We, the Survivors

Tash Aw

Barnes and Noble

Ah Hock is an ordinary man of simple means. Born and raised in a Malaysian fishing village, he favors stability above all, a preference at odds with his rapidly modernizing surroundings. So what brings him to kill a man? This question leads a young, privileged journalist to Ah Hock’s door. While the victim has been mourned and the killer has served time for the crime, Ah Hock’s motive remains unclear, even to himself. His vivid confession unfurls over extensive interviews with the journalist, herself a local whose life has taken a very different course. The process forces both the speaker and his listener to reckon with systems of power, race, and class.

October 4th

I have nothing to complain about these days. Every day is the same, and this is a blessing. Nowadays people think variety is the only thing that gives meaning to life, but they forget that routine is a privilege too. No disruptions, no crazy ups and downs, no heartbreak or distress – there is something divine in sameness, isn’t there? A gift sent from the gods. I’m lucky. I live on my savings – the small amount of money I made when I sold my house in Taman Bestari that I’d lived in with my wife. To my surprise it was still worth something when I came out of jail, so I sold it and moved into this place, a smaller house with just two small bedrooms, a bit further out of town. Twice a week, someone from the church visits me with a food hamper – basic groceries with a few treats thrown in – and if ever I’m in need, I can always go to church to talk to someone, and they’ll usually give me some biscuits or leftover fried rice – whatever they have in the kitchen. It’s called Harvest Assembly. I’ve been going there for nearly six years, ever since I got out of prison.

Apart from that, small sums of money come through to me from time to time from a Chinese charity. You know, the L-Foundation. That happened through the lawyer who tried to get damages from the prison service for the injury I suffered during my time inside, but of course it didn’t succeed. I could have told them that before they even started. Who in the world ever gets any damages from the police or the prison service? But because of the lawyer’s efforts, someone heard of my case, even though it was never famous, never in the newspapers for long. Somebody took pity on me, even though God knows I wasn’t worthy of sympathy then. Next thing I know, I get a cheque for six hundred ringgit. To you it probably seems like nothing, but for me it’s a lot. I thought it was a one-time deal, I was happy with it, but the cheques continue to arrive – not regularly, just now and then, with no warning or reason. Sometimes 250 ringgit, sometimes four hundred. On those days I’ll walk to the bus stop and ride into town, get there just before the old bak kut teh places shut, and have a big breakfast before strolling around Little India. Sometimes I like to spend a few hours just wandering around a mall in the new town, usually Klang Parade. I treat myself to a meal at Texas Chicken, and always order the same thing: Mexicana Burger and Honey-Butter Biscuits. Sometimes I think I should be more adventurous and try something else – I really like the look of Jalapeno Bombers. Bombers! They sound great. But then I think, what if I don’t like them? The thought of getting something new makes me nervous. I want my day to be happy, I don’t want to be stressed, I want everything to be calm, to remain the same.

I want my day to be happy, I don’t want to be stressed, I want everything to be calm, to remain the same.

I sit and watch the teenagers in school uniforms sharing their fried chicken and showing each other photos on their phones. The boys pretend to be tough, they use the same language I did when I was their age – you know, Cantonese cursing, which sounds really crude and aggressive. If you’d heard me and my friends at that age you’d probably have moved away to the next table. But these kids, they’re not like me – they come from the new suburbs close by, they’ve got decent families. Fourteen, fifteen years old, but they’re just babies, relaxing in the mall together after school and playing games on their phones. Even after a whole day at school their uniforms look freshly laundered, not crumpled and grey with sweat – you’d almost say there was starch on their white shirts. Nothing troubles their lives, and in a strange way, their happiness makes me feel innocent again, and hopeful. Those days out in town are special. I have money in my pocket, I feel independent and free, even if it’s just for a day or two. That’s what those cheques mean to me – a day of freedom. I never pray or even make little idle wishes for them, they just appear. That’s how God works, I guess. Always surprising, always giving.

With the injury I suffered in prison I can’t work. As you can see, I still have a slight limp, though it’s not so noticeable when I’m walking slowly. You only notice it when I have to move quickly, like when I’m running for the bus and just can’t shift my leg the way I want to. My brain says, Faster, faster, and for a few seconds I think I can do it, I really think I can get up and sprint for the bus – but my leg just drags. That’s when I notice that I’m limping badly, my body sloping from side to side. I also can’t pick up heavy loads as I could before. I used to be famous for that. The guys at the factory I worked at when I was a teenager would set me a challenge, see how many crates of fish I could lift at a time, and I’d always surprise them, even though I’m pretty short. It’s my stumpy legs that give me balance. People say it’s a Hokkien trait, that our ancestors needed short thighs and calves to plant rice or harvest tea and whatever else people did in southern China two hundred years ago, but who cares? All I know is that my legs always served me well, until I got to prison. [Pauses.] It’s because of a nerve in my back, something to do with my spine that I don’t really understand. The doctors showed me x-rays, but all I could see was the greywhite shapes of my bones. They couldn’t correct it without surgery in a private hospital in KL, but who can afford that these days? At the hospital I laughed and said, ‘I’m not a cripple, so let’s just live with it, OK?’ Someone from church suggested I could get a different kind of job, something that didn’t involve manual labour, but any kind of job that allows you to sit down in a comfortable office also requires you to have diplomas and certificates and God knows what else these days – and I don’t have any. I was never very successful at school.

One time, just a year after I got out of prison, some fellow churchgoers found me a job in their family business, a trading company that imported goods from China and distributed them throughout the country. I had a nice desk, there was air-con in the office, and I didn’t have to answer the phone or talk to anyone I didn’t know. All I had to do was add up numbers – such an easy job; nothing can be more certain and solid than numbers. I made sure invoices tallied, checked receipts, that sort of thing. Even though I’d never done that kind of work before, I knew about how to manage money. But at that time, I got a bit anxious whenever I encountered anyone new, in a situation that wasn’t familiar to me – I guess it must have been my time in prison that did that to me. Nothing serious, you understand, just some hesitations in replying whenever someone spoke to me, lapses between their questions and my answers that made them think I had mental problems. Five, ten seconds – who knows? I watched people’s expressions change from confusion, to concern, then irritation. Sometimes frustration, sometimes anger. Some people thought I was doing it on purpose. Once a guy in the office said, Lunseehai, such an arrogant bastard! He shouted it out loud right in front of me without expecting a reply, as if everyone thought the same of me, and that I was deaf and mute and couldn’t hear what he was saying. ‘Whatever the case,’ my boss said after a few months – she was very nice, she understood – ‘we think it’s better you stop work. Just go home and rest.’ Up to that point, I hadn’t understood how much I had changed in the previous three years, but losing that job made me appreciate that I had become a different person. Exactly how, I couldn’t tell you, but I was no longer the same. I had a couple of interviews for office jobs after that, but nothing worked out.

That’s why I say I’m lucky. I don’t work, yet I’m alive. My days are calm. I’d even say I was blessed.

Long silence.

Sometimes . . . [Hesitates; reaches for and picks up cup of tea but does not drink.] Sometimes, yes, of course I think of that night. How can I not? I think of the two men who were present, Keong and the Bangladeshi guy. I know what you’re expecting me to say: that I see their faces, and that I’m tortured by the sight of them – but that’s not the way it is. I don’t feel anything about either of them – not hate, not pity. Maybe I should have felt anger towards Keong; maybe things would have turned out differently if he hadn’t come back to see me. He had choices. He didn’t have to ask me to do all those things.

Now when I think about him, I don’t see the Keong of that night. I see the version of him that appeared in court three years later, when my case was being appealed. His white long-sleeved shirt, his neat hair, even the way he spoke to the judge, softly and respectfully – anyone would have thought he was a salesman for an IT company in Petaling Jaya. I didn’t recognise him at first, I thought it was someone else, that the prosecutors had brought the wrong guy to the courtroom. The lawyers asked him questions about himself, and he supplied the bare facts – he owned a business importing frozen dumplings from China, his income stream was steady, he owned a Toyota Camry and had a home loan from Hong Leong bank. He’d recently been on holiday to Australia and was saving up to send his daughter to boarding school there in seven or eight years’ time, when she was old enough to travel on her own. Right now she had just started at a private school in Cheras, close to where he lived, so he could spend a lot of time with her at home. The moment he finished work, he’d rush home to his wife and daughter and they’d spend the evening having dinner, doing the daughter’s homework together and watching a bit of TV. She was a studious girl – she really loved science!

He answered quietly, as if he didn’t want me to hear what he was saying. On the other side of the courtroom I had difficulty making out some of his words. Mortgage. Laptop. Playground. The man speaking seemed to be embarrassed by the way he lived. Why would someone feel shy about having a life like that? That was when I realised it was Keong – the same one I had known since my teenage years, and I knew why he appeared so awkward. He was ashamed because of my shame – or to be more precise, he was ashamed of being happy while my shame was on display to the world. We’d shared so much as children. People used to say, ‘No use giving Ah Hock any ice cream, he’ll just give half to that little bastard Keong.’ But time – that was something we couldn’t share. It could only favour one of us.

And I thought, Of course he’s changed. All those years in prison, when I went through phases of either sleeping all day and all night, or lying awake all day and all night – phases that lasted weeks and broke down my sense of time, my resistance to the idea that every day should be different – during that time, Keong was changing himself. Anyone could have become a new person in that period, anyone could have acquired a brand-new life. He’d been so proud of his hair, the long fringe that he’d dyed a shade of coppery orange when he was fifteen, and that he’d kept right up until that evening when we last saw each other. I used to joke with him. ‘Hey, big brother, going to become father, still keep that gangster hairstyle meh?’ He called it ‘blond’, thought it made him look like a Hong Kong pop star. He always used to do this [sweeps hand theatrically over forehead, throws back his head in slightly camp fashion]. Made me laugh. You’re a nobody, just like the rest of us – that’s what I used to say to him every time he tried to show off.

Anyone could have become a new person in that period, anyone could have acquired a brand-new life.

That hair was gone now, trimmed short and allowed to go back to its natural colour. I hadn’t seen him with black hair since we were teenagers. He’d put on weight, which made him look younger, not older, like an adolescent who’d once been chubby but was starting to shed all his puppy fat and turn into a handsome man. I could tell that he’d given up smoking, that he was eating better – his complexion was smoother, the deep crease between his eyebrows which he’d had since he was a child had disappeared. Ironed out by those three years.

At one point the lawyers started asking him questions about my character. Did he ever know me to be impulsive? Had he ever seen violent tendencies in me? Was I someone who felt sorry and regretted bad deeds? At first he answered clearly and simply, without hesitation, just like the serious businessman he’d become. It wasn’t a role he was performing, it was who he really was now. Both his English and his Malay had improved, and he used them carefully, considering every word before saying it. But as the questions continued, he began to feel at ease and started speaking more freely, sometimes using expressions you might consider rude. He even told a little story from our teenage years. One time hor, I steal biscuit from the store, I share with him but I steal so much we cannot finish, he say must return, must return, I say no way, poke your lung, but he lagi force me so next day we go give back biscuit. Your mother. Make me lose face! But he say how can steal, she also no money.

‘OK, OK, Mr Tan. I think that will do.’ When the lawyer said that I laughed. Even in his new life, Keong couldn’t resist talking too much. For a few seconds, when he was recounting that incident – which I couldn’t recall – I saw the years and the extra weight he’d acquired fall away. I saw the skinny kid with a sharp face and earrings again, the one I’d grown up with and had always thought would end up in jail. We even joked about it when he left KL to find work elsewhere. ‘Don’t worry about an address,’ I’d told him, ‘I’ll just come looking for you in prison.’

After the lawyer’s admonishment he fell silent once more – a husband, a proper father, someone you could trust to hold a family together. That’s the image of him that comes to me from time to time these days. A respectable man, beyond hatred.

It was only much later that I realised I’d only spent three years in jail. Three years – that’s nothing! Why did it feel so long when I was in my cell? And how did Keong change so quickly? That’s when I felt bitter. I’d never held a grudge against him, not even for coming back to Klang and bringing Evil into my life. When I talked about it to members of the church some years later they said, You must forgive him the way God forgives you. And I thought, There’s nothing for me to forgive; I don’t feel anything towards him. But when I saw him in the courtroom and thought of how quickly he’d changed, I felt angry. He had taken hold of time and mastered it, I had let myself be crushed by it. It was only three years, I told myself, only three years – you can make up that time and turn things round for yourself. But I knew I was no longer capable of changing my life. Evolution is a funny thing. For the longest time, you believe in the power of change – in your ability to mould your life through even the smallest acts. Even buying a four-digit lottery ticket feels loaded with optimism, as if those five bucks might turn into a twenty-thousand bonanza and transform your life. Then one day it disappears, that blind devotion to hope, and you know that even if you pray all day, nothing will happen to you. My anger was directed at myself, I didn’t blame Keong. Seeing him reminded me of the person I could no longer be.

He had taken hold of time and mastered it, I had let myself be crushed by it.

As for the other man, his face remains a blank, even though it should be the one thing I remember from that night. In my defence, it was very dark when I first saw him. What’s more, he turned away from me before I picked up the piece of wood. I couldn’t see his face when I struck him.

Tash Aw was born in Taipei and brought up in Malaysia. He is the author of The Harmony Silk Factory, which was the winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize; Map of the Invisible World; and Five Star Billionaire, also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013. He is also the author of a memoir of an immigrant family, The Face: Strangers on a Pier, a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize.