Trust, Love, and Betrayal: An Analysis of Johnny’s Relationships with Other Major Characters in The

Reading response to The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw

photo credit: http://smithsonianapa.org/

Characters in The Harmony Silk Factory are complex. Protagonist Johnny is not only Jasper’s vicious father, Snow’s indifferent husband, and Peter’s humble friend, but also a killer, a bandit, a business tycoon, a communist leader, a Japanese collaborator. Tash Aw has created many ambiguities as the story unfolds: along with Johnny, all other major figures have multiple faces. While their personalities are hard to decipher with precision, relationships between major characters provide us a unique lens to look at the conflicts and contradictions of the story as a whole. In this article, I try to analyze different interpretations of Johnny’s personality by focusing on his connections with some key characters.

Tiger Tan only appeared very shortly at the beginning of Jasper’s narrative, but he was a very influential figure in Johnny’s early life. Through their interactions with each other, we can roughly sketch out the life trajectory of Johnny from an uninitiated apprentice to a Communist backbone. Johnny himself was a ‘perfect Communist material’ as he legendarily killed a British mining manager, but his embrace of Communism was more influenced by non- ideological reasons that Tiger “offered a safe place to sleep, simple food, and a little money.” Or in another word, living with dignities and respects as a human, which he had never had before.

Although we cannot neglect the fact that Johnny benefited tremendously from Tiger Tan’s lucrative business, it is also fair to say that the relationship between the two people was based on mutual trust: Johnny firmly believe in Tiger Tan’s leadership, even if Tiger’s authority was questioned by other Communists comrades “Tan is a good man,” Johnny responded to the crowd very simply when those people deemed Tiger as a weak and unqualified leader. On the other hand, Tiger “was glad he had Jonny,” who not only did an excellent job as a liaison between Communist members but also demonstrated extraordinary talent in doing business. Unexpectedly, Johnny became the biggest beneficiary of Tiger’s sudden death, but he certainly deserves all of these as he had equipped himself with everything he needed from Tiger: trust from the party, capability of running the business and reputation in the Kinta Valley. Tash Aw described Tiger’s ashes box, which remained with Johnny for the rest of his life, as the “symbol of triumph, perhaps, at least the start new life.” For Johnny, the triumph was probably not just taking over Tiger’s business and inheriting his power. But rather, it was a reward for his decades of fierce struggle and the genuine termination of his endless dark days at the bottom of the society—his efforts were finally paid off, even “tiger would be proud.”

Comparing to Jasper’s narrative that only look at Johnny from afar, readers got a much clearer image of Johnny from Peter’s perspective. Thanks to Peter’s closer relationship with Johnny, the image of Bandit Johnny constructed by Jasper was overturned. Without a doubt, Johnny trusted Peter as much as he trusted Tiger, perhaps even more, as we can tell from the fact that Johnny revealed his secret to nobody but Peter that he was a Communist. Not to mention Johnny repeatedly asking for Peter’s promise to look after Snow, just in case anything tragic would happen during the Japanese Occupation. Peter also felt the sincerity of Johnny, as he once described Johnny that “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend.” For a certain period, Peter also treated Johnny as his best friend, but simply because he had no one else to talk to. This was indicated by Peter’s painful recollection of his early life: after spending a holiday together, his school friend Prichard never talked to him again, even Peter himself had to admit that he “was destined never to have friends.”

Driven by his uncontrollable lust and desire, Peter gradually betrayed Johnny by mistakenly getting a crush on Snow, his best friend’s wife. While taking advantage of his friendship with Johnny to approach her, Peter also lied to Johnny: ”I’m very fond of Snow, but I don’t love her.” It is impossible to infer what exactly happened between Peter and Snow from a very implicit hint of “fleeting intimacy” demonstrated by Tash Aw, although it is for sure that Peter betrayed Johnny in certain ways. Otherwise, Peter might not have a strong sense of guiltiness when he spent three years in the prisoner-of-war camp in Singapore. As he put it, “the war was insufficient punishment for the things I had done.” So smart Johnny was, he knew something about Peter’s love affair, just like he knew what happened between Kunichika and his wife.  He chose to be silent on both issues, as he understood how powerful Kunichika would be once the War broke out, and thus he placed all his hope on Peter, a British, the only person who would be able to save his wife. As Johnny said to Peter: “If she is not with me, at least with you she will be safe.” I will elaborate this point in later paragraphs.

One irrefutable fact in the story is that Johnny and Snow deeply loved each other in quite different ways, which were demonstrated in Snow’s narrative as well as the conversations between Johnny and Peter. Snow regarded Johnny as “the 1st man she ever loved,” and she desperately longed for her husband’s concrete actions of showing true love. She knew that Johnny “processed a world that was locked away from her,” the world which was rich in various secrets. However, she could hardly understand that Johnny’s true purpose of keeping her away from those secrets was for the good of her security. Exactly like how Johnny told Peter about his secrets: “I don’t want her to know that about me, there are worse things than not having anyone to talk to.”

Snow’s attitude towards her marriage was a natural yet very superficial one, as she could hardly understand the complexity of the outside world and the hazards jeopardizing their lives—she merely “spent whole life observing the world from her window,” fantasizing the beauty of love, and barely knew anything about how much sacrifice Johnny had made for her.  In contrast, it was Johnny who made a lot of hard efforts to protect Snow from being injured. He foresaw the invasion of the Japanese Army, became aware of the vulnerability of British Malaya, and more importantly, he realized the risks facing by the family business and the responsibility of himself as being an inescapable Communist leader—he needed to “ensure the Valley survived the Occupation with minimum damage.” In doing so, Johnny came up the idea of taking the least risky strategy to entrust Snow to his best friend Peter, in case other efforts did not work out. Snow did owe Johnny an apology, as she wrote in her diary, that she ultimately seduced Kunichika (or vice versa). Ironically, Snow also asked Peter to look after Johnny “if anything happens”: “I don’t just mean the war,” she added, which implied that she had completely fallen love with Kunichika and probably even started to think about leaving Johnny—Snow betrayed her husband because of her ignorance of love!

The relationship between Johnny and Snow’s family was not just an extension of his marriage, but moreover, it was a far more complicated issue than Snow to be dealt with. On the one hand, Johnny had to be responsible for the family since he was the only son-in-law who could take care of the business. On the other hand, he hated Snow’s parents because T. K. Soong and Patti usually treated him as an uneducated savage, which was frequently shown in many places of the book. It was his wealth and power that helped him to win over Snow from her snobbish parents, as it was testified in Jasper’s narrative, ”It was their desire for Snow to marry a rich man that pushed her into the arms of Johnny.” But in general, the wealth and power were not sufficient to secure his prestige in the family until Johnny took the risk of death to save T. K. Soong’s life from the disastrous fire. However, Snow’s parents’ hypocrisy was exposed to the light of day when they found the significant role played by Kunichika—they used their married daughter as bait to attract Kunichika by arranging the weird four-man-one-woman honeymoon trip. Apparently, Johnny also noticed the intentional arrangement of the morbid parents, as we can tell from his melancholy throughout the journey. His strategy to fight back was simple, passive and even absurd in some ways yet effective to some extent—withdraw himself from Snow, while hoping that Peter could take his place to look after snow as long as she kept herself away from Kunichika.

Johnny’s indifference towards Snow could not be explained without taking his relationship with Kunichika and Jasper into consideration. Why did Johnny try so hard to get avoid of direct conflicts with Kunichika when it seemed so obvious that his wife and the Japanese “professor” were in a love affair? What did Johnny do during the Occupation to secure his life and business? Who was Jasper’s real father? Why did Jasper become so alien to Johnny if he was Johnny’s biological son? And more broadly, whether had Johnny turned himself into a Japanese collaborator? There are no direct answers to these inter-related questions in the story, but Tash Aw did provide us with another implicit clue in Johnny’s obituary:” the two men established uncomfortable respect. Mr. Kim’s (Johnny) collaborations with the Kempeitai were rife but never substantiated.”

To make everything above plausible, rather than questioning Johnny’s sexual orientation, I suspect that Jasper was the son of Kunichika since Johnny “never touched Snow.” The so-called “uncomfortable mutual respect” was built upon the fact that Johnny recognized Kunichika as Jasper’s biological father, whereas Kunichika recognized Johnny his son’s legal father, while they both kept this shared secret for the prestige of both sides. Johnny was not necessarily a collaborator since there was no concrete evidence to prove this. And the collaboration of a noble figure like Johnny would be notoriously known to the public for certain, but the reality was just turned out to be opposite.

Thus, we can trace back to the origin of the question: why was Johnny indifferent towards Snow if he loved his wife so much? My answer is, Johnny saw through the plot of Snow’s parents, who risked their daughter’s life to attract Kunichika’s attention to gain power. Hence, Johnny realized the fact that fighting directly against Kunichika would place him in a very disadvantageous position. Johnny chose to be indifferent towards Snow because he knew that he would eventually lose his wife as well as everything he had in other’s hands anyway. Indeed, he was too weak to fight back. He just wanted his beloved Snow to have a happy life, which seemed to be so unrealistic to a Communist leader who could not escape from his responsibilities during a brutal war. Therefore, in Johnny’s mind, it might be better to let her go as early as possible, as he once said to Peter: ”I would rather be betrayed than betray someone else”—he did not betray anyone who trusted him, and he tacitly consented to the betrayal of the one he loved.

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