” You know, the noveaux riches who seem to be springing up everywhere with their vulgar cars and handbags. God only knows how they got their money. They can’t see the difference between money and money. ” (Ch.16, 207)
Five Star Billionaire tells the story of four Malaysians whose lives are entwined in Shanghai, the new money capital of the East. They all try to make it in Shanghai, a city that undergoes incessant changes. But when we meet them, each of their lives is in freefall. To me the book really hits home capturing that materialistic psyche that is modern Asia. You’re judged by the bags your clutch, and the expensive, style-over-substance restaurants you eat in. It’s not about who you are, but the sophisticated impression, or delusion, that you have to maintain.
Just once in her life, she would like to enjoy hat other people had, Phoebe thought. Just once, she would like to experience life as a person of comfort and wealth, a happy person … Just once. She wanted just once to know what it felt like to be rich, just for one hour. (Ch.9, 124-5)
There’s Phoebe, the ambitious young Malaysian village girl who passes herself off as Chinese and arrives in Shanghai on the broken promise of a job and a new life. By fluke she secures a job as a receptionist in a spa with a fake ID. Her way to success is to deck out in fake accoutrements for which Shanghai is known—fake Louis Vuitton bag and knock-off Omega watch. There’s Gary, a pop star idol who sabotages his career when video of his brawl in a bar is endlessly replayed on YouTube. Following cancellations of concerts and endorsement contract, Gary is reduced to singing in shopping malls. There’s Yinghui, a steely and successful businesswoman whose friends tell her that to really succeed in Shanghai, she needs a man. And there’s Justin, the lonely scion of wealthy real-estate family, who contrives to salvage his family’s diminishing fortune but fears he cannot live up to expectations. He and Yinghui had known each other in an earlier life, as his brother used to date Yinghui but the relationship ended in a way so relentlessly that still leaves her jaded. All these characters have masked a shameful past or family secret that has never quite healed. Shanghai appeals to them as the place where they can live a better, alternative self.
Funny how people don’t like even when it’s long gone. You get into trouble and everyone avoids you forever, even though you’ve done nothing wrong. It must be an Asian thing. Shame, loss of face, that sort of shit. Someone fucks your life up and somehow the shame becomes yours. (Ch.24, p.312)
The book takes its time to unfold—both the story and the subtle connections of these transplants. Though many of those threads ate held by the mysterious first-person Walter Chao, author of the best-selling self-help manual Five Star Billionaire, remains to be seen. Phoebe is also the most compelling character as she shares connections with Yunling and Walter. She also has undergone the most compelling transformation. It’s becoming known that some connections are rooted in shared history, but without their knowing. However they were entwined, they look forward to new prospect that Shanghai seems to offer. Aw’s spare, dispassionate prose suits well as they are caught up in the every=changing, cruel whirlpool of the city, drifting towards their various destinies—with the common (but sad) mentality that money is the conduit for respect. Every page irradiates a hint of fatalism in the air as the book edges toward its dramatic denouement. It is, to my surprise, after
all a tale of revenge and ruin, but also one of enlightenment—to one’s capacity to trust, to love, and to live as one’s real self. Brilliant insights in China. I especially like how each chapter is titled with a Chinese idiom.
379 pp. Spiegel & Grau. Advanced Reader’s Copy. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]