It’s not often that a story of a murderer elicits sympathy but We, the Survivors pulls off this feat deftly. Told as a recollection of the life of a Malaysian Chinese ex-convict leading up to his act of manslaughter, this novel written by Taiwanese-born Malaysian Tash Aw is a somber but powerful tale of rural poverty, illegal migrant exploitation, environmental destruction, and class differences.
Having served his time in jail and now living a simple life as an ex-con, Ah Hock is approached by a young lady who is doing a PhD and wants to interview him as “field work” for research. Through the course of many interviews conducted over several months, Ah Hock tells of his humble upbringing in a poor fishing village, his move to the big city, and his gradual rise from manual labor work to foreman of a fish farm. He is doing well, having married and bought a house, until a childhood friend shows up.
Having grown up with Ah Hock in his village, Keong was a teen hoodlum and drug dealer in his youth, hustling around in the big city Kuala Lumpur until he becomes a labor broker. That is, he specializes in finding migrant workers to do manual labor. Given that these workers are most often illegals and have no work permits, they are easily exploited and sometimes literally worked to death. Keong’s reappearance in Ah Hock’s adult life is an ominous development that changes it for the worst.
Ultimately, this happens after Ah Hock desperately tries to find replacements for sick workers on his farm, leading him to ask Keong for help from his shady contacts. In a sense, Ah Hock is also responsible for what eventually happens, and hence his own downfall.
Eventually, the interviewer decides to turn Ah Hock’s story into a book, which Ah Hock is nonplussed about. Ah Hock’s interactions with her, which often form interludes between his narration of his life story, demonstrate the stark difference in their backgrounds (Ah Hock did not graduate from high school) and outlook on life. She is highly educated, opinionated and strongly critical of problems in the country like corruption.
We, the Survivors is a moving but sad book to read, especially with the way how Ah Hock seems to have accepted his fate with resignation and a lack of regret. The book does well to avoid descending into overwrought emotions or sappiness.
While Malaysia is one of Southeast Asia’s more prosperous countries, there is a lot of exploitation of migrant workers as people from poorer neighboring countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh are often smuggled into the country looking for a better life. In We, the Survivors, their fate in the country is told in sometimes horrifying detail.
This is the second book I’ve read from Tash Aw, with the first being the Harmony Silk Factory. Both of these books are set in Malaysia (his other books take place in China and Indonesia). Tash Aw has an impressive ability to make the hot, sultry Malaysian landscape a compelling backdrop for his books, whether it be the tin-mining boom city Ipoh or in this case, rural Malaysia.