Five Star Billionaire, by Tash Aw

>> Tuesday, October 02, 2018

TITLE: Five Star Billionaire

PUBLISHER: Fourth Estate

SETTING: Contemporary China
TYPE: Fiction

In the Man Booker prize-longlisted ‘Five Star Billionaire’ Tash Aw charts the overlapping lives of migrant Malaysian workers, forging lives for themselves in sprawling Shanghai.

Justin is from a family of successful property developers. Phoebe has come to China buoyed with hope, but her dreams are shattered within hours as the job she has come for seems never to have existed. Gary is a successful pop artist, but his fans and marketing machine disappear after a bar-room brawl. Yinghui has businesses that are going well but must make decisions about her life. And then there is Walter, the shadowy billionaire, ruthless and manipulative, ultimately alone in the world.

In ‘Five Star Billionaire’, Tash Aw charts the weave of their journeys in the new China, counterpointing their adventures with the old life they have left behind in Malaysia. The result is a brilliant examination of the migrations that are shaping the new city experiences all over the world, and their effect on myriad individual lives.
This year for the first time, after several consecutive years of reading as much as I could work through of the Man Booker longlist, I've mostly ignored it. I started to make the attempt and tried to read Snap, but I really didn't fancy most of the rest. Sunita's reviews have made me reconsider reading a few of the others, but mostly, I'm unenthusiastic. So instead, here's a review of a book from another year's longlist.

I bought this one a few years back, on the year when it was on the longlist. It was one I was looking forward to reading, but when it wasn't on the shortlist it kind of got lost in my TBR. I came across it again after DNFing a couple of disappointing books and it felt like exactly what I was looking for.

Five Star Billionaire follows a group of Malaysian people living their lives in the fast-paced capitalism of Shanghai. They're a mix of people trying to make it and people dealing with having made it. There's Phoebe, a young girl from a rural village who moved to China for an excellent job that disappeared on arrival. There's Justin, the scion of a rich family dealing with the pressure of having to save their real estate empire. There's Gary, winner of a talent competition trying to cope with sudden fame. There's Yinghui, who by her late 30s has built a successful career and is struggling with those around her think that unmarried women her age are, by definition, to be pitied, however successful they may be (and oh, how I identified with that!). Finally, there's Walter, immensely rich and trying to sort out his legacy, the linchpin of the novel, whose actions affect each of the previous four.

This is not really about the characters but about life in the new China, a fast-moving (so fast-moving that it may have changed drastically in the 5 years that this book has been out), merciless world. The characters all connect superficially, but struggle to make deeper connections. And in the end, each of the four younger characters needs to make a choice.

The book employs a loose "self-help book" structure, with chapter named things like "Move to Where the Money Is" and "Choose the Right moment to launch Yourself". I enjoyed figuring out how the content of those chapters would give us a twist on their titles. I note that this came out at about the same time as Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, so there must have been something in the air right then :)

Interesting book, definitely worth a read.



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