It’s hard to imagine a more spectacular cityscape than the one that has thrust skywards in China’s second largest city over the last few decades. The result is a fantastical array of glass and steel that at night lets Shanghai put on a lightshow which wouldn’t be out of place in Las Vegas.
Hardly surprising that millions of people have gravitated to the city with the dream of making a new life for themselves. Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire introduces us to just four of the city’s twenty-seven million inhabitants, all Malyasian Chinese immigrants trying to ride the wave of China’s economic boom.
Poor, naive Phoebe arrives in the city full of hope in the form of a dream job but soon discovers that the job, like so much of Shanghai, is simply smoke and mirrors. Rich, sophisticated Yinghui has become a wealthy businessman by opening chains of spa salons and upmarket underwear shops to cater for the new upwardly mobile city dwellers. Justin is even more wealthy and successful as the brains of his family’s powerful property development business but he’s in personal meltdown, weighed down by the relentless pressure to seal the next deal. And finally there is rich but unsophisticated Gary whose angelic voice helped him escape from his rural backwater home to become a mega pop star. His career is now in freefall as a result of one too many alcohol-induced altercations in nightclubs.
There is a fifth character, the shadowy figure of the five star billionaire Walter Chao who touches and disrupts the lives of these individuals. Phoebe religiously follows the advice from the pages of Chao’s self help manuals on how to be successful while Yinghui can’t resist the lure of a fantastic new business opportunity he puts her way. Walter Chao is the only character who speaks directly to the reader, his first person narration an early warning sign that he is perhaps just too good to be true.
The novel starts with a lot of promise. This is where the characters are introduced and their moments of crisis are laid out. It’s here that Tash Aw’s wonderfully fluid style is at its best. By the time we reach the half way mark however it seems to loses its momentum. There are just too many coincidences of connections between the characters to be believable: Justin just happens to live in the same apartment as Phoebe; she gets a job working for Yingui who knows Justin from her younger days. Phoebe becomes chat room friends with Gary though she doesn’t know he is the pop star she adores so much she had posters of him on her bedroom wall etc etc.
Five Star Billionaire is an ambitious attempt to convey the mult-facted nature of this burgeoning city and the tension created by the race to wealth. The city Justin sees from his apartment is vibrant and flamboyant, each skyscraper trying to outdo its neighbour in height, splendour and luminescence.
A crystal outcrop suspended high in the sky, shrouded by mist on rainy days; a giant goldfish wriggling across the face of a building; interlocking geometric shapes scattering into a million fragments before regrouping.
In contrast the city Phoebe experiences is one of sweatshops which churn out cheap clothing for Westerners. Where Justin sees buildings, Phoebe’s viewpoint is at the human level:
“… she looked at the scene — at the thick wriggling river of bodies so dense and colourless that it was hard to make out each individual human being…..old age pensioners dressed in revolutionary clothes, stern paded jackets and shapeless trousers that matched their expressionless faces which seemed to have crumpled inwards. No light shone from their eyes, no feeling sprang from their gazes….
Tash Aw paints a dark picture of Shanghai, a city that represents a beacon of hope for those who want to make their fortune but find instead that it robs them. They lose perspective, lose their sense of who they really are , lose their feeling of being in control. For Aw, this is a city that tantalises and teases with the prospect of success but only delivers at a cost to the individual.
The city held its promises just of of reach, waiting to see how far you wr willing to go to get what you wanted, how long you were prepared to wait. And until you adjusted your expectations to take account of that,you would always be on the edge for despite ……. the feeling of unbridled potential, Shanghai would always seem to be accelerating a couple of steps ahead of you, no matter how hard you worked or played. …. You arrived thinking you were going to use Shanghai to get what you wanted, and it would take time before you realised it was using you; that it had already moved on, and you were playing catch up.
If Shanghai is a tease, then so is Tash Aw’s novel for setting up such a strong premise but ultimately letting it fizzle out.
Five Star Billionaire, published by Fourth Estate, was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker prize.
Tash Aw was born in Taipei but raised in Malaysia. He now lives in London. He won the Whitbread First Novel Award with The Harmony Silk Factory (which was also a Booker longlisted title)