I’m struggling to think of more than one book I’ve read set in China and I suspect it’s the same one everyone else has read: Wild Swans (1991) by Jung Chang, a historical masterpiece and international bestseller published a good while ago. So much about China has changed since then including global perceptions – it’s opened up considerably and far more Westerners have travelled there, but to me it was still a huge and incomprehensible place I knew very little about. Last autumn I jumped at the chance to read an advance copy of Five Star Billionaire precisely because it’s contemporary and forward-looking. Its bluntly unromantic portrayal of life in Shanghai taps into an unprecedented level of interest, curiosity and even fear of what China is and will become – I didn’t hesitate to include it in my Fiction Hot Picks 2013.
Tash Aw’s literary credentials are impressive and likely to be further enhanced by the release of this high-profile third novel. No doubt his cosmopolitan background has played a part: born in Taipei, China, to Malaysian parents he was brought up in Malaysia, moved to England to study law at Cambridge and now lives in London. The Harmony Silk Factory (2005) won The Whitbread First Novel Award, the Commonwealth Prize for First Novel and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize that year. A second novel, Map of the Invisible World followed in 2010.
Five Star Billionaire charts the fate of five economic migrants of Chinese Malaysian origin as they pursue their ambitions in Shanghai (already the world’s largest city with a population of ca. 23 million and predicted to reach 30 million by 2020). Phoebe is young, naive and materialistic, hooked on self-help books one of which is the Five Star Billionaire of the title. Gary is a popstar who has fatally tarnished his image at the height of his fame. Yinghui is a businesswoman who has sacrificed a lot to get where she is; Walter is a bigshot entrepreneur who’s not what he seems and Justin is a property magnate whose professional and personal life are in ruins.
One of the creepy extracts from the self-help book, written under a pseudonym, sets the stage perfectly in the opening chapter:
In the business of life, every tiny episode is a test, every human encounter a lesson. Look and learn. One day you might achieve all that I have. But time is sprinting past you, faster than you think. You’re already playing catch-up, even as you read this. Fortunately you do get a second chance. My advice to you is: take it. A third rarely comes your way.
This is an appropriately big, ambitious novel to take on a ‘megacity’. Telling a story through the experiences of five protagonists, reverting to each at regular intervals, is a strategy which can be at the expense of character development and to his credit, Tash Aw avoids that particular pitfall. However, he is somewhat prone to the other extreme with unnecessarily detailed chunks of backstory which contribute little but length to a novel which really doesn’t need it at 430 pages. A writer of this calibre could sketch the characters’ pasts with greater economy. That criticism aside, he creates a strong sense of each character from the very start despite the (third person) individual voices not being highly differentiated. As the strands start to converge bringing the characters together in various encounters, it does require some effort to keep tabs on what’s happening but it’s compelling, and conveys a sense of both modern and old Shanghai:
(Justin) continued on foot, strolling along the streets lined with low stone houses. The air was cold and sharp in his lungs, almost cleansing; the streets were busy with criss-crossing bicycles and electric scooters, merchants pulling carts of winter melons and oranges. The branches of the tree had been pruned heavily for winter, and stood sentinel-like before the handsome old European-built houses.
With the possible exception of Walter, the characters have the potential to engage; they aren’t necessarily likable but more importantly they are recognisable with a mixture of qualities and flaws. The interaction between them is handled very cleverly and springs a few surprises but there’s a satisfying payback for the reader who often knows something significant that the characters don’t.
Five Star Billionaire touches on many themes common to big city novels but in the case of Shanghai, everything is amplified. Despite the connections which drive the story (and it is more story than plot), the real issue here is alienation and the failure to connect. In this city things move so fast that nobody can keep up – China has a way of accelerating time – even those who’ve achieved success suffer constant anxiety that it’s all about to evaporate:
Yinghui recognised 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 […] – maybe it was money, or status, or God forbid, even love – but whatever it was, Shanghai was not about to give it to them.
This would be a very interesting book to discuss (or even study) for the issues it raises about preserving the past in the face of rapid economic and technological change; the cost of personal ambition and desire for material wealth; the obsession with celebrity. As Gary, the popstar trying to rebuild his career, is wise enough to see:
They were only interested in his fall, not his mediocrity. Only the sensational has a right to exist in the pages of modern life.
This and many other observations resonate far beyond China and in many ways the novel reads like a warning.
I really enjoyed Five Star Billionaire – it’s brave and provocative, well-written and entertaining. It’s also a total immersion in Shanghai, its apparently elusive pleasures and pervading harshness; I’m not sure I want to go there but I almost feel I have. I liked the tongue-in-cheek chapter titles in the style of a self-help book (accompanied by Chinese characters): Always Rebound After Each Failure, Bravely Set The World On Fire, Reinvent Yourself.
It wouldn’t surprise me if this novel marks the start of a wave of literature set in contemporary China for the English-language market. It’s very different to Wild Swans in that it examines the message of one the chapter headings, Forget the Past, Look Only To The Future.
Can you recommend any good fiction set in China? It would also be great to hear from anyone who’s been there, especially to Shanghai.