Strangers on a Pier: Portrait of a Family

- By Tash Aw 4th Estate, £8.99 (hardcover)

‘Where are you from?’ This haunting question is at the root of this moving family memoir (originally published in the «¬ in 2016), which also serves as a lens to tell the wider story of migration in Southeast Asia. Born in Taipei to Malay parents and second-generation Chinese migrants, Tash Aw grew up in Kuala Lumpur, navigating between English and Malay at school, and Mandarin and Cantonese at home. If for a long time he thought of himself as Malay, the question of his identity became apparent through the eyes of others: immigrant ‘is something others describe you as’. Weaving together stories collected from his family members and fine observatio­ns on the fast-moving history of modern Asia, this brief book is an introspect­ive and inquisitiv­e quest for an answer.

It starts with Aw’s grandfathe­rs, the titular ‘strangers on a pier’, whom he imagines on their respective journeys from Southern China to the Malay peninsula. It is a hazy, fantasised image in want of a more defined one, for, as is often the case in Asian migrant families, their past remains shrouded by ‘opacity’: silenced and erased in the name of integratio­n, upward mobility and, as Aw’s father points out in one of their few conversati­ons about his past, shame. The latter also a driving force in the ‘editing’ of national narratives in Southeast Asia, leaving out the ‘messy blotches’ of colonisati­on or civil wars that ‘don’t sit well with the clean lines of our reinventio­n’.

Peppered throughout are reflection­s on the psychologi­cal impact of leaving the place one calls ‘home’, from the high suicide rate observed among first-generation migrants to the guilt and estrangeme­nt he experience­s with his own family as the educationa­l gap between them grows. Yet, as Aw notes, that distance is a measure of the success of social mobility, and the validation of lives defined by self-sacrifice and separation. To write about them, this poignant book suggests, becomes a way to reconcile these existences, asking us to remember them regardless of how messily they sit with one’s story. Louise Darblay

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom