Strangers on a Pier by Tash Aw Review – Memories of a Malaysian Stranger | Autobiography and memory
TNovelist Tash Aw was 15 when he noticed the difference. He knew that his classmates at school were not all ethnically Chinese like him. There were Tamil kids playing hockey, “Malaysian rockers” cutting out pictures of Metallica from magazines and pasting them in their textbooks. But now, as they all prepared to take their O-level exams at a publicly funded school in Kuala Lumpur, Aw realized that the divisions between them weren’t so sharp. There was a boy whose parents were illiterate and worked as laborers in a rubber plantation. Other children, from richer families, would be sent the following year to luxury boarding schools in England, regardless of their exam situation.
At home, Aw noticed a similar chasm between successive generations of her family. When he and his sister visited their grandparents on vacation – in Parit, a quiet riverside town in central Malaysia – they now struggled to fit in with loved ones. He hid his books (Faulkner, Steinbeck) between the clothes in his bag. Her sister sat at the counter of their grandfather’s shop, ignoring the customers entering. She would be busy practicing French grammar or Chinese letters, to get into a good school abroad. Aw knew then that their life would be nothing like that of their grandparents.
In Strangers on a pier, he writes evocatively on this abyss: the uncomfortable silences of his parents, the fading memories of his grandmother. Aw is frustrated by the sentimentality of immigrant success stories, their inevitable veneer of redemption. A little over a century ago, Aw’s two grandfathers traveled by boat to Singapore from southern China and settled far into the Malaysian countryside. These days Aw lives in London. He went to Cambridge University and traveled the world. Because of his “neutral” face, he is often mistaken for a local – in Bangkok, Tokyo, rural Nepal. “East India,” he writes, “my identity becomes malleable, molding itself to fit the people around me.
Aw’s sentences are fueled by the constant search for the roots: who do we look like? And why? If his grandparents or parents had moved elsewhere, who would have become Aw? He thinks of his grandmother and his last conversation with her years ago: “How can I remember you and still be modern?” The price of accrued privilege is Aw’s great theme. Johnny Lim, the protagonist of his first novel, The Harmony silk factory, could have started as a worker in a tin mine and become a textile mogul in colonial Malaysia during World War II, but he is defeated by his wife’s betrayal. In Strangers on a pier, education is a simultaneous process of discovery and detachment. “Just sitting in a classroom at the age of six or seven,” Aw realizes, separated him from his grandparents.
A lesser writer would have woven a sprawling account of this quest, tracing an ultimately cathartic arc over decades. Aw opts for restraint and remains loyal to unresolved tragedies: her father, always unwilling to appear vulnerable; his grandfather, unable to understand his sister’s difficulties in high school. In Cambridge, his British comrades can boast of having “aristocratic” ancestors four or five generations ago. When Aw asks her family about her great-grandmother, no one remembers her name. His friends in Malaysia also cannot trace their lineage beyond their grandparents.
Whenever Aw is in New York or Shanghai – the “old port towns” – he remembers his grandfathers arriving at the port of Singapore. But can he really understand what they must have been feeling all those years ago? Can he grasp their fears, their ambitions, across the generations? It is to Aw’s credit that he remains uncertain about his ability to relate to his ancestors. He carefully notes the distinctions of class, language, education, experience; he shrinks from easy similarities. The lament in his voice, however, is unmistakable. Aw laments how quickly stories often evaporate. Just like the eponymous hero of F Scott Fitzgerald Gatsby the magnificent, it too is “constantly carried over into the past”.