Book review: Five Star Billionaire, by Tash Aw

Tash Aw's third novel explores the mainland's rush to riches through the stories of five Malaysian-Chinese in modern Shanghai, writes Sophie Chen Jin

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 March, 2013, 4:45pm

Tash Aw's latest novel opens with the titular billionaire admitting: "There has always been something inherently childlike in my pursuit of money."

It's also an apt comment on attitudes towards the torrent of wealth gushing through the new China, where the novel is set. It seems everyone diving into the fray to claim their share of the cash is driven by an idea of the good life that has yet to develop beyond apartments and chauffeurs.

Aw is sensitive to how abundant economic opportunity can be a vital outlet for reimagining the self. His leading characters are all Malaysian-Chinese who are quite frank about coming to Shanghai for the money, of course. Privately, though, they think the city offers existential possibilities denied them back home. It is the allure of the American dream, now ceded to China.

Aw, himself a Malaysian-Chinese, relocated to London as a university student a little more than 20 years ago when the West was still the most obvious destination for the young and ambitious. But during the past decade, young Malaysian-Chinese have begun to turn their aspirations northward and are choosing China in increasing numbers. As they complete a full turn of the circle begun when their ancestors left for Malaya beginning in the 19th century, they are also complicating notions of Chinese identity in the 21st.

Aw's first two novels plumbed the historical legacy of the region he grew up in. The Harmony Silk Factory wove the perspectives of a son, wife and British best friend into a shifting portrait of a Chinese peasant who runs a textile store in the final years of British Malaya. The book garnered several awards, including the Costa (Whitbread) for a first novel, and established Aw as an important voice reworking the old haunts of Joseph Conrad and Anthony Burgess in the literary imagination.

In his second novel, Map of the Invisible World, two Indo-Malay brothers search for their adopted Dutch-Indonesian father amid the political quagmire of 1960s Indonesia.

Now Five Star Billionaire deploys telling detail and idiosyncratic perspective to evoke the logic and feel of contemporary China. The prose is lucid and unhurried, and Aw keeps an impressively tight rein on a sprawling narrative. Besides spanning languages and plots, it is also a primer on popular Chinese culture, covering hallmarks from the zealousness of online communities to self-help books and food stalls.

The interlocking lives of the five Malaysian-Chinese living on the mainland are reminiscent of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities in how they reveal social gears and levers. Just as Bonfire endeavoured to do for New York City, Billionaire renders a sweeping cross-section of modern Shanghai. But it does so obliquely, giving the measure of the city the way a disease might be revealed through patient histories.

Aw excels at revealing the city's symptoms by layering detail upon detail - for instance, in this image of a rich Shanghainese girl as seen by Phoebe, a poor girl from a remote village in Malaysia: "Phoebe could not tell if she was pretty, but she sat the way a pretty girl would. Her dress was a big black shirt with loads of words printed all over it like graffiti, meaningless sentences … it was horrible but it was expensive, anyone could see that."

The breakdowns and detachment of Aw's characters are all related to an underlying unease with the glittering surface of China's prosperity

In surveying a city so obsessed with commerce, the novel also penetrates Shanghai's business circles. Aw's most powerful characters are two offspring of Malaysia's elite. Justin is a "real estate prodigy", in the city to establish his family's massive conglomerate as a presence in the all-important property market through boozy bonding with officials. But before he can close the deal, Justin is laid low by illness and ennui and he spends the rest of the novel recovering.

Justin's childhood friend, Yinghui, is the daughter of a Malaysian government official taken down by a corruption scandal. Yinghui was a fervent intellectual while at university in London, but she now runs a successful upscale lingerie chain in Shanghai and wonders anxiously whether she is joining the ranks of Shanghai's leftover women, considered too old and difficult to marry.

The other three main characters are far from their humble roots in Malaysia. Twenty-something Phoebe is equal parts credulity and cool calculation: first lured to the mainland by e-mails from an acquaintance, she is too shrewd to dwell on feeling either victimised or flattered by her Guangdong factory manager's come-ons and does not hesitate to parlay his favours into her own advancement, eventually to Shanghai. There, she uses a stolen Shanghai ID to land a job as the receptionist of a sleek spa where she stays up late looking for love online.

Phoebe forms an intense friendship via instant messaging with Gary who, unknown to her, is a pop star she once idolised, now locked up in a hotel room as he recovers from a precipitous breakdown during his China tour. She also dates Walter, the enigmatic tycoon who appears throughout the novel as the author of scattered excerpts from a self-help book called Secrets of a Five Star Billionaire. Walter seizes onto something familiar about Phoebe and mistakes it for an emotional connection because she never reveals her rural background.

Aw's treatment of the unsavoury elements of contemporary Chinese culture - official corruption, mercenary romances - is earnest and sympathetic. He is not satirical, as are some Chinese writers recently translated into English such as Yan Lianke or Wang Xiaofang. This may be because Aw's apprehensions are more existential than political. Indeed, the novel seems at times a parable, signalling a mild concern (the tone is too understated for anything more urgent) to Aw's Malaysian peers about the limitations of the China dream.

The breakdowns and detachment of Aw's characters are all related to an underlying unease with the glittering surface of China's prosperity. Everything from designer handbags to identities so often turn out to be fake that to presume the authenticity of anything, including relationships, seems hopelessly naïve.

All five characters are cynical and lonely. For them, genuine emotional connections cannot be realised simply by lifting away the façade because, like the Chinese marketplace, they have invested so much in false packaging that to strip it away would remove something essential as well.

While the characters' fortunes rise and fall dramatically, the most significant metamorphoses in the novel are also the subtlest. Towards the end, Aw's lonely men and women are overtaken by revelations so quiet they almost miss them.

At heart, Billionaire is a bildungsroman, a deferred coming-of-age for the adults living in an economy that is growing up faster than they are.