‘Malaysian youth no longer aspire to move to the West’

Yiyun Li reads Kinder Than Solitude with Tash Aw

Yiyun Li reads from her latest novel Kinder Than Solitude. Next to her is Five Star Billionaire author Tash Aw

‘Malaysian youth no longer aspire to move to the West’

10 April 2014

By Chitra Mogul

Many young Asians no longer dream of moving to the West.  The place which has the most allure for them now is China and, in particular, the cities of Shanghai and Beijing.

Malaysian author Tash Aw and Chinese-American author Yiyun Li were in conversation with Claire Armitstead, Literary Editor of The Guardian at the opening pre-Festival event of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival.

“My novel is entirely about the act of migration and why people do it. There is no single reason for it,” Aw said, explaining that there were all kinds of reasons why people left one country to set up in another and a lot of the time it was emotional reasons that drove it, as well as financial or practical reasons.

Aw felt that class, family background and education played a big role in how well migrants adapted to their adopted countries and said that 21st century migration had become very varied and very messy.

One of his motivations for writing Five Star Billionaire was to show that Beijing and Shanghai were now the main place that the young generation of Malaysians wanted to live.

“It seems that at the moment the West is no longer what the rest of the world is aspiring to. They seem to be going in the opposite direction,” Armitstead suggested.

Aw agreed, saying the choice was no longer as clear-cut as it used to be and young Asians “were instinctively drawn to the bright lights of China.” China has replaced the West as the destination of choice for many would-be migrants in Malaysia, he said.

Five Star Billionaire came into the spotlight in 2013 when it was long listed for the Man Booker Prize. Aw was born in Taiwan to Malaysian parents, grew up in Kuala Lumpur, and moved to the UK to study law at Cambridge. His first novel The Harmony Silk Factory (2005) was longlisted for the 2005 Man Booker Prize and won the 2005 Whitbread Book Awards First Novel Award as well as the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel (Asia Pacific region). Armitstead said it “put Malaysian literature on the map.”

Five Star Billionaire is about five people who leave Malaysia to seek fame, fortune and love in China,” said London-based Aw.

“They are trying to escape something that they haven’t achieved in Malaysia and are trying to fill a void in their emotional and material lives, he explained.

A couple of the characters in the novel are people like him who share his background and education, who, like him grew up in suburban Kuala Lumpur. The other characters come from places where his relatives live.

“I feel these are people I have known. So in some ways this is my attempt to investigate what’s happened to all the hopes and aspirations of my generation and the people who came after us and to see where they have come to in their present lives,” he added.

Aw observed that Westerners tended to view China as a monoculture whereas that was not the reality. “We tend to think that it’s all the same place, filled with the same kind of people. But in fact they are all very different.

“Even between the main cities, there is no commonality. The food is different and even ethnically it’s different,” Aw said referring to Beijing and Shanghai.

He said that people in Shanghai feel close to the West due to its history of colonisation and that Shanghai has had a longer history of being open to the outside world. However ironically expats who have lived in Beijing tend to be attached to it more than the ones in Shanghai as they have had to overcome greater hurdles to integrate into Beijing lifestyle, he added.

Aw said that China was a more difficult place to live in, than the West because “you’re either a billionaire or nothing. No one talks about millionaires.” Referring to the fact that he had summarised his book in interviews as being about “migration, love and handbags,” he explained that handbags were often the iconic image of material success that young women in China, or ‘strivers’ as Aw put it, aspired to possess.

Speaking from his personal experience of living in China for eight years, the Malaysian author said that while he was “seduced by the energy of China”, at other times he felt that it was “constant warfare, constant competition”. In Shanghai “you have to literally fight with people to hail a cab and that’s very stressful,” he said.

Amitstead asked Aw to elaborate on the reason for structuring Five Star Billionaire like a self-help book. “In China, they’re huge. In any bookshop, the best-selling books were self-help books. They were very often translated copies from America,” he explained.

Most of the self-help books are about how to get rich. Likewise, the characters in Aw’s novel think they are going to China to make money but in fact they are really looking for emotional fulfilment. In search of material success without any ties to the past, these immigrants struggle with the loneliness that big cities engender.

In fact, in Shanghai, a city of 20 million people, emotional intimacy is almost impossible to find. The sheer numbers make it harder rather than easier. But all they finally want is love, even though they thought they wanted money.

Kinder than Solitude: A Novel (2014) is Li’s second novel and tells the story of three friends who are connected by an incident in China in which a friend of theirs is poisoned. The two female characters in the novel move to America to escape their past and remake their lives. The novel is about contemporary China, said Li.

She talks about how there has been a big change in the values of the younger generation, many of whom think that China should move away from its history.  In her novel the characters “want to be American. They want to be individuals. I understand their thinking – this is how China has changed in the past 20 years,” she said.

Li moved to the US in 1996. She won the Guardian First Book award in 2006 for her book of short stories A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.

The authors discussed how contemporary immigrants often felt adrift in their countries of adoption, unlike older generations of immigrant,  who were more attached to their past.

You can listen to the entire session below:

You can watch a clip of the event here:


Chitra Mogul is currently doing an internship at Asia House.


To see the full programme of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival click here. The Festival takes place from 6 – 21 May, 2014 with three Pre-Festival events in April.

To read an interview with the Festival Director Adrienne Loftus Parkins, in which she discusses the highlights of the Festival, click here.