The Harmony Silk Factory (2005) made the Man Booker Prize longlist, won a Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Whitbread First Novel Award, making it one of the most garlanded literary debuts since Zadie Smith shook things up with White Teeth (2000).
Its author Tash Aw was born in Taiwan and grew up in Kuala Lumpar. In his late teens Aw moved to England to study Law at Cambridge. After a brief career as a lawyer he took the Creative Writing MA at UEA, before publishing a first novel which Doris Lessing described as ‘unputdownable.’
Aw is inspired by heavyweight writers such as Faulker, Nabakov, Conrad and Flaubert, and wears those influences on his sleeve. From Faulkner he has taken multiple narrators and non-linear narrative; from Nabakov a delight in the possibilities of language; from Conrad an interest in the dark, nightmarish and revelatory aspect of journeys; and from Flaubert a heightened, intense reality generated by deliberate and sensitive use of detail. In essence The Harmony Silk Factory is a story about the telling of stories, although its post-modern trickery is subtle rather than showy. It is perhaps Aw’s multiplicity of perspectives – by birth, upbringing and education he is able to draw on experience and knowledge of three distinct cultures – that drew him towards the kind of fiction in which a single omniscient viewpoint is eschewed.
Set before, during and after the Japanese invasion of British-administered Malaya in the 1940s, The Harmony Silk Factory is the story of Johnny Lim, poor son of Chinese immigrants, who, we are told, became a legendary textile merchant, smuggler, political activist and murderer in the Kinta Valley. The first part of the novel is narrated by his son Jasper. Keen to understand the truth of a father he calls a ‘liar, a cheat, a traitor and a skirt-chaser,’ Jasper has devoted many years of his life to the pursuit of ‘The True Story of the Infamous Chinaman called Johnny.’ From early on Jasper reveals himself to be that most familiar of figures: the unreliable narrator. ‘We all know the retelling of history can never be perfect,’ he says, ‘especially when the piecing together of the story has been done by a person with as modest an intellect as myself.’ However, far from the corrupt, womanising ‘monster’ Jasper would have us see, the Johnny we are shown is quite different. While full of undoubted guile he is a quiet and sensitive man, the victim of bullying British managers in the tin-mine where he works, a diligent worker and an inspired salesman. Johnny’s brilliant gift with machines is resented by his bosses and, after being forced out of the mine through no fault of his own, he ends up with a new career in the Tiger Brand Trading Company, which he is eventually to take over.
The second and third parts of the novel deal with the honeymoon trip to the mysterious Seven Maiden Islands which Johnny takes with his beautiful wife Snow Soong, daughter of the wealthiest man in the valley. Snow and Johnny travel there in the company of three chaperones: Mamoru Kunichika, a sophisticated Japanese professor, repugnant English mine-owner Frederick Honey, and Honey’s compatriot, the effete aesthete Peter Wormwood, who sets himself up as Johnny’s confidante. Snow, an assured and elegant woman, is not in love with Johnny and is suspicious of, although attracted to the professor. Part two takes the form of her diary and tells of the group’s near disastrous voyage to the island and what takes place upon their arrival. Part three is narrated by the elderly Wormwood who, from the overgrown garden of his old people’s home, looks back upon his flight from England in search of a ‘tropical Arcadia’ in the East. Wormword recalls his meeting with Johnny Lim and the others, and his own version of what happened on the island.
Like Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashômon, The Harmony Silk Factory deals with the near impossibility of knowing someone, the deception of appearances, and the problematic nature of testimony. Jasper wants us to see his father as a man of malice; Snow shows a Johnny naïve and ineffectual; and Wormwood portrays an enigmatic figure with an enquiring mind distinct from those around him. Their conflicting treatments tell us as much about their own characters and prejudices as they do Johnny Lim. Who are we to trust? Who is telling the truth? Whose version of events should we believe?
The ambition, assurance and confidence of Aw’s debut novel is impressive. From its formal daring – particularly the decision to use multiple narrators – to the broad sweep of its narrative, Aw has seemingly done anything in his power to avoid writing an autobiographical bildungsroman. Most readers will know very little about the history of Malaysia and the fight for control of South East Asia in the middle of the last century. In literature it has received little attention. Most English-speaking readers will know from the work of Anthony Burgess and his trilogy on the end of Empire. And in a sense Aw’s book fulfils one of Hilary Mantel’s prescriptions for what makes a novel a novel: it brings us news.
The Harmony Silk Factory is far stronger in its truly striking opening section. Jasper Lim is a fine creation, full of false modesty and paper-thin self-deprecation. In the second and third parts Aw is not quite able to capture the bite, wit and energy of his opening narrator. The Soong and Wormwood voices do not convince in the same way and the reader cannot help but long for the return of Jasper. Nevertheless, the gradual metamorphoses in the novel’s mood and thematic emphasis, from the dash and impudence of Jasper’s mischievous pursuit of truth, to the regret and emotional pain of Peter Wormword’s resigned confessional, is affecting. Aw handles this shift in tone remarkably well. It suggests he has quite a future ahead of him.
Garan Holcombe, 2007
Tash Aw, whose full name is Aw Ta-Shi (Chinese: 歐大旭; pinyin: Ōu Dàxù; b. 1971) is a Malaysian writer living in London.
Born in Taipei, Taiwan, to Malaysian parents, Tash Aw grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He had a multilingual upbringing, speaking Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese and English during his youth. He eventually relocated to England to study law at Jesus College, Cambridge and at the University of Warwick before moving to London to write. After graduating he worked at a number of jobs, including as a lawyer for four years while writing his debut novel, which he completed during the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia.
His first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, was published in 2005. After Malaysian journalists reported that he had been paid more than £500,000 for the novel, The Star and The New Straits Times called him the "RM3.5 million man", and local interest in his book deal continues today, even though the novelist himself has consistently denied the size of this advance, preferring to talk about the novel, which 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). It also made it to the long-list of the world's prestigious 2007 International Impac Dublin Award and the Guardian First Book Prize. It has thus far been translated into twenty languages. Aw cites his literary influences as Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, Anthony Burgess, William Faulkner and Gustave Flaubert.
His second novel, titled Map of the Invisible World, was released in May 2009 to critical acclaim, with TIME Magazine calling it "a complex, gripping drama of private relationships," and describing "Aw's matchless descriptive prose", "immense intelligence and empathy." His 2013 novel Five Star Billionaire was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.
- "The American brick problem", Prospect, Issue 122 (May 2006)
- "To The City", Granta, 100 (Winter 2007)
- "Sail", A Public Space, Issue 13 (Summer 2011)
- "Tian Huaiyi", McSweeney's 42 (December 2012)
- "Tiger" (January 2013)
- The Face: Strangers On A Pier (2016)
- "Look East, Look To The Future", Granta.com, 25 May 2012
- "My Hero, Rudy Hartono", The Guardian, 9 August 2013
- "You Need To Look Away: Visions of Contemporary Malaysia", The Weeklings, 4 April 2014
- "Heart and Soul in Every Stitch", Granta.com, 16 April 2014
- "A Stranger at the Family Table", NewYorker.com, 11 February 2016
- "Bridge to Nowhere", The Fabulist, Issue 16
- "Burgess and the Malay Novels", Burgess at 100, Episode 2
- Collected Op-Ed Articles from The New York Times, nytimes.com, 2014-
- X-24: Unclassified (2007) (co-editor with Nii Parkes)
Based on royalties as well as prizes, Aw is the most successful Malaysian writer of recent years. Following the announcement of the Booker longlist, the Whitbread Award and his Commonwealth Writers' Prize award, he became a celebrity in Malaysia and Singapore, and is now one of the most respected literary figures in Southeast Asia.
He was a juror for the 2014 O. Henry Award, identifying Mark Haddon's "The Gun" as his favourite story of the year's selection.