This was what life was like in China, he thought: Stand still for a moment and the river of life rushes past you.
It is a book set in Shanghai, but it is teeming with the essence of Malaysia.
I don’t want to pretend that I know Malaysia. It is Singapore’s closest neighbour but I’ve only been to a few of its cities – Johor Bahru (just across the border from Singapore), its capital city of Kuala Lumpur, the Portuguese-influenced Malacca, the island of Penang (the last trip was for my cousin’s wedding – her husband’s family is from Penang), another island of Langkawi known for its beaches, Cherating (this was for a press junket at the Club Med there – yup life as a journalist could be quite the slog!). And then there is East Malaysia (Sarawak and Sabah) which I have never stepped into before.
I know little of its rural life, its villages, yet there was something kind of comforting about reading from this familiar-ish perspective.
We first meet Phoebe, an ambitious small-town girl trying to make her way in Shanghai, first working in a factory, then as a spa receptionist:
She was not from any part of China but from a country thousands of miles to the south, and in that country she had grown up in a small town in the far northeast. It is a region that is poor and remote, so she is used to people thinking of her as inferior, even in her own country. In her small town, the way of life had not changed very much for fifty years and would probably never change. Visitors from the capital city used to call it charming, but they didn’t have to live there. It was not a place for dreams and ambition, and so Phoebe did not dream.
She gets advice from the self-help books she buys from street stalls, interpreting them in her own ways, and from observing the local women, for instance, on how to dress: “Wear the biggest sunglasses you can find; carry the smallest handbag possible. The new attitude she had been cultivating was filling her with a magnificent confidence”. And chats online in order to meet men.
There is Justin Lim Chee Kiong, the oldest son of an old money Malaysian family, sent to China to establish the family business on the Mainland with a big real estate project.
He had known little about Shanghai and assumed that it would consist solely of shopping malls and plastic reproductions of its history, its traditional life preserved in aspic, as it was in Singapore, where he went to school, or else inherently Third World, like in Malaysia, where he grew up. It might be like Hong Kong, where he had begun his career and cemented his reputation as an unspectacular yet canny businessman who would hold the reins steady as head of the family’s property interests. Whatever the case, he had assumed he would find it familiar—he had spent his life in overcrowded, overbuilt Asian cities, and they were all the same to him.
Gary is an unusual character. A celebrity, a singing sensation who shot into stardom after winning a talent competition in Malaysia just before the age of 17, but whose shining star has dimmed after a drunken altercation in a pub:
Because when he stopped for that moment to consider his life, he realized that there was nothing in it that was within his control. Every minute of his day was organized by his management company, even the number of hours he should sleep. It had been like this for so long that it made him wonder if he had ever known a different way of living.
Yinghui is a female entrepreneur who runs a chain of high class lingerie stores, and is quite formidable: “a bold businesswoman, certainly, but also a superefficient, humorless automaton who would coldly plunge a knife into you, except she wouldn’t bother to do it in your back, she’d stick it in your chest”, nicknamed “Ultrawoman, Dragon Queen, Terminatress, Rambo” by her subordinates. Her family was once a wealthy powerful one in Malaysia but is now down on its luck.
Walter is the five-star billionaire himself, whose self-help manual for wannabe billionaires is interspersed among the rest of the stories and it is from that manual that we get to know his background.
Tash Aw’s characters’ lives are intertwined. For instance, Yinghui used to date Justin’s brother once upon a time in Malaysia. Phoebe is a big fan of Gary and eventually meets him in an online chatroom although she doesn’t know his real identity. Phoebe ‘dates’ Walter, who, unknown to her, is the writer of the very self-help manuals she has been reading. Yinghui is about to embark on a big deal with the shady Walter. And so on.
Everyone is connected in some way, even if it is for just a fleeting moment.
Phoebe’s character is the one that really stood out. Her determination to make it big, whether in her career or in her love life, is admirable although her decisions often are not (she uses someone else’s identity card to land her spa receptionist job, for instance). But she is a bright spark and indefatigable, sometimes ruthlessly so.
“In the business of life, every tiny episode is a test, every human encounter a lesson. Look and learn.”
Tash Aw’s tale of life in Shanghai is sharp, contemporary, and elegantly brought together. It is a harsh chilly world that his characters inhabit. But despite the icy impenetrable society that they live in, these five are so very human, blemishes and all.
I previously read Tash Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory but wasn’t too impressed with it. But he has wowed me with Five Star Billionaire, and I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing what he will be writing next.
I first heard of this book from JoV of Bibliojunkie who is herself from Malaysia and writes a far better review.
Tash Aw was born in Taipei in 1979 to Malaysian parents. He grew up in Kuala Lumpur and moved to England at the age of 18 to attend University.
Tash Aw is the author of three novels: The Harmony Silk Factory (2005), winner of the Costa First Novel Award and a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel and longlisted for the 2005 Man Booker Prize; Map of the Invisible World (2009); and Five Star Billionaire (2013), longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.