Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Tash Aw revisits Wong Kar-Wai’s 1997 film Happy Together.
In the summer of 1997 I was living in London, trying to figure out what to do with my life. I’d left college and had been in the city for a year, trying, like so many other twentysomethings, to write a novel. I’d given myself a year, but as the chapters took shape so did a curious tension about the way my life was playing out. Part of me was exhilarated and determined: I was writing about a country and people—my people—that did not exist in the pages of formal literature; I was exploring sexual and emotional boundaries, forming relationships with people who seemed mostly wrong for me, but whose unsuitability seemed so right; I was starting, I thought, to untangle the various strands of my cultural identity: Chinese, Malaysian, and above all, what it meant to be foreign, an outsider.
But the increasing clarity of all this was troubled by a growing unsettledness: I had imagined that the act of writing my country and people into existence would make me feel closer to them, but instead I felt more distant. The physical separation between me and my family in Malaysia, which had, up to then, been a source of liberation, now created a deep anxiety. All of a sudden I saw the huge gulf between the person I had been and the one I now was. In the space of just five or six years, university education had given me a different view of life, a different appreciation of its choices. My tastes had evolved, the way I used language had changed—not just in terms of syntax and grammar but the very fact that standard English was now my daily language, rather than the rich mixture of Malay, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Malaysian slang that I had used exclusively until the age of eighteen. I was writing about the place I was from, about the people I loved (and hated), but felt a million miles from them.