Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw
Identity and resilience are leitmotifs in Five Star Billionaire, Tash Aw’s new page-turner of a novel set in Shanghai. Fittingly, the novel opens with an ID card being lost and found: lost by a Chinese national, and found by Phoebe Chen Aiping, a frightened but plucky young Malaysian immigrant, determined to make something of herself, lured to the city by the promise of a job that doesn’t materialize.
Thanks to the new (fake) ID and a lucky break, Phoebe does find work but keeps her true identity a secret from everyone, claiming to be from Guangdong province in China’s far South, although in reality she’s from a dirt-poor town in northern Malaysia. For a time, Phoebe flourishes under her new identity, working in a high-end spa and dating men she meets in chat rooms or online dating services.
Phoebe’s boss Yinghui, a graduate of the London School of Economics, is from an upper middle class family in Kuala Lumpur. Well-read, self-reliant, and a touch dowdy, at thirty-seven she is still single. The locals, we learn, “had names for women like her, whom they considered sadly past their prime. Shengnü, baigujing—that sort of thing”.
Despite this debatable shortcoming, Yinghui’s resilience enables her to invent herself anew in Shanghai after the double heartbreak of the death of her father and a broken engagement to Duncan C.S. Lim, the son of “one of those overseas Chinese families that had risen, in little over a century, from dockside coolies to established billionaires.”
Just as Yinghui gives up on dating, two men enter her life, stirring up old memories and tilting her disciplined existence off-kilter. One is Justin C.K. Lim, none other than the brother of her ex-fiancé. Newly-arrived in town, he is planning a building project that would cement the business presence of his family in China—on the historic site of what was once an opulent opium den.
The other character who unsettles Yinghui is Walter Chao—the billionaire of the book’s title—who authors best-selling self-help books under pseudonyms. The self-help theme is amplified through Phoebe—an ardent fan of the books—and through Five Star Billionaire’s chapter titles which are aphorisms like “How to Achieve Greatness” or “Always Rebound After Each Failure”. When Walter approaches Yinghui with a proposal to preserve a piece of Shanghai’s historical architecture (the same one that Justin wants to raze!) their plans for collaboration stir up memories of her idealistic youth, spent hosting literary salons and volunteering in the office of Friends of Old KL (KL being Kuala Lumpur), a charity founded to preserve heritage buildings.
Walter remains mysterious through most of the book even as he intersects with both Yinghui and Phoebe. Unique among the characters in that he speaks in the first person, he imparts trenchant observations on what he believes to be human nature. Early on we get a dose of his cold-eyed worldview, “One day you might achieve all I have. But time is sprinting past you, faster than you think. You’re already playing catch-up, even as you read this. Fortunately, you do get a second chance. My advice to you is: Take it. A third rarely comes your way.”
Shanghai itself is the book’s real main character, a glimmering fata morgana, luring in people hoping for a second chance or—in Phoebe’s case—any chance at all. Yinghui reflects upon the city from a high-end bar near Guangdong Lu, looking at the futuristic Pudong skyline,
In Mumbai or Singapore or Jakarta, there would be equivalent places, where groups of young men and women bought magnums of champagne and the music was so loud it drowned out not just all conversation but all sense of history too—but no other city went so far, so ruthlessly. It was as if the beautiful people who inhabited this cocktailed world were trying to recreate time and space, and this new universe was the here and now of the shimmering bar, which trained the visitor’s eye relentlessly on a view of the brashest skyline in the world. When you were here, you had no choice but to forget the past and all that you might have been attached to and, for an hour or so, believe in what the city wanted you to believe in.
Spinning through this distortion, the ultimate mind-bending experience that is Five Star Billionaire’s Shanghai, the characters play the hands they are dealt as best they can, but they remain isolated in the midst of an environment too hostile to allow earthy human bonds to take root.
The crowds, the traffic, the impenetrable dialect, the muddy rains that carried the remnants of the Gobi Desert sandstorms and stained your clothes every March: The city was teasing you, testing your limits, using you. You arrived thinking you were going to use Shanghai to get what you wanted, and it would be some time before you realized that it was using you, that it had already moved on you and you were playing to catch up.
The characters do sometimes seem to be playing to catch up. And, like all of us, they run into walls. Phoebe decides to leave Shanghai and return to Malaysia, even though she never found a rich husband; Justin’s family holding company crumples in a financial downturn and Yinghui and Walter’s business deal doesn’t go as planned. Yet the message of the book seems to be that even in defeat there is hope of renewal. The title of the book’s last chapter is “The Journey is Long”. It is indeed.