Tash Aw (2013) Five Star Billionaire Fourth Estate, London; 500 pp.; ISBN 978-0-00749415-6
This is an intricate saga of revenge in which lives and careers are ruined and transformed. What causes us to exact revenge on others? We often assume it is the result of some great injury or massive loss but the most common cause, the thing that can make the blood boil even years after the event, is when someone deliberately belittles us, treats us with sneering contempt in front of our friends, family or colleagues. The rich and powerful do this on a daily basis – it is their stock in trade. They are, as one character in this novel says, an ungracious lot.
Walter Chao is apparently very wealthy and powerful, though it takes a while to figure out where some of the money comes from. One of the sources is obvious very quickly: he writes self-help books. Since the 1980s this has been a fool proof way to extract money from gullible people who think that self-worth derives from money, appearance and status (the three things often packaged together as ‘happiness’).
One of Walter’s books is Secrets of a Five Star Billionaire which has become a bible for Phoebe Chen, a young woman who goes to China on the invitation of a friend who then leaves her high and dry. Illegal and skint, Phoebe works in a garment factory in Shenzhen before heading for the bright lights of Shanghai to catch herself a rich man. She ends up managing a spa owned by Leong Yinghui, the daughter of a former government minister in Malaysia who was involved in a land corruption scandal. Yinghui fled her homeland after her father was murdered. She once ran a café in Kuala Lumpur that went bankrupt but since then has applied herself to business and now owns a chain of stores in China selling underwear, accessories and spa treatments to women. Pandering to vanity has made her comfortably rich.
An old friend of Yinghui, Justin Lim, came to China to expand his family’s property business. While he is negotiating a large deal his family’s other business, insurance, goes bankrupt. The property deal is thus vital to saving the family fortunes, but very quickly there is an anonymous internet campaign against Justin to undermine the deal. Justin can never discover who is behind it or what their motivation might be.
The other key character is Gary Gao, a young talented singer who became a famous pop star in Taipei and is now trying to make it big in Shanghai. He loves to sing but everything else in life brings him no pleasure or emotional comfort at all. In time he begins to detest his fans. An incident in a bar leads to a tabloid frenzy that turns public opinion against him and Gary retreats to his apartment and internet chat rooms, wondering what to do next.
Walter, Phoebe, Yinghui, Justin and Gary are all ethnic Chinese from Malaysia. Like many others of their background with ambition and talent, they have fled Malaysia’s mediocrity and sense of hopelessness. All five of them have been attracted by the big, brash metropolis of Shanghai. In the modern world this is where the money is and making a fortune is what life is all about. But Shanghai is not a welcoming place: life is tough and many fall by the wayside. The ladder to riches is a long one, built by stepping on those less fortunate than you. As Walter says: it is not a life, just a competition.
Walter approaches Yinghui about a very large business deal and she is excited by the prospect. There is also a scent of love in the air. However, Walter is dating Phoebe, Yinghui’s employee. Phoebe meanwhile is spreading her bets and is involved in an online relationship with Gary. She was a huge fan of his when she was a teenager but he has not revealed his true identity online. Justin has a history with Yinghui that left her angry with him, but he is still in love with her. Walter enters the lives of these other four characters but his motivations are obscure. What is behind his grand plans and his apparent romantic interests?
The numbered chapters of the novel relate the story of these people trying to make it big in a tough city and the ways they cope when life does not go as they expect. The chapter titles are mostly the sort of risible platitudes that litter self-help books, underlining the vacuity of people’s ambitions and the sadness of unfulfilled promises. In between the numbered chapters is a series of interventions by Walter Chao, who tells the tale of his hapless father, a man always dreaming of making money from property deals but a man who is forever disappointed. This story explains Walter’s motivations and the reasons why he seeks out the other characters in Shanghai. His relationships with them will radically change their futures and in the process bring greater self-awareness, if nothing else.
This is a very different novel to Tash Aw’s previous two. It is more contemporary in style and Aw is more playful with both structure and his depictions of character. The links between the characters are sometimes a bit too neat for comfort, but the wonderful flowing prose is still there, as is his sympathy for human frailty, making this a highly enjoyable ride through the dark complexities of a modern Asian city.