearly now that the tiger is Tash Aw’s leitmotif, the thread that connects each of his seemingly disparate novels. Displaced, thrust onto the edge, forced to survive outside its natural environment. It is as much about his own search for identity as a British educated Chinese boy from a Malaysian tin-mining town, as it is about the characters that populate his novels: Adam, a sixteen year old orphan caught up in Konfrontasi in 1960s Indonesia, or Phoebe, a young ambitious kampung girl trying to make it in Shanghai.
We have abandoned the Javan tigers and Kinta riverbank for the Aw family’s balcony in Kuala Lumpur. He lets us into an intimate moment, perhaps the most memorable and candid of the evening. He is having a conversation with his father, who after years of reticence opens up about his personal history. It forms the core of his newest work, a lithe collection of personal essays titled Strangers on a Pier. Practicality holds us back from talking about our past, he suggests to his father. No, his father replies. It’s shame.
Shame. The word hangs heavy over the audience in the National Gallery of Singapore. Shame, the feeling of not being good enough, of not having enough, of never enough. To his father, his stories are ‘boring poor people stories’. But to us, the gentrified, the privileged, the educated—they are our tigers on the cliff.
Tash Aw was born in Taipei to Malaysian parents. He grew up in Kuala Lumpur before moving to Britain to attend university. He is the author of three critically acclaimed novels: The Harmony Silk Factory (2005), which won the Whitbread First Novel Award and a regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize; Map of the Invisible World (2009) and Five Star Billionaire (2013); and a work of non-fiction, The Face: Strangers on a Pier (2016). His novels have twice been longlisted for the MAN Booker prize and been translated into 23 languages. His work has won an O. Henry Prize and been published in The New Yorker, A Public Space and the landmark Granta 100, amongst others. He is also a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.