My reading plan for May was to tackle the rather scanty tomes of Far Eastern literature other than Japanese that I have on my shelves. I have some Chinese authors, but I was hoping to go a bit beyond that – and, although the two first volumes I picked are set in Japan and China respectively, they are written by authors who are originally from Malaysia, so I consider that close enough.
Tash Aw: Five Star Billionaire, Fourth Estate, 2013.
The author was in fact born in Taiwan but grew up in Malaysia, before moving to London. The characters in his novel set in Shanghai are likewise immigrants and wanderers, with links to Malaysia but trying to make a go of it in the megacity of opportunity that is Shanghai. Gary is a pop idol whose career has taken a downturn, Phoebe is an illegal immigrant but hopes to improve herself and snare a wealthy man, Justin is the heir to a powerful estate mogul who suddenly develops a conscience, Yinghui is a former student activist now turned into a successful businesswoman, and Walter is the billionaire who operates from the shadows and has mysterious links to all of them.
It’s an energetic if somewhat pedestrian piece of prose, a fast-paced story that is very easy to read. I have to admit that the mystery element of the story – what links all of those stories together – was perhaps the part that captivated me least – and it felt ultimately quite predictable, a lot of foreshadowing. I mostly liked the individual stories of hustling in the big city, with Phoebe’s story perhaps being the most compelling and sad. The description of Shanghai, the city that chews you up and spits you out, was very well done:
Yinghui recognised a restlessness in the banker’s face, a mixture of excitement and apprehension that people exhibited when still new in Shanghai, in search of something, even though they could not articulate what that something was – maybe it was money, or status, or God forbid, even love – but whatever it was, Shanghai was not about to give it to them. The city held its promises just out of reach, waiting to see how far you were willing to go to get what you wanted, how long you were prepared to wait. And until you adjusted your expectations to take account of that, you would always be on edge, for despite the restaurants and shops and art galleries and the feeling of unbridled potential, Shanghai would always seem to be accelerating a couple of steps ahead of you… You arrived thinking you were going to use Shanghai to get what you wanted, and it would take time before you realised it was using you; that it had already moved on, and you were playing catch-up.
This reminded me of my business trip to Beijing in 2015, delivering training for a major international corporation. There were so many smart young people in that room, but many of them had commutes of 2-3 hours each way and worked really long hours. In the hotel lobby, there were members of staff sleeping in armchairs, because they wouldn’t have enough time to get home before their next shift started. In the noodle bar of a posh shopping centre where I had lunch, I’d come across exhausted workers trying to have a nap during their lunch break. People were working really, really hard for the Chinese economic miracle, and those images stayed with me.
I thought this book described the relentless brutality of this Far Eastern capitalism (and the greedy land grabs in Malaysia for high-rise developments) very well. It was a fun read, if somewhat too long, and with insufficient differentiation between the five voices. But it certainly captures a particular time and place.
Florentyna Leow: How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart, Emma Press, 2023.
The author is a food writer originally from Malaysia, who lived in London before moving to Japan. She has lived mostly in Tokyo, but moved to Kyoto for nearly two years with a friend that she didn’t know very well. This book is a sort of memoir, describing the way that she and her housemate grew apart when she thought they were growing closer, and her bafflement about the end of their friendship. But it also a love song to Kyoto and the places there that she was able to make her own.
Kyoto is in many respects the exact opposite of Shanghai – where ancient tradition matters a lot and change and newness are not idolised. It has also, sadly, fallen victim to its tourist status, and the author has a lot to say about the crowded conditions at all tourist sites (which makes my heart sink at the thought that this is what we will face when we go to Japan this summer – when I went there in the early 1990s, it was nothing like that, but it’s been deliberate government policy to increase the number of visitors to Japan)
Another place I grew to dislike was Ryoan-ji, a Zen temple famed for its rock garden. The rock arrangements are supposed to facilitate meditation, but in spring and autumn it feels about as contemplative as an ice cream shop… Arashiyama was even worse. Don’t be taken in by photos that show its famous bamboo forest as a people-free piece of paradise, unless you’re willing to wake up at 5am when no one else is around. None of these places were designed for the sheer volume of visitors to Kyoto today.
There are a lot of interesting points made in this memoir. Leow compares the experience of white people in Japan and foreigners those like herself, who might be mistaken for a Japanese. She talks about the way she strove so hard to blend in that she began to lose her own personality.
Not only did this society encourage blending in, but serving customers was another way I had to learn how to disappear, which only reinforced my propensity for passivity and avoiding confrontation… It would take me years to unlearn the compulsion to bend, to shrink myself, to bow in the face of other people’s needs and desires. It would take many years for me to stop being a doormat.
She expresses the pleasures and frustrations of being a tour guide and making visitors’ dreams come true. She riffs on the many, many words and onomatopoeia to describe the different types of rain in Japan. Above all, she notices the small, neglected details of the beauties of Kyoto, the persimmon tree in the garden, the veins of a golden gingko leaf, the joys of a little jazz kissaten (bar/cafe) where she becomes a regular. It is an enchanting and unexpected portrait of a town that we all think we know so well from the many, many photos we have seen.