Phoebe is a fiercely ambitious and highly focused young woman. Gary is a pop star phenomenon whose bubble has burst. Justin is the scion of a powerful property-owning family. Yinghui was once a young idealist now a successful capitalist but a lonely woman. The interwoven stories of these four Malaysians who have come to Shanghai to seek their fortune are linked to one first-person narrative voice: that of enigmatic entrepreneur Walter Chao. Is he the five star billionaire?
Shanghai represents the speed with which the new China is changing and the city is portrayed as ruthless: "stand still for a moment and the river rushes past you". Phoebe depends on self-help books to realise her ambitions yet she, like the city, still tussles with age-old customs. "You must overturn all your old beliefs in order to succeed in life". Like so many of Shanghai's migrant workers, she leads "a floating life" and says, "We all have to do things that sully us while we wait for our real lives to happen."
Tash Aw was born in China, brought up in Malaysia and came to London in his teens. He knows all aspects of the turf and language. His prose is fluid, his paragraphs sustained and he summons up "the fast-forward glitter of Shanghai" convincingly. Certain aspects of his five key characters are contradictory and occasionally puzzling yet nevertheless the narrative compels you forward to a satisfying if guessable conclusion.
Tash Aw's novels should be so good; he has a great ear for a title; his locations are to die for and his stories are brimming with ideas. But his previous two novels, although entertaining enough at the time, have left not the slightest trace of a memory on this reader's mind. Five Star Billionaire seems to be more of the same.
The novel stars five people (do you see what Tash did there?) who all hope of becoming billionaires. They are all outsiders from Malaysia (though Gary the disenchanted rock star might also have connections with Taiwan) and have all pitched up in Shangai. Their pasts, presents and futures all seem intertwined in degrees of coincidence that would make Dickens blush.
The characters, and there are actually more than five of them, fall into three groups: the men, the women, and Gary. The men: Walter Chau, Justin, the Lims and others all seem much of a muchness. They want to get rich through property deals but have a sensitive side if you look. The women, too, are interchangeable with Phoebe, Yinghui and Yanyan seem to want to make money in the field of make-up, massage, lingerie and dating. You have to keep wide awake to remember which one is which because they sound the same, behave the same and think the same. Only Gary, the rock star who has run away from his management company and is holed up in a darkened flat looking at intimate internet sites offers any relief from the monotony.
As for the settings - the novel bounces from Shanghai to Kota Bharu to Kuala Lumpur. Yet these wonderful cities with their mix of sounds and smells could be anywhere. Where are the images of eaves full of chirping birds and loudspeakers broadcasting the call to prayer in the deeply Islamic city of Kota Bharu? Where are the hoons driving around the town all night hooting their horns, perfectly sober in this dry city? And in Shanghai, where are the bicycle bells, the rows of ancient shops and cottages dwarfed by new developments, the fake pavilions outside the walls of the Yuyuan gardens? It is a criminal waste of locations to let them slip through unnoticed. Were this a first novel, you might say that the creation of a place is a skill still to be learned, but in a third consecutive novel it looks like a real weakness.
So, if the characters are a bit samey and the setting seems a bit bland, what of the story? Sadly, that too is a bit of a fizzler. The various story lines sort of come together at the end and there is supposed to be a bit of an explanation, a bit of a backstory that explains it all. The trouble is, it doesn't. The way the five stars behave towards one another makes no sense. There is no consistency over time and the backstory, when you analyse it, makes no sense.
Five Star Billionaire had its moments; it did create the occasional moment of suspense (invariably left hanging for too long), it did have some witty turns of phrase. For the most part, the novel was not actually boring and sometimes was quite entertaining. But overall, it was not enough. This is the weakest of Tash's three novels, and he seems to be in a bit of a downward spiral.
on 21 April 2014
Chinese-British writer Tash Aw’s “Five Star Billionaire” is really more a fascinating fictional portrait of modern Shanghai replete with all of its contradictions - a thriving megalopolis which yearns to hold onto its Chinese and Western European past, as it becomes a dynamic economic and cultural beacon of hope and success to countless scores of people across the globe – than it is a novel focused solely on a few protagonists. Here Aw renders Shanghai as both the stage and the key character in his vast, sprawling, novel that introduces us to four different people whose fates become intertwined and, indeed, orchestrated by the shadowy figure of Walter Chao, the “Five Star Billionaire” himself. Aw’s exuberantly descriptive prose and superb storytelling skills offer readers a beguiling fictional portrait of Shanghai as seen through the eyes of each of the five main characters. We are introduced immediately to Phoebe, who arrives in Shanghai with the promise of a factory job, but discovers that the job doesn’t exist, and must survive with her wits intact long enough to attract the attention of Chao himself. Gary is an up and coming pop star who has enjoyed some success, having fled the country for the dazzling lights of Shanghai, but finds his life spiraling out of control as his success begins to ebb. Justin has inherited the reins of his family’s vast real estate empire in Shanghai, but he is torn between adhering to his family wishes and gaining the love and trust of someone whom he has had a crush on for years, Yinghui, a former leftist activist, turned successful businesswoman, who is passionate about preserving Shanghai’s Western European past, even as she contemplates major financial deals with the likes of Walter Chao. Aw may be one of the best literary stylists writing now in the English language as well as a fine storyteller who manages to make readers care deeply about each of the five protagonists in “Five Star Billionaire”; I look forward to reading his earlier novels, “The Harmony Silk Factory” and “Map of the Invisible World”, even as I wonder what else he may write that could match the breathtaking scope of his latest.
This exceptional and thought provoking novel intertwines the stories of five Malay emigrants to Shanghai, with all their different stories and experiences. There is Phoebe Chen Aiping, a recently arrived country girl longing to 'better' herself with a fulfilling job and, hopefully, a rich man. From a poor and remote region she relies on self-help manuals for advice about how to fit in and become upwardly mobile. Justin CK Lim is heir to LKH Holdings, a family insurance firm and a successful property developer. From 'old money' he feels trapped by the needs of his family and their reliance upon him. Then there is Gary, a singer who found success through a talent competition, but who begins to hate his fans as both his career and life spiral out of control. Yingui is a successful businesswoman, whose friends see only the fact that she is thirty seven and single. Lastly, there is the "Five Star Billionaire" himself, whose words of wisdom to help his readers become a success, intersperse the story.
The five characters lives unfold before us, with their tragedies and triumphs, as their stories begin to intersect. This exhilarating novel gives a real sense of how alone people can be in a large city and about the true meaning of success; it is about ambition, aspirations and the global world we live in, with people constantly reinventing their lives. Longlisted for the Booker prize, whether it is shortlisted or not, it is certainly already a literary triumph.
on 18 September 2014
Set in current day Shanghai, this novels tells the story of five migrant workers and how they struggle and sometimes succeed in the cut-throat business arena. All these lives inter-twine or slip past and diverge as the novel goes on.
Phoebe, a girl determined to find a rich husband or boyfriend or at least someone who will buy her the latest designer handbag. She'll stop at nothing to get what she wants including lying and theft.
Justin, property magnet, his family have built a successful business which he inherited until it all goes wrong and he struggles to leave his rented flat. How will he re-build his life when so many people are gloating over his failure?
Gary, a superstar singer who won a talent competition and never looked back. When it all comes crashing down he turns to the internet to find a soul-mate and tries to re-build his life.
Yinghui, a successful business woman who has overcome tragedy to become her own woman, answerable to no one. But at what price?
Walter, a billionaire entrepreneur who writes self-help books to inspire the next generation. He wants to give something back to the community, money no object, will it succeed?
I liked the premise of this book, taking very different characters who seem to have nothing in common and then see how they find or walk past each other in life. My favourite character was Phoebe, she knew what she wanted, tried to get it and then found another path, ok she was a lying, cheating scumbag but at least she was honest with herself. The other characters, I could take or leave, they mostly annoyed me.
So that was what I liked about this book (not much), now onto what I didn't like.
The picture this story paints of Shanghai is not complimentary, everyone is cheating everyone else, pretending to be someone they're not, stabbing each other in the back and only interested in their own success. I hope the real Shanghai isn't like that.
The start of this novel is so confusing, each character has their own chapter (which are reasonably long) so by the time you've read five chapters, you're back to character one who you have totally forgotten and think they're a new character. I resorted to writing down the character's names for each chapter until I saw a pattern. I don't like to have to keep notes in order to follow a storyline.
I found the ending quite predictable, I really didn't care what happened to the characters, so was quite glad to finish, not a good sign.
Tash Aw’s previous book ‘Map of the Invisible World’, published in 2009, was set in a Japanese garden designed to maximise peace and tranquility. The setting for this one could hardly be more different.
The novel tells the stories of four Malaysians who have come to Shanghai: Phoebe, an ambitious village girl who pretends to be Chinese and is determined to start a new life; Gary, a "Taiwanese" pop star who has lost his young audience and is trying desperately to regain his popularity; Yinghui, a successful businesswoman who is told by her friends that her life is incomplete without a man and Justin, adopted into a formerly wealthy family who have now lost everything. There is also Walter Chao, author of a self-help manual ‘Five Star Billionaire’, who periodically addresses the reader. However, it is really the dynamic and pulsating city of Shanghai that stands at the centre of Aw’s book.
Initially, the links between the main characters are oblique: Phoebe having a poster of Gary on her wall, Walter discussing a business opportunity with Yinghui but, as the book proceeds, the reader feels that they are connected by greater bonds. Interspersed with the stories of the four characters, we find sections from Walter’s self-help book, such as ‘How To Achieve Greatness’, ‘How To Invest Wisely - A Case Study In Property Management’ and ‘How To Hang On To Your Dreams – Property Management Case Study, Continued’. One of Walter’s thoughts is ‘In the business of life, every tiny episode is a test, every human encounter a lesson’. For some readers, these might help stitch the personal narratives together and, with luck, might set the reader on the road to the first billion. However, eventually these asides can be seen to have a much greater significance.
Aw is a very good writer but this is a long book and, perhaps because of the topic, I found it very difficult to empathise with any of the characters who each seem to be sleepwalking through the novel – perhaps this is the Eastern lack of free will? Each character pursues an individual path in establishing his/her relationship with the metropolis.
The story does, eventually, speed up but, for me, the main interest in this book was its setting in Shanghai. Aw offers a compelling impression from the inside, well away from well-beaten tourist sites, rather than the external perspective of a foreign traveller. The book is very topical, of course, but I really want more from a novel. It is also very bitty which, alongside my difficulty with the characters, introduced a barrier between me and the narrative. A final difficulty was the rather confusing shifts in time, which ultimately led to my having a greater interest in what had happened in the past rather than in the present.
Something of a disappointment then. However, Aw's previous books were sufficiently interesting to make me want to read his next one.
on 9 April 2014
The Big Cruel Eastern Megacity forms both the canvas and the vector that infects all five wannabe billionaires with the disease of wealth accumulation in Tash Aw's Five Star Billionaire. We meet them all as they are either on the brink of Big Decisions: land deals for which all's at stake, job interview that will make or break the future; or Big Breakdowns: a real-estate tycoon's heir who is tired of it all, a teenage popstar seeing through all the traps of fame and celebrity.
Not all the refrains in Tash's books are new, but the author's sympathy for his five characters whose souls and lives have been brutally yoked by the cut-throat competitive, breathless, forward-lurching beast of Shanghai city is totally winsome. The third person narration that four of the five characters get is that of an accommodating, loving parent who articulates the deepest melancholies and emotionally fecund internal monologues with an excitement and certainty that leaves little room for a reader's interpretation. But you play along, because tied with this are precise, quick constructions of time and place that give you a sensation of moving within this metropolis.
While Tash's certain, accessible prose holds you by the collar and makes sure you race through the first quarter of this expansive book, it's the same prose that tires you with its certainty later on, as we launch into exhaustive back-stories of these characters. The style hints at a forward race to the finish, but the contemplation written into the character's trajectories warrants lengthy detours into the past, leaving one unsure of the trajectory of every next episodic chapter. The frustrating comedy of a brief interaction in real time built up using the Past, the Expectation of Future that is replayed again and again, hinting at some contrived closure or epiphany, but climaxing in a pragmatic utterance is definitely characteristic of this book. To remember the existential cliffhanger four chapters back can be a real strain as you switch between characters, and very quickly the flotsam of Past-Present-Future contemplation five times over quickly blurs into one.
The multi-layer satire on synthetic promises by corrupt businessmen, narcissistic entrepreneurs and self-appointed gurus of person/wealth-creation (seen in the bombastic chapter titles) along with the transience and synthetic syrup of online chats and identities hits the mark too. For me though, the ultimate triumph is the unrequited love story between the educated liberal hippy-turned-ace businesswoman and reluctant real-estate developer heir where Tash's channelled all his powers: of ultra-sympathetic sketches, of nuanced social observations, of empathising with the damage of synthetic transformation in pursuit of wealth that both characters are bemoaning, of noting the gulf created by conscious decisions they both have taken about projected roles in family and society and finally waking up to the deeper truths. Tash does not much think much of the Transformation, Change, Metamorphosis of personalities and people. Everyone eventually seeks back their elemental, or simpler, older selves with the new benefit of having had seen the Big City Life. What is not to dislike here?
Like screenplays of those expansive, hyperlink movies by Innaritu, here you have these similar-sounding five puppets linked by a single tragedy: that of Wealth Creation At All Costs, and finally by a single epiphany: It's Not Worth Doing It Just For the Money. Pat lessons sure, but in the certain-sounding angst with China and Malaysia as backdrop and a wizened puppetmaster like Tash drawing the strings, they make for a refreshing reminder.
on 2 February 2014
This novel didn't really work for me. I thought that the basic premise was clever, and I found the early chapters appealing, but that initial appeal palled fairly quickly.
The story takes the form of five narratives relating the experiences of separate Malaysian émigrés who have relocated to Shanghai. These five include:
· a young woman struggling to make a life in the big city who thinks that her greatest chance for advancement lies in finding a wealthy man,;
· a member of an immensely rich family which has made its wealth through selling insurance and is now looking to cash in on the property boom in Shanghai as it becomes increasingly westernised;
· a successful pop star in his early twenties who, after having a meteoric career seems to have fallen foul of the tabloid papers that had previously eulogised his every act;
· a successful businesswoman who has created an extensive commercial empire but worries that she has sacrificed her private life; and
· a personal development guru who has developed a life plan that can make the most unlikely candidate become a billionaire.
Unfortunately, as the novel progresses each of these characters seemed to become more rather than less two-dimensional, and the plot simply seemed too contrived to be rally plausible.
on 28 January 2014
This is a sprawling novel, set primarily in Shanghai. Very well structured, good technical aspects. Strong characters who interact with each other.
A memorable teen pop star who is dysfunctional. Lots of writing around use of internet. Characters that amuse or are tragic.
Asian values satirised. Vivid dialogue and excellent Chinese symbols. That head each chapter.
"Five Star Billionaire" tells the intertwined stories of four Malaysians trying, with varying degrees of success, to make money in their adopted city of Shanghai. Gary is a young popstar overwhelmed by fame, Justin a property developer in the midst of a nervous breakdown, Phoebe a village girl looking for a rich man to marry, and Yinghui a successful entrepreneur. And then there is a fifth character: the five star billionaire, an opaque man who interrupts the narrative with his own get-rich-quick advice.
Shanghai holds 'its promises just out of reach, waiting to see how far you were willing to go to get what you wanted, how long you were willing to wait' and the soul-crushing nature of a big anonymous city, especially for an immigrant, is well drawn. Despite the characters' flaws you are willing them to succeed, or at least find some happiness, and Aw gives us just enough tenderness alongside the greed and loneliness.
[I was given a free download of this book by the publishers for review.]