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.
In 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.