Five Star Billionaire (2013) – Tash AW

Tan Twan Eng’s winning of last year’s Man Asian Literary Prize hopefully went some way to recognising that there is a huge output of English language literature coming out of South East Asia, including Malaysia. Tash Aw is another Malaysian author who has made a splash in recent years, and for his third novel, he moves away from historial fiction about Malaysia to the current state of the Chinese Malaysian diaspora returning to China to find wealth.

Five Star Billionaire is the story of four young Malaysians who have come to China to hit the jackpot. But life isn’t easy in the biggest city in the world, when 23 million other people want exactly the same thing. More than ever, it is the small connections, the fragile relationships we have with other people, that become important in a city where everyone is out to get everyone else.

Shanghai’s international pull is well documented here. All four (five, even) main characters have come from Malaysia, Aw’s homeland. They have come because, for them, Shanghai is the Mecca of Asian development. It is the place where people come to get rich beyond their wildest dreams. It is a reminder to all of us in the West that China really has become the ideal for so many people in all of developing Asia.

Though each character is Malaysian, and has come to China to find success, it is a credit to Aw that they are all here for different reasons, and have vastly different family backgrounds. Justin is the heir to a huge family real estate conglomerate that has been successful since colonial times. Gary has been plucked from village obscurity to become a successful M-Pop (is that a thing?). Phoebe represents the thousands (millions?) of factory girls who flow across the borders into China to find wealth. And Yinghui is the end of Phoebe’s journey—a successful business woman who is constantly told that she must now find a man.

Just as we spoke last week about Mo Yan’s dim view on the rapid development of rural China, we now get Tash Aw’s rather depressing view of contemporary, already-developed urban Shanghai. It is a city that will take you in, chew you up and spit you out without a thought for your wellbeing. It is a place where everyone is out to make a buck, no matter the consequences for the people around them. Gary and Justin are the first to find this out the hard way—Justin’s family business goes bankrupt, forcing him to redefine who he is. Gary’s temper gets the better of him one night in a bar, and all of a sudden, he loses the millions of adoring but fickle teenage adorers.

There is a sense of impermanence that pervades all four narrative strands. Every time a character is successful, we are obliged to feel happy for them, because they are, for the most part, nice people. But so often it feels like a hollow victory—we know from past experiences that the fall is always harder than the ascent, and can happen when you are least expecting it.

It seems ironic, then, that the characters themselves seem so blithely unaware of the world in which they live. The best example of this is Yinghui’s story, which is perhaps the most heartbreaking of all the narrative strands. Despite her business acumen, she remains sweetly naïve about the lengths people will go to in order to make money.

I haven’t read Tash Aw’s debut novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, so I can’t comment on whether he is getting better or worse with time. If nothing else, Five Star Billionaire marks Tash Aw as a writer who has his finger on the pulse. This is as modern a novel about developing Asia you are likely to find. From the sleazy chatrooms to the exploited illegal immigrants, from the destruction of old heritage buildings to the glittering new skyscrapers, everything you need to know about rising Asia is here.

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