Five Star Billionaire, by Tash Aw


Purchased at

Purchased at

For the most part, cities with exploding economies and those with imploding ones are studies in contrast, but they do share one characteristic: both represent attractive territory for novelists who want a contemporary setting. This year’s Booker longlist contains examples of each type. I’ll get to the collapsing economy nominee, Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart based on fallout from the end of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger, in a few weeks — for now, let’s look at life in the booming world of Shanghai as presented in Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire.

In little more than a generation, Shanghai has evolved from being the backward trading port of a near-feudal economy to arguably the world’s current leading example of market economy run wild with all the corruption, shady dealing and trauma that that kind of over-heating inevitably brings with it. Aw is interested in that bigger picture only for context purposes, however — his concern is in looking at examples of the type of people who are attracted to that kind of world and what it does to them.

booker logoIn fact, the author narrows his focus even further, reflecting his own background. While Aw was born in China (Taipei) he grew up in Malaysia. And while most of the millions who are descending on modern Shanghai to seek their version of fortune are from rural China, all five of the characters whose stories he develops in this novel are emigrants from Malaysia or neighboring countries in South-East Asia.

The author develops those story lines independently so let’s sketch the worlds of each of the five characters:

  • Phoebe started her life in China in a down-market apparel factory in Guangzhou — while there she picked up a self-help book, (Secrets of a Five-Star Billionaire), that advised keeping a “Journal of Your Secret Self”, daily writing down your terrors on one page and your dreams on the facing one. The promised job that brought her to Shanghai (in search of either/both fortune and a rich husband) turned out not to exist, making the journal even more important in capturing her challenges and hopes:

    Sometimes Shanghai bore down on her with the weight of ten skyscrapers. The people were so haughty; their dialect was harsh to her ears. If someone talked to her in their language, she would feel attacked just by the sound of it. She had come here full of hope, but on some nights, even after she had deposited all her loathing and terror into her secret journal, she still felt that she was tumbling down, down, and there was no way up. It had been a mistake to gamble as she did.

  • Gary grew up in a town of two hundred in Malaysia and rocketed to fame at age 17 in a television talent competition, viewed by four million people. In eight years since in Taipei, he has released four albums, each of which sold more than three million copies. He collapsed just before a concert a few months back (fatigue and anemia, it was said) but a strict regime since has led his management company to conclude he is ready for the even bigger market of Shanghai:

    The giant billboards that stood along the elevated highway bore the poster announcing Gary’s groundbreaking concert in Shanghai. MUSIC ANGEL HAS ARRIVED! THE ANGEL OF MUSIC IS HERE TO SAVE US…. His image was spread across each billboard — his newly gym-toned torso showing through a shirt that had been strategically slashed to display his abdominal muscles, which were the result of eight months’ work with a personal trainer. His head was bowed to show off his thick black hair, which looked slick with sweat, and computer trickery had provided him with a giant pair of angel wings that gave the impression that he was landing gently on earth after a celestial journey. It was impossible to miss these posters.

    Alas, that breakdown a few months back was more than fatigue and anemia — growing older is catching up with teen-age fame and Gary is going through his own Lindsay Lohan/Justin Bieber “breakdown” with substance abuse and porn his self-medications of choice.

  • By contrast to Gary’s instant fame, Yinghui (the daughter of a Malaysian minister accused of corruption) has made her own way. Her first business, a Malaysian “artsy” café, may have been an economic disaster but things have been looking up on her ventures in Shanghai, as is shown when she does her daily email review:

    There were, among other upbeat messages, an invitation to the opening of a new hotel on the river in Shiliupu and an interesting proposition from someone wanting to build a carbon-neutral cultural center in the middle of town. New contacts and possibilities revealed themselves nowadays without her even having to seek them out. What a change, she thought, as she finished her coffee.

    Yinghui’s current business is two upmarket lingerie stores which are flourishing but she has more ambitious plans — a teenage clothes chain (FILGirl — Fly in Love Girl), an Internet-based cosmetics brand (Shhh) and a luxury spa modeled on a northern Thai village. She is one of those entrepreneurial types who is forever in search of the next, even bigger opportunity.

  • On the other hand, Justin C.K. Lim is the Asian version of “old money”. The sprawling conglomerate, L.K.H. Holdings, was founded by his grandfather — this is how the Business Times described Justin just before the family firm sent him to Shanghai:

    Property clairvoyant. Groomed from a young age to take over the reins of the real estate division of LKH. Steady hands. Wisdom beyond his years.

    Unfortunately, the year of his arrival is 2008 and the global real estate collapse takes LKH Holdings down with it. Despite the continuing good prospects in Shanghai, the family has no chance to seize them. And Justin’s “wisdom beyond his years” does not include surviving in tough times — like Gary the “angel” singer, he is hopelessly floundering in a sea of opportunity.

  • And finally there is the Five-Star Billionaire of the title, who also happens to be the author of the book Phoebe found, although he wrote it under a female pseudonym to avoid public attention (which he hates). He too started life in poverty in Malaysia but has already made a massive fortune in a series of ventures, mainly property. His sections of the book are written as direct messages to the reader — like many successful entrepreneurs, he too is always looking for the next gamble. In his opening contribution in the novel (“How To Achieve Greatness”), he concludes with a summary of his latest idea:

    Some might say that my beginnings are irrelevant; that, wherever I came from, a man like me would still have been a success. Who I am today cannot be attributed to that little school. But that would be ungenerous, and I wish to acknowledge those early days, because when I look back at them I feel something. Not much, but a faint glow of recognition nonetheless.

    Despite the charitable nature of its aims, my project will not be modest. It will not be a modern version of the old village school. Its reach will be wide and deep and long lasting. A hundred years from now, it beneficial impact should still be felt. Every venture needs a physical space, its own village school, as it were. I think I know where mine will be situated — I’ve drawn up a short list of cities — and I am in the process of considering a suitable architect. At the moment I am leaning toward Rem Koolaas, or perhaps Zaha Hadid. Someone iconic, in any case, whose work, like mine, will last well into the future.

    When planning any venture, always think of how it will be remembered by future generations.

  • It is no spoiler (although it does require granting the author substantial artistic licence) to say that all five of those stories will eventually become linked in the economic stew of modern Shanghai. Since all four of the aspirants want to become a version of “Five Star Billionaire”, it is appropriate that he eventually sits at the centre of each of their futures.

    A word of warning for those considering this novel: if you are looking for a novel that captures the political, human rights and democracy issues that are part of China’s economic emergence, this is not the book for you. While author Aw uses the city as his setting, he makes no attempt to explore those elements — his interest is much more in trying to capture the drives (and disasters) that come with the entrepreneurial personality.

    As a summer read, Five Star Billionaire succeeds on that restricted ambition. Flawed as they all are, the five characters are more than adequately developed — the exaggerations and coincidences that are required for the plot are easily tolerated. Having said that, the novel is much closer to being a “beach read” than it is an “expose of entrepreneurial ambition” — an entertaining enough excursion but not one that calls out for a second reading to explore any deeper meaning.


    10 Responses to “Five Star Billionaire, by Tash Aw”

    1. Guy Savage Says:

      Drives and disasters sounds attractive to me. We live in amazing times and I have a soft spot for novels that capture aspects of the decline & fall or the epic ascent.


      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I share that soft spot — both sets of circumstances do provide fertile ground for a good story. This one might be a bit shallow overall, but that does not diminish the enjoyment factor.

        On the down economy side, I’ll be finishing The Spinning Heart today. It is a very different book in many ways, but also comes from the point of view of individuals involved — the two do make a very engaging contrast.


    2. Guy Savage Says:

      I have to say that Five Star Billionaire sounds as though it might be good material for a film, but I haven’t read it it. What do you think?


      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        It certainly has elements that would make it a good film. On the other hand, there is so much action in Shanghai that I doubt a film company could get locations. And, of course, at that point the authorities would have to be involved and I don’t think this kind of film would have any appeal to them at all — quite the reverse in fact.


    3. kimbofo Says:

      This is the first review of this book that I have seen, Kevin. I had no idea it was set in Shanghai. Having been to that city and seen both the thriving business district and the poorer residential areas, I’m keen to seek this one out at some point (probably paperback release).

      As for finding novels that capture “the political, human rights and democracy issues that are part of China’s economic emergence”, there are not many around (and certainly not by writers living in China), but I do highly recommend Beijing Coma, which focuses on the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and the subsequent social/economic/political outfall.


      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Mrs. KfC also found the prospect of reading this interesting, based on her own visit to China a few years back. Aw’s characters are exaggerated, but I am sure it will strike some responsive chords.

        Thanks for that recommendation. I know there is a fair body of work produced by dissidents who have left the country (memory says Lisa at ANZ LitLovers has reviewed a few) — I confess that dissident fiction has never had much appeal to me. (That’s a matter of personal taste, not a political comment.)


    4. Max Cairnduff Says:

      It was sounding very interesting, until I got to terms such as “substantial artistic licence”, “beach read” and “summer read”.

      It sounds in some ways like one of the classic Booker novel types though, along with Amitav Ghosh and Aravind Adiga’s work. Perhaps more Ghosh than Adiga, though that may simply reflect the fact I think Adiga’s the more interesting of those two.

      Like Kimbofo I’ve been to Shanghai, and the right book about it would be I think very rewarding. Not sure if this is that book though. I suspect not right for me, anyway.

      What are your thoughts on its Booker potential? Longlist but not short? Not that one can ever really predict what the jury will do.


      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        The approach is more like Ghosh (who tends to longish stories), the tenor closer to Adiga. Both of those two are far more political than Aw, however — his focus is much more on how his characters are playing the game than on how the game is imposing on them.

        I’m just about at the half way point of the Booker longlist so my predictions are a little iffy at this stage. I’d say this one would likely end up in the middle third of my list — I wouldn’t be surprised to see it make the short list, but could not see it winning. Unless, of course, they are determined to salute an “international” novel, which has certainly happened before.


    5. David Says:

      I’m a bit late to the party with this one, but have to agree with your comment that this feels like a beach read.

      I found it to be very entertaining, fast-paced and with reasonably well developed characters (even if some of the connections between them are a bit tenuous – I think Gary got rather lost in the mix towards the end), but ultimately it all felt a bit disposable and I never truly got much of a sense of Shanghai itself – even less so of Kuala Lumpur where some of the backstory takes place.

      Perhaps the fact it seems so ephemeral is apt for a novel where the subject is a city whose very fabric is in a constant state of flux and where characters rise to dizzy heights and fade back into obscurity within the space of a few months, but it means this is a book (like Aw’s ‘The Harmony Silk Factory’ which I read a few years ago) that I can’t imagine will linger long in the memory.

      Though I enjoyed it, this is the kind of book that makes me increasingly disenchanted with the Booker prize – it’s a fairly good read, but it doesn’t deserve to be on a literary prize list.


      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I agree completely with your conclusion. Six months after reading the novel has not completely slipped from memory but what remains is more an outline of the book than a fully-developed picture. I don’t hold that against the author — my impression is that he was aiming to produce an entertaining read that featured Shanghai and he succeeded in doing just that. For my money, the Booker jury had many better choices for its longlist.


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