Tash Aw's highly original first novel juxtaposes three accounts of the life of an enigmatic man at a pivotal and haunting moment in Malaysian history.
The Harmony Silk Factory is the textiles store run by Johnny Lim, a Chinese peasant living in rural Malay in the first half of the twentieth century. It is the most impressive and truly amazing structure in the region, and to the inhabitants of the Kinta Valley Johnny Lim is a hero—a Communist who fought the Japanese when they invaded, ready to sacrifice his life for the welfare of his people. But to his son, Jasper, Johnny is a crook and a collaborator who betrayed the very people he pretended to serve, and the Harmony Silk Factory is merely a front for his father's illegal businesses. Centering on Johnny from three perspectives—those of his grown son; his wife, Snow, the most beautiful woman in the Kinta Valley (through her diary entries); and his best and only friend, an Englishman adrift named Peter Wormwood—the novel reveals the difficulty of knowing another human being, and how our assumptions about others also determine who we are.
Joseph Conrad, W. Somerset Maugham, and Anthony Burgess have shaped our perceptions of Malaysia. Now, with The Harmony Silk Factory, we have an authentic Malaysian voice that remaps this literary landscape. Through this examination of a compelling, mysterious, and larger-than-life character, Tash Aw gives us an exquisitely written look into another culture at a moment of crisis.
ABOUT TASH AW
Tash Aw was born in Taipei and brought up in Malaysia. He moved to England in his teens. This is his first novel.
- “As far as it is possible, I have constructed a clear and complete picture of the events surrounding my father’s terrible past.” These are Jasper’s words for the reader as he begins his story. Has he accomplished his stated mission with the information available to him? What kind of bias does he bring to his interpretation of events?
- In Johnny’s house Jasper has learned that things are often not what they seem. The Harmony Silk Factory was a front for his father’s illegal business. His Uncle Tony rose to a position of prominence as a hotelier by cleverly concealing his lack of sophistication and schooling. Johnny Lim isn’t Jasper’s father’s real name; he supposedly named himself after Johnny Weissmuller. Did these observations prepare you for the ambiguity yet to come?
- Snow repeatedly describes Johnny as childlike and quiet. Peter is obviously fond of Johnny, and dotes on him almost to the point of condescension: “His face was suffused with an unspoilt innocence that I had never seen in all my Occidental years.” How do these disparate characterizations of Johnny affect your view of Jasper and his story?
- In contrast to Snow’s place in Peter’s life, Peter is something of a peripheral figure in Snow’s life. She seems only faintly aware of him, and her comments indicate that she does not take him particularly seriously. After reading part three, who has your sympathy? Why?
- In part three, Honey confronts Peter with his version of the truth, claiming that Snow’s father is the true architect of their trip to the island and that Peter has wildly unrealistic expectations vis a vis his relationship with Snow. Peter reacts with extreme violence. What pushes him over the edge?
- What is Honey’s role in the grand scheme of the novel? What is his professed reason for being in Malaysia? Do you trust him?
- Discuss the sexuality of the characters and how it influences their relationships with one another.
- Throughout The Harmony Silk Factory, the reader is exposed to the various ways in which people attempt to capture history. In part one, Jasper consults all kinds of sources that might help him piece together his father’s life, even going so far as to relay a textbook description of Johnny’s village. Snow’s diary presents another form of record keeping, as does Peter’s memoir. What does the author seem to be saying about how the truth is obtained?
- How does the three-part structure of the novel affect your ability to collate the story, and how does that experience mirror Jasper’s quest for information?
- Snow is paranoid about her diary falling into the wrong hands. Are her fears well founded? Did you think about how events in the story might have been altered depending upon who read her diary?
- What forces are at work in the political environment of mid-20th-century Malay, and how do they surface in the lives of the characters?
- Discuss the following quote, which Jasper attributes to Johnny: “Death erases all traces, all memories of lives that once existed, completely and forever.” Jasper goes on to say that this was “the only true thing [Johnny] ever said.” In part three, Snow tells Peter that she believes death “erases all traces of the life that once existed, completely and forever.” She adds, “Of course we help it in its task—we’re the ones who do the forgetting.” Do you agree?
- As the central character in each of the three narratives, Johnny should be the best-understood character, yet in the end there are more questions than answers. Is he a traitorous opportunist in cahoots with Mamoru Kunichika? Is he a Communist hero working with his sights set on social justice for his people? Is he an Horatio Alger or a Machiavellian tyrant? A social climber or a passive doormat? Discuss your assessment of Johnny’s motives.
- Why does Peter deny having known Johnny in part three, when Alvaro reads Johnny’s obituary to Peter and Gecko?
- At the end of part three it’s suggested that Snow’s diary is among the items that Peter gives to Jasper at Johnny’s funeral. At the end of part one, it’s also suggested that Jasper disregards the parcel from “the old Englishman in the wheelchair,” classifying it as just another trinket to add to the pile in his trunk. What effect would the contents of Snow’s diary have on Jasper’s research? Would the new knowledge soften his feelings toward his father and/or harden his feelings toward Snow?
- Discuss the symbolic significance of the characters’ names: Johnny, Snow, Jasper, Wormwood, and Honey. In some cases clues are provided, such as Peter’s reference to Jasper, “Clear as crystal, the foundation of a new Jerusalem.” Peter alludes to the fact that wormwood is a known hallucinogen, and also describes the meaning of his surname from a Bible passage he was forced to repeat as punishment in school: “the name of the star is called Wormwood, and the third part of the waters became wormwood and many men died of the waters because they were bitter.” Are names important to our understanding of the characters, or are they red herrings in the way that Johnny’s name may have been for Jasper?