Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw – review; Tash Aw’s tale of five migrant workers carving out lives in a modernising Shanghai is the stuff of a hit TV miniseries

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw – review

Tash Aw’s tale of five migrant workers carving out lives in a modernising Shanghai is the stuff of a hit TV miniseries

Adam Mars-Jones

The Observer, Sunday 24 February 2013

Shanghai, a city ‘with a heart as deep and unknown as the forests of the Amazon’. Photograph: Alamy

At one point in Tash Aw’s fine new novel about what people call “the newChina” a young woman is trying to photograph herself on her mobile phone in a park in Guangzhou, hoping to enliven her internet dating profile with an image that doesn’t make her look like an immigrant factory worker (which she is). An old man who sells tickets for the rowing boats on the lake offers to take the picture for her. He looks uncertainly at her phone. She wonders if he understands how to work it. Then he says: “This phone is so old. My grandson had one just like this three years ago when he was still in middle school.” This is the world of the book, where traditional societies seem to have leapfrogged their way into a modernity without signposts, where the past isn’t solid enough to build on but too substantial to be ignored.

The five main characters, three men and two women, all come to Shanghai (by some definitions the world’s largest city) from Malaysia, though their backgrounds range from old money to rural deprivation. As a title, Five Star Billionaire is close to brash, and the book’s storyline could persuasively be pitched to a producer in search of a blockbuster miniseries, but the reading experience it offers is coolly engrossing – with elements of frustrating evasion – rather than propulsive. Tash Aw doesn’t exactly kill plot momentum or the emotional impact of the situations he creates, but he certainly keeps them in check. Narrative hints are often indirect, like clues in a detective story, as when a passing reference to a character having written an article deploring the architecture of Gaudí suggests that a conversation almost a hundred pages earlier wasn’t in fact spontaneous.

It’s possible to reach the book’s final stretch without being sure that this is a story of revenge. If it is, then revenge is being eaten very cold indeed, from the chiller cabinet if not the freezer.

Three of the characters are connected by past events, while the other two, despite similar humble backgrounds, have highly contrasting encounters with Shanghai. Phoebe the factory worker reinvents herself as the manager of an upmarket beauty spa thanks to an appropriated identity card, while Gary the manufactured pop star falls from grace when a drunken outburst in a bar, captured on a mobile phone, punctures his angelic image.

Implosion of this sort is a permanent possibility, in a sense the proper response to Shanghai. Phoebe’s roommate Yanyan simply vegetates after losing her job, and the property developer Justin Lim, designated as the family fixer because he’s reliable and can hold his drink, has his health break down in a way that has clear existential overtones. Even Phoebe, when she looks down on the city at last from a penthouse apartment, is as much frightened as thrilled. Yes, she can see Shanghai. But Shanghai can see her. She and Gary both feel like fakes, not cheap market-stall knock-offs but the sort of high-grade counterfeit that has its own lesser exclusiveness. Their falsity has become part of their true selves.

The book teems with advice, slogans, formulas for success. Chapters have headings such as “Choose the Right Moment to Launch Yourself” or the more Confucian “A Strong Fighting Spirit Swallows Mountains and Rivers”. Phoebe reads self-help books with titles such as Sophistify Yourself or indeed Secrets of a Five Star Billionaire. She makes a list to help her navigate western-style meals (“1 Soup (+ bread). 2 Fish (flat knife). 3 Meat. 4 Cheese. 5 Dessert. 6 Coffee”). Preparing for a date, she decides to “Dress for Sex-Cess”, following the advice of one book, while Yanyan, reading from another, tells her that beauty comes from inner confidence. It’s never clear, either to the characters or the reader, whether the breakthrough moment comes when people manage to strike a balance between conflicting codes, or when instinct overrides them altogether.

The book is full of missed connections. When Phoebe was a factory worker, for instance, she had a poster of Gary on her wall. After his disgrace he strikes up an internet friendship with her, incognito. She helps him survive emotionally, and gives him the confidence to reinvent himself – though his transformation in a few months from showbiz puppet to singer-songwriter is the only unconvincing strand in the book. He feels she knows the real him, and wants to have no secrets. Can’t their counterpointed lives be brought into some sort of harmony?

One of the book’s techniques is to describe something from two sides, but with a delay. So Gary’s comeback concert in a tiny bohemian venue is described from his point of view, and then 60 pages later as experienced by someone in the audience. The accounts aren’t dramatically different, but the delay prevents them from coalescing into a single impression. They’re notes that refuse to become a chord, in a way that is characteristic of the book’s seductive if slightly perverse preference for the muted and the unresolved, even when portraying the seething life of a city that is more like “a whole continent, with a heart as deep and unknown as the forests of the Amazon and as vast and wild as the deserts of Africa”.

But there’s never a moment that describes Phoebe’s online friendship with the unrecognised Gary from her point of view. I have to admit that I started inventing plot on my own account to explain this absence of what had promised to be the heart of the book. Had Yanyan hacked into Phoebe’s email, for instance? But the second shoe never dropped, whether it would have proved to be a fake – high-end or low – or even the real thing.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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