Book review: Tash Aw’s lyrical memoir on immigration and fitting in

The Malaysian-Chinese writer covers a lot of ground in Strangers on a Pier, a short and pithy book, part of a series called The Face, which will resonate with multicultural Asians but has a universal appeal

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 April, 2016, 6:01am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 April, 2016, 6:00am

The Face: Strangers on a Pier

by Tash Aw

Restless Books

4/5 stars

Short books are, apparently, the next big thing. The bestselling novelist James Patterson has announced that he will be releasing a series of short works designed to be “read in a single sitting”. Columbia Global Reports, an imprint of Columbia University Press, has launched novella-length long-form journalism.

Now Restless Books has launched The Face, a new series of short memoirs by such writers as Tash Aw and Ruth Ozeki. The one by Tash Aw, Strangers on a Pier, can’t be much longer than 10,000 words: not only can it be read in a single sitting, the sitting needn’t be very long, even judged by the brief attention spans of our age.

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These are not quite stand-alone volumes: they are all tied, perhaps somewhat loosely if this volume is anything to go by, to a single concept inspired by the following passage from Jorge Luis Borges:

“As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.”

Tash Aw, who is Malaysian-Chinese, writes that his face appears Thai in Thailand, Nepalese in Nepal, Chinese in China: “My face blends into the cultural landscape of Asia: east of India, my identity becomes malleable, moulding itself to fit in with people around me.”

I’ve been to Hong Kong three times in the last year; each time, I’ve found a widespread and notable reluctance to speak Mandarin
Tash Aw, in The Face

Aw quickly moves on to a discussion of immigration – the strangers on the pier of the title are his migrant grandfathers – assimilation and social mobility, and the difficulties in cross-generational understanding and communication this engenders. His story is specific to Southeast Asia but, one suspects, universal nonetheless.

Aw always writes well, but this small volume is particularly lyrical. The extended essay format suits him: long enough for some structure – the chronology is not linear, and he bounces from story to social commentary to introspection – and to explore issues in depth, while short enough for immediacy. He covers a tremendous amount of ground: his family history and his relationships, not always easy, across the generations; the language politics of Malaysia and other countries; the dislocation of economic development; the effects of globalisation.

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Strangers on a Pier is a wealth of pithy observation: “I’ve been to Hong Kong three times in the last year; each time, I’ve found a widespread and notable reluctance to speak Mandarin, especially among the ordinary people … My bad Cantonese was received with warmth, my good Mandarin with thinly disguised resentment.”

This is a well-rounded and complete short work that should resonate particularly well with Asians who share Aw’s multilingual, multicultural upbringing – and there are lots of them. It would be an excellent text for sparking discussion in whatever passes for social studies in Asian secondary schools.

Asian Review of Books