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Book Review: Five Star Billionaire

 

Riveting saga of a city on the move
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | New Delhi, September 6, 2013 12:11
Tags : Five Star Billionaire | Tash Aw |
 

Whenever we talk about a novel that imbibes the city that it talks about, The Tale of Two Cities takes centre stage. But amid all the accolades that people reserve for this brilliant piece of work, they tend to forget another less fancied novel on London, which in its own satirical, low-key ways, opens the city to the readers. Set in an era when London achieved its famed glory, The Way We Live Now is a definitive read on the churnings in London. Lies, fakery and deceit take over as the race to become successful and rich breaks old bonds of morality, integrity and chivalry. That was 1870s.

This is the noughties and the setting is Shanghai. Like the London of 1870, Shanghai has arrived. As the old world order crumbles slowly, Shanghai represents everything that is new and fresh. If fate has conspired to shift the compass back to the East after centuries of submission and infamy; China has made sure that it does not miss the bus at any cost. When you finish Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire, you realise that it is hell of a price to pay.

The parallels to Anthony Trollope’s masterpiece are coincidental. But the charm is not. For centuries, ethnic Chinese have set out for far off lands in search of greener pastures, geography allowing. Many of them settled there for good. Malaysia and Singapore particularly strikes a bell here. Centuries later, as China appears poised to rule the world; these ethnic Chinese are dusting the sails again. Only, this time the rules of engagement have changed. And that is where Aw has found his stories.

The novel starts with the life of five ethnic Chinese from Malaysia whose lives are at different stages of freefall. At least for four of them.  

Phoebe Chen left behind the grinding of her village for a job somewhere in southern China, only realizing that she has been taken for a ride. She takes up jobs at factories, and then with a little luck and lots of con ideas, she tries to find her feet in the city of Shanghai. There is Gary, a pop-star catapulted to stardom by a TV reality show, only to be reduced to infamy by his uncontrollable anger and a moment of weakness at a Shanghai bar.

Justin Lim is an adopted heir to one of Malaysia’s oldest and most respected business families whose expansion plan in mainland China coincides with the global financial crisis of 2008 that sunk their flagship insurance company literally overnight. Then there is Yinghui, a rugged and thriving businesswoman trying to overcome a family-shame, whose friends, much to her chagrin, believe that one needs to have the company of men to make it really big in Shanghai. And last, but not the least, is Walter Chao, a self-styled philanthropist and writer of a self-help bestseller—Five Star Billionaire—who in more ways than one, crosses their life with varied effects.

Justin’s plans to start a venture in Shanghai goes haywire as he breaks down and seeks seclusion. But when he meets once-bohemian Yinghui, old memories flourish and he tries to seek solace in her. Phoebe, with the help of a fake ID card and other paraphernalia, lands a respectable job at Yinghui’s spa, where one of her clients is Walter Chao, who, in his pseudonym avatar had penned the self-help book that Phoebe follows like a scripture. This while Gary, life in disarray, spends time chatting to Phoebe on qq with an assumed name, not knowing that she is her greatest fan.

You might not be the only one who will raise eyebrows at so many coincidences. It appears made up. At times gimmicky. There is an uncanny resemblance, as far as the method of weaving the subplots is concerned, to Paul Haggis’ self described “passion piece”, the 2004 Academy Award winner, Crash. One can say that kind of interlocking of narrative works for cinema, not for a serious literary fiction. But Tash Aw will force you to think otherwise by the time the book ends. After all, the strength of the book lies in its characters and their engagement with Shanghai. How they engage with one another, though important, is only secondary to the narrative.

So, what Aw squanders in narrative, he saves in characterization. His characters appear all real and believable. And so are their reactions towards a situation. As morality erodes and old standards melt, greed, fakery, dishonesty and complete lack of integrity rush in to fill up the space. The dark inner lives of the characters contrast with the glittering outer life of the city. But you are too numb to realise this. In the race towards a better future, the reconciliation with the past is sacrificed. It is a phenomenon that repeats itself every time a new city look poised to take the crown from the previous one.  And Shanghai is no different.

With all its failings, Five Star Billionaire is a riveting saga of a city that is poised to take over the world. The human sacrifice it demands is only natural.
 

Author: Tash Aw

Edition: Paperback

ISBN: 978-0-00-752604-8

Pages: 450

Price: Rs. 399

Publisher: Harper Collins


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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017