I have to admit to a touch of embarrassment when someone asked what I was reading one day I was out with Five Star Billionaire; its slightly garish cover together with the title might suggest some kind of get rich quick guide to the casual observer. Phoebe, the go-getting migrant worker who opens the novel, has no such reservations. She devours ‘how to succeed’ books, which she takes so literally that it took me a while to work out whether or not she was being parodied.
“Next, she hesitated over a scarf with distinctive checks and some large shawls made from pure 100 per cent pashmina, and since winter was around the corner she thought about buying a fashionable down jacket too, something in a bright shiny colour that would make her look energetic and sporty, and even give the impression that she had just come back from a holiday in an expensive snowy place like Hokkaido”
Phoebe and the other four subjects of Tash Aw’s third novel – all of them originally Malaysian – are all newcomers on the Shanghai scene. Aside from Phoebe there’s a rich kid delegated to represent his family business, an out of fashion pop star, a businesswoman and a self made millionaire with an agenda.
Five Star Billionaire’s Shanghai is fast, unforgiving and frustrating, but it’s also a land of opportunity where anything can happen, and quite frequently does. Aw has spent time in Shanghai and it shows – I’m in no position to comment on whether or not his portrayal of modern day China is authentic, but it’s certainly convincing. It’s fashionable at the moment to consider China’s quest for riches in spiritual terms, but this is not really the issue in question here, rather it is the effect that living in Shanghai has on a more personal level.
“Yinghui recognised a restlessness in the banker’s face, a mixture of excitement and apprehension that people exhibited when still new in Shanghai, in search of something, even though they could not articulate what that something was – maybe it was money, or status, or, God forbid, even love – but whatever it was, Shanghai was not about to give it to them.”
At times the similarity of the narrators’ voices made for a slightly confusing read, but things became clearer as the book progressed and the different strands started to come together. Five Star Billionaire is immediately readable, with a pace that moves you quickly through its 400-odd pages. It’s written pretty much in the style you would expect from a book called ‘Five Star Billionaire’, but underneath the unchallenging prose some pretty serious themes are being examined: immigration, family duty, corruption, fate and coincidence.
Any cop?: Aw has spent his career pushing the boundaries of the South East Asian novel and he’s emerged as a voice which is esteemed in both East and West. So on the face of it this is a shiny tale of modern day Asia, and its various hidden depths will be revealed according to who you are, where you’re from and what your literary background is. That’s a yes.