I remember being very impressed by Tash Aw’s debut, The Harmony Silk Factory, which was surrounded by a great deal of hype when it was published back in 2005 but for some reason I’d not got around to reading anything else by him until We,The Survivors turned up. Set in rural Malaysia, it tells the story of a man born into poverty, a decent man whose attempts to better himself end in tragedy.
When Ah Hock was four, his father left for Singapore, promising to send money home but never returned. After the land she’d scrimped and scraped to buy was ruined by floods, his mother moved in with another man, a wastrel outcast from the village. Ah Hock becomes friends with Keong when he’s twelve, despite the four-year gap in their ages. Keong fancies himself a gangster, taking off to Kuala Lumpur where Ah Hock briefly joins him, returning home when he sees there’s no future for a boy like him in the city. For ten years, Ah Hock works on Mr Lai’s fish farm, making himself indispensable, marrying and hoping to start a family, his eyes fixed on a smart new house but the endlessly promised pay rise never arrives. Keong returns to the village, full of his new job finding migrant labour for employers looking for cheap workers and none too fussy about the veracity of their papers. When Ah Hock’s staff begin to sicken with cholera he turns to Keong in desperation, knowing that he’ll lose his job unless he finds more workers quickly. On the night Keong has arranged to meet his Bangaldeshi contact, Ah Hock is horrified to find that he’s armed with a knife but it’s Ah Hock who springs to Keong’s defence and finds himself convicted of murder.
Aw’s novel takes the form of Ah Hock’s testimony given to a young woman who first tells him she’s an academic, then confesses she’s writing a book about him. He’s a thoughtful, intelligent man, compassionate and empathetic towards the migrant workers he manages on the fish farm. The last man, one might think, to launch a frenzied attack on the Bangladeshi gang master for whose murder he spends three years in prison. Aw reveals Ah Hock’s character through memories, anecdotes and reflections while exploring themes of racism, corruption and the exploitation of migrant workers rife throughout Malaysian society. Allusions to changes in fickle Western demands and their effects on migrant workers’ jobs provoke thought and attitudes to refugees are sometimes uncomfortably close to those found in some quarters of the West. Aw’s writing is contemplative and perceptive, his characters well drawn and convincing. It’s a quietly powerful piece of fiction, both compelling and sobering.