BOOK REVIEW Crushed by the Chinese dream Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw
Reviewed by Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - When Chinese President Xi Jinping hails the "Chinese dream" as a "national rejuvenation for the Chinese people", he clearly does not have Tash Aw's latest (and most ambitious) novel in mind.
In Aw's Five Star Billionaire, five vividly drawn characters, all outsiders who have recently arrived in China's throbbing financial capital of Shanghai, desperately search for love and riches amidst the city's towering skyscrapers and equally imposing dreams.
There is Phoebe, the illegal migrant worker; Gary, the down-and-out former pop star; Yinghui, the one-time social activist turned hard-working businesswoman; Justin, the clinically depressed scion of a wealthy family in Kuala Lumpur; and Walter, who writes
books about how to become a billionaire while pretending to be one himself.
All of the characters, like Aw himself, are ethnic Chinese with roots in Malaysia, and each of them is brought convincingly to life as this 400-page-plus narrative unfolds and its plot and prose build in a carefully wrought tension.
In the end, however, it is a sixth character - gleaming and alluring but ruthless and unforgiving Shanghai itself - that steals the show, rewarding graft and deception while smashing genuine aspirations as well as those who dare to hold them under the full weight of a money-stuffed Chinese dream that, as Aw depicts it, is every bit as illusory and potentially malign as its American counterpart.
Aw first made his mark as a novelist in 2005 with The Harmony Silk Factory, his critically acclaimed debut novel whose central character, Johnny Lim, runs a textiles store by that name in British-ruled Malaya in the 1940s. Like Five Star Billionaire, the book presents multiple perspectives and the difficulty of truly knowing and understanding even those who are closest to us in our lives. It also announced the arrival of a fresh, English-speaking but nevertheless distinctly Malaysian voice on the global literary scene.
In his second novel, Map of the Invisible World, published in 2009, Aw focuses on the lives of two brothers abandoned by their mother as children and then separated when they are adopted by different families - one in remote Indonesia and the other in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. As the narrative, set in the mid 1960s while political turmoil brews in Indonesia, shuttles between the separate lives of the two brothers, Aw again proves adept at capturing a particular time and place, although the story runs aground on clumsy subplots and improbable coincidences.
Coincidences pile up in Five Star Billionaire as well. Phoebe, a poor village girl chasing a rich man and the good life in the city, religiously reads Walter's tutorials on success, and then the two begin dating after meeting online; at the same time, Phoebe has also hooked up with Gary in an online chat room for lonely hearts, snagged a good job at one of Yinghui's businesses and found a one-room apartment on the seamier side of the same building in which Justin lives.
While this may sound like destiny at work in 21st-century China, sometimes it reads like heavy-handed plot manipulation.
Another problem with the plot is that the novel's ending becomes apparent well before it actually arrives, undermining the tension Aw has been so good at building from the start.
That said, however, there is no denying Aw's ambition and - when the narrative and dialogue are clicking - the power of this increasingly foreboding tale. With chapter headings that could be taken from one of Walter's self-help guides ("Bravely Set the World on Fire," "Forget the Past, Look Only to the Future," "Reinvent Yourself," etc), the story moves inevitably toward the abyss, with only the glittering, remorseless towers of Shanghai still standing and triumphant in the end.
Phoebe searches fruitlessly for her "soulmate" while simultaneously targeting rich men who are suckers for her air of innocence in a city that has none. When she finds herself dating the strangely asexual Walter - who also, although she does not know this, grew up poor in a Malaysian village - she realizes that she can never be happy and fulfilled in Shanghai, not even if she managed to charm some older man of means into marrying her; she will never find her "soulmate" there.
Meanwhile, Walter, his eyes on a mega-property deal, has forged a business partnership with Yinghui, once the girlfriend and presumed fiance of Justin's bohemian brother, CS, of the wealthy Lim family in Kuala Lumpur.
Yinghui is still hurting from being dumped years ago by CS and eschewed by his family after her father, a deputy minister, was accused of corruption. She hopes for more than just business with the suave, immaculately dressed Walter but, again, Walter exudes asexuality during a series of potential trysts, including a weekend getaway at a luxurious hotel in Hangzhou that never takes the romantic direction Yinghui hopes for.
Justin arrives in Shanghai on a quest to increase his family's real-estate holdings, eventually making a bid for the same property Walter has eyes for, a site occupied by faded historic buildings that the Lim family plans to transform into a modern Shanghai landmark.
When his efforts are scotched by Walter, however, Justin - who always harbored a secret love for Yinghui during the years she was dating his brother - becomes listless and depressed and cuts himself off from his family and their collapsing business empire. He yearns to tell Yinghui how he feels about her - but never does.
Then there is Gary, the reckless and unhappy pop idol who self-destructs through a series of boorish acts, the latest of which is a violent bust-up, started by him in a trendy Shanghai bar, that is ravenously reported to his outraged fans by the gossip-hungry media.
His career in ashes, Gary - who once filled arenas with screaming, adoring fans - is now reduced to singing in shopping malls by day and surfing the Internet for companionship by night, although, like just about everyone else he encounters in cyberspace, he does not use his real name.
Ironically, when he finally does tell Phoebe - with whom he has become infatuated - who he really is, she refuses to believe him.
That's Shanghai, the author seems to suggest - everybody is pretending to be somebody they're not, and no one cares about who you really are. Moreover, it is a city that magically retains it enticing allure while also proclaiming its unyielding indifference.
Aw has Yinghui come to this realization as she seeks a bank loan to finance her joint project with Walter:
"Yinghui recognized 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."
Later in the novel, as Phoebe counts her losses, Aw writes of the city that has defeated her: "People come here like explorers, but soon they disappear; no one even hears them as they fade away, and no one remembers them."
In Aw's fictional world, there is no "national rejuvenation for the Chinese people" - just empty hearts and broken dreams.
Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw (Spiegel & Grau, July 2013). ISBN-10: 0812994345. Price: US$17.59; 400 pages.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1
(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)